Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Hard Truths

Recently I have been in a variety of conversations about the culture of Imagine!; people trying to understand why Imagine! is the way it is, and what will it take to continue to thrive.

About the same time, I came across a wonderful article in Harvard Business Review, by Gary P. Pisano, Professor at Harvard Business School. The article, entitled The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, very well describes characteristics of a culture not unlike that of Imagine!. Granted, Imagine! does not operate in a fertile landscape like high tech companies, nor is there an abundance of financial resources in the work we do. Nonetheless, the culture described in the article is able to thrive regardless of the landscape and resources.

Here are some of the takeaways from the article with respect to Imagine!.

Leaders and employees value a culture that is conducive to innovation. I have never felt that simply being a good service provider for people with I/DD was enough. Any organization of quality can do that. Rather, expecting there will always be a better way, producing better outcomes, should be the norm. This opens the door for innovation, and the expectation that all employees should feel responsible to step through that door.

Tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence.
We do not have the financial resources for incompetence. This may sound counter-intuitive. “Then how do you afford competence?” you might ask. Highly competent people value an innovative culture. Clearly identifying and expected standards of performance, communicating these standards clearly and regularly, and allowing for failure only when it results in learning, help to create the preferred environment. Imagine! isn’t without its failures. In hindsight, however, they are not dwelled upon unless the story can be used for educational purposes; clearly pointing out what we have learned. At Imagine!, innovation requires employees continuing to develop new competencies. This may be with emerging technologies where none had existed before. It may require a care-giver who wants to help, to step back and allow for personal self-sufficiency. Some parts of a care-givers role may be rendered obsolete.

Organizational discipline is possibly to most underrated contributor to innovation. “Without discipline, almost anything can be justified as an experiment.” Throwing stuff at the wall to see if it sticks is not a practice that works when financial resources are limited. I love the idea of unreasonable ideas, however, people need to be able to defend their proposal to the end-game, the result they are looking to achieve.

How many organizations in the human services sector do we identify as nice, or polite? In fact, “… when it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time. Unvarnished candor is critical to innovation because it is the means by which ideas evolve and improve.” The leadership team at Imagine! has no problem disagreeing with the CEO. People need to feel comfortable criticizing ideas no matter where they come from. When I hire a new member of the team with which I am working, I make it clear early on that I expect the new person to disagree with me. Experience indicates that apparently this expectation is met … with enthusiasm.

Our current Imagine! Leadership Development Group is coincidently studying collaboration within the company. "Too often, collaboration gets confused with consensus. And consensus is poison for rapid decision making and navigating the complex problems associated with transformational innovation." One doesn’t have to look further than the regular observations and debates this blog has taken on about the system of services for people with I/DD. The phrase “influence without accountability” comes out of me regularly. Individual accountability is critical to collaboration. Pisano points out that, “There is nothing inconsistent about a culture that is both collaborative and accountability-focused.” In fact, “Accountability and collaboration can be complimentary, and accountability can drive collaboration.” At Imagine!, we hold each other accountable, and guess what – it’s OK.

When I look around at other organizations in our field of work, I often see bureaucratic operations; large organizations performing in multiple states where the bottom line drives all of their decisions. That can work when the end goal is to be a good service provider. That is not motivational for Imagine!. We are culturally flat. “Deference is granted on the basis of competence, not title.” Remember, we established an intolerance for incompetence. At Imagine! we tend to push decision-making to the most practical level; to the person closest to situation demanding the decision. That person is encouraged to use their good judgement and implore more sets of eyes on a situation as the risk rises. The organizational result? “They tend to generate a richer diversity of ideas than hierarchical ones, because they tap the knowledge, expertise, and perspectives of a broader community of contributors.” 

However, here is the critical counter intuitive note: “Paradoxically, flat organizations require stronger leadership than hierarchical ones.” I would argue that the leadership team at Imagine! over time has demonstrated the ability to set the necessary priorities and direction for success.

The bottom line, as Pisano points out, is that innovative cultures require a combination of contradictory behaviors. Oftentimes in my experience I have found that on the surface, the elements even seem counter-intuitive.

Then again, what do I know?

No comments:

Post a Comment