Innovate or die: Engage your company’s introverts

In 1961 Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 60, which stood since 1927. You would think as he got close to the record he would be the most popular man in America.

Just the opposite happened. His own New York Yankees fans booed him. The media characterized him as unfriendly and insensitive to fans. Even the commissioner of baseball tried to move the goalposts and decided to put an asterisk next to Maris’ record, because the 1961 baseball season was longer than the 1927 season.

In the meantime, Maris’ teammate Mickey Mantle was also tracking toward the same record but he was lionized by the media and fans.

What explains this? You will now learn.

Companies across the business landscape proclaim the virtues of collaboration and teamwork as necessary to the creative and innovative process.

Millions have been invested in office facilities that support interaction between employees, loudly proclaiming that their synergy will lead to creative solutions that working alone could not yield.

Today 70 percent of employees work in open plan offices and those include giants like Procter & Gamble, Ernst & Young, Alcoa, Glaxo Smith Kline and HG Heinz.

The idea that open workstations lead to greater collaboration and greater creativity underlies the structured approach to office facilities. But apparently very little research supports it.

Ask yourself this question: When do most of your creative ideas come to you?

Is it at an office meeting or when you were quietly thinking by yourself, whether in the shower, taking a walk, or just sitting by yourself?

Steve Wozniak was the engineer who actually created the first prototype PC. He did so at home, alone and not with his other geek friends who met often in coffee shops in Menlo Park, Calif.

Susan Cain in her recent bestselling book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” reveals research that has found that at least 40 percent of Americans are introverted by temperament from birth. It could even be as high as 50 percent.

The underpinning of successful teamwork and collaboration hinges on the willingness of every single member of a group to contribute to brainstorming during the creativity process.

We have all been in meetings and recognize that extroverts tend to control the dialogue. Introverts can have great ideas but are reluctant to contribute because it’s against their basic nature.

Author Cain gives a dramatic example from the Harvard Business School’s annual Subarctic Survival team test. The students are told they have crash-landed in a floatplane on the east shore of Laura Lake, in the subarctic region of the northern Québec-Newfoundland border. The survivors salvage 15 items from the plane, which include things like a compass, sleeping bag, axe and so on. The students are asked to rank them in order of importance to group survival.

Obviously the underlying purpose is for the group to use the synergy of all the team members to come up with the most creative and sensible list.

One of the test groups included a student who was a young man with extensive experience in the northern backwoods. He possessed invaluable information about the 15 salvaged items. Unfortunately, the group did not listen to him because he was reluctant to disagree with the extroverts who dominated the group discussion.

Consequently, the action plan developed was dominated by the most vocal people on the team.

During the debriefings the entire team was able to observe a video history of the meeting and quickly realized that they came to the wrong conclusion because the introvert in the crowd was not taken seriously.

In fact, psychologists have studied the failure of group brainstorming and found out the reasons that people do not speak up. Those include the fact that some people sit back and let others produce ideas; others are afraid of looking stupid in front of the group; and since only one person can talk at a time, the rest can only sit back and be passive.

Today, studies suggest that in America we perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types, even if their SATs and intelligence test scores revealed this perception to be inaccurate. Experiment after experiment has demonstrated that we see talkers as leaders. Americans in the business world rate talkers as more capable and appealing.

Jack Welch proclaimed in Business Week that employees should “Release your inner extrovert,” by which he argues that introverts should act more like extroverts on the job. Unfortunately, Mr. Welch overlooks the fact that we are born with a certain temperament and that does not change throughout our lifetime.

Roger Maris was born in a small town in Minnesota and was an extreme introvert by nature. He had no idea what to talk about when the media questioned him.

Mickey Mantle was an extrovert who loved the press. Because of injuries, he could not break Babe Ruth’s record. Roger Maris did accomplish that feat in 1961 and spent the rest of his life regretting that he broke the record.

Contrary to the Harvard Business School model, we find that the ranks of effective CEOs often turn out to be filled with introverts, including Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, and Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes.

Peter Drucker once wrote that the most effective personality trait for leaders had little to do with charisma. In fact, Brigham Young University management professor Bradley Agle studied the 128 major companies led by what are commonly understood to be charismatic top executives and found they all had bigger salaries, but not better corporate performance.

This does not mean we should ban extroverts from the workplace or from team meetings. Rather, serious thought needs to be given to how to structure team meetings and the creative process to leverage the skills of both extroverts and introverts.

How is that possible?

In order to avoid the problematic “group think” mentality, every company needs to provide an environment and the proper tools to ensure a good result.

Open plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory because of constant interruptions from fellow employees. Therefore, plan for more private offices for those employees required to think creatively so they have the solitude needed to produce new ideas.

Jeff Lerdahl is a local entrepreneur who heads up a Milwaukee distribution office of a Canadian firm named DIRTT-Doing It Right This Time. He can provide 3D rendered, computer-generated floor-to-ceiling office wall views in minutes showing exactly what is designed and are fully priced as they are drawn. Small offices, hang on capability and writeable surfaces mimic a workstation in function and flexibility, but provide privacy by going to the ceiling.

In crucial meetings, use a trained outside facilitator who is experienced in making sure that extroverts are forced to paraphrase the insights of the introverts before they speak.

Use the Wikipedia model for conducting brainstorming. Members of the team assigned to creativity should e-mail each other with ideas almost like an online chat room. It forces people to review, study and understand each other’s ideas. Consider this a virtual whiteboard in cyberspace.

Use visual tools of innovation, which by their inherent nature force team members to study what is being developed by the group and not by some individual who dominates the discussion. I teach these tools to the business leaders in my classes at UWM School of Continuing Education.

Create a “quiet room” where employees can sit in a highly quiet environment at any time during the day when they need to think critically.

Innovation and creativity cannot be left to chance. They occur only when there’s a deliberate game plan to make it possible for continuing on a day-to-day basis.

Dan Steininger is the president of BizStarts Milwaukee, a lecturer on innovation tools at the UWM School of Continuing Education, and president of Steininger & Associates LLC. He teaches how to drive revenues through innovation. He can be reached at Dan@BizMilwaukee.com

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