written by Neal Thornberry
Complex organizations are just that—hard to get your arms around in terms of structures, processes and relationships. Even good intentions can create their own unintended complexities.
The best thing senior management can do is to make the road to innovation clear. If managers haven’t built it, or worse yet haven’t communicated it, they need to do so.
This suggestion may seem like a no-brainer but in complex organizations it is not unusual for people to be unaware of vital information. I have tested people on their own company’s vision, strategy, corporate values, financial health and the path to innovation. You would be amazed at how many people fail the test. They can tell you a lot about their little part of the organization, but often display ignorance of the company at large. This is not unexpected in complex organizations.
I was doing some executive education for managers in a large, complex multinational corporation. I designed the course so that there would be a mix of presenters, both outside academics and internal executives. The program was about innovation and corporate entrepreneurship, so I invited the company’s director of innovation to speak to our group. He laid out the company’s process for getting ideas heard. Only two participants out of the 38 in the class, all of whom were middle managers, knew that there was a director of innovation, and it was news to them that there was any process.
It is very hard to dismantle complexity, but it can be done. For instance, GE used external consultants and internal teams to ferret out worthless work and therefore worthless processes. One team found triplicate copies of a document that was created and sent to numerous others who added to the document so that it could wind up in a file cabinet that no one ever looked at.
CEOs need to spend as much time reducing unnecessary complexity within their organizations as they do focusing on stock price. This is especially true when it comes to innovation. If people don’t know where to go or who to talk to when they have a good idea that is a problem that can be easily handled by proper communication. But if the processes are difficult, unclear and unnecessarily bureaucratic why would anyone want to spend the time trying to get an idea heard?
There are several specific things that leaders can do to reduce complexity:
- Spell out and communicate the company’s innovation roadmap and send it out to everyone.
- Create a web portal spelling out the process and give names, email addresses and phone numbers of people who play a role in the process.
- Post examples of successful innovation and put in links to the innovators so that others can talk to them about how they managed the process.
- Create that diagonal slice of the organization and task it to ferret out unnecessary complexities and redundancies and create a goal of simplifying the organization rather than complicating it.
- Think three times before adding any processes or controls without taking others out.
- Think through the possible unintended consequences or possibilities of creating bureaucracies within processes that are meant to create efficiencies and effectiveness.
- Create a SUC (simplify unnecessary complexity) award and incentive for people who recognize the ability to simplify work.
Make the company values clear, live them yourself and make others live them. Asylums are most likely to happen in vacuums where values are either ambiguous or the ones in place are not enforced.
Make innovation a value, live it and encourage others to live it. But be prudent. Not every organization needs or wants innovation everywhere. The tool must fit with the strategy.