Is Everyone Being Heard?
Most organizations would like to be an innovation factory constantly producing new products and a steady stream of process improvements. Most experts agree companies must produce the right culture as well as the right structure to make that a reality. Established companies often struggle when the desire for new and improved meets the need for stability and scaling their current operational approaches. While innovation is often presented as motivating and exciting, the high risk of failure and the resulting criticisms often prove to be a larger influence on behavior, especially in larger organizations.
Michael McCathren, in his book 6 P’s of Essential Innovation, encourages leaders to consider “flat-archy.” Rather than looking up and down the organization for direction and feedback, make the focus looking left and right for collaboration. We have all experienced the difference between a meeting with fellow collaborators focused on finding a solution and one with competing managers seeking to protect or expand their turf.
Making the shift to a flat structure requires a change in how the organization sees what it does and even why it does it. To make the shift and operate with a flat structure requires a greater execution of existing leadership skills and often the development of new ones. Sadly, not every leader can make the transition, and not every team member is going to thrive in a flat organization.
Flat organizations require great clarity around purpose and roles so everyone can exercise initiative and accountability. Leaders who don’t allow freedom to experiment and collaborate within and across departments reinforce a controlled (and bureaucratic) process mindset.
McCathren highlights several leadership practices that will be critical to lead in an innovation culture and flat structure. One of the most interesting and challenging is creating an environment where everyone’s voice is equally heard. Communication platforms have made it much easier for everyone to share ideas and information but that doesn’t guarantee that each suggestion receives an objective hearing. Innovation and collaboration fall apart when the process is consciously or unconsciously guided into a predetermined direction.
This can happen at an individual or organizational level. We all bring our biases into every conversation. It takes discipline and training to make our default response one of humility and curiosity. We have been trained to analyze and reach conclusions. In a high information-sharing environment, the process can be accelerated with even more ideas to evaluate and the pressure to quickly select the most promising ones.
In a hierarchical structure, managers often solve the problem by simply making the decision. Meetings are opportunities for arguments to be presented and then for the manager, as the designated expert, to make the final decision. The result is seldom an innovative approach. McCathren states the problem this way, “As an expert, like it or not, you are the least qualified person to come up with an innovative idea.”
To make the transition towards greater innovation, leaders must model an openness to new ideas and create inclusive communities. Shared leadership or a culture of leadership changes people’s perceptions of their roles and others on their teams. As leaders demonstrate an appreciation for ideas not their own and actively implement those ideas, perceptions and behaviors change. With greater collaboration, ideas more quickly become community property rather than belonging to a particular individual whose background and personality may cause us to weigh the idea with greater enthusiasm or skepticism.