Managers can not only make innovation work, they are the only ones who really can make it work. Instead of accentuating their limitations and looking to or hoping that someone else will implement their ideas, managers need look only to themselves.

Most efforts to improve management performance focus primarily on the intellectual exercise of learning new concepts and ideas. The belief is that new insights generate new behaviour that leads to new results. How logical! When you are teaching people complex athletic skills like skiing or soccer, however, the experience of success and failure contributes as much to the learning as the intellectual concepts. Cause and effect are intertwined; theoretical learning and actual experience are necessary. Similarly, learning managerial skills, including innovation, is as much an experience-based game as an intellectual one.

Let’s start with the fact that everybody has ideas about possible improvements in their workplace. There are thousands of such ideas — good, bad and indifferent, floating around every organization. But only a tiny fraction of them will ever be implemented. Why, therefore, would anyone want to invest their energy in generating more creative ideas that will never see the light of day?

For the organization that wants to become more innovative, the challenge, then, is to figure out how to translate creative ideas into innovative action and results. Why does this translation so often fail to occur, and why do companies that have lots of ideas waiting to be implemented keep insisting they need to be more innovative? As we explain in this article, there are things that managers can do to make innovation really work.

The insidious barriers to innovation

When managers believe that their ideas are not recognized and acted on, they almost always ascribe the problem to faults in other people or the organization’s culture. Senior managers are popular targets for this type of blame, attracting comments such as: “They’re stuck in the past,” “Her own ideas are the only ones she implements,” or “I’ve made that suggestion fifty times and still nobody listens.”

Teaching managers to come up with more ideas only adds to the organization’s inventory of unused creativity, and may even be counterproductive. Not only does it fail to produce tangible improvements in performance, it reinforces the idea that nobody is willing to act on new ideas.

Let us examine the assumption underlying the complaints—that is, I generate great, innovative ideas and somebody else is responsible for implementing them.

We can speculate about the psychological, educational and social origins of this assumption, but the bottom line is, this is one of the most fundamental, widespread and pernicious beliefs plaguing organizations today. Recognizing this problem can unlock the idea bottleneck and generate actual innovation and improved performance. The key is that the manager who has the good idea is also responsible for ensuring that it is acted upon. Until managers understand this, they will remain trapped in the same unproductive cycle of idea generation followed by…nothing.

To illustrate this point with groups of managers, we sometimes draw a stick figure surrounded by a box. The box symbolizes the individual’s views about the limits to his or her range of freedom at work. The area inside the box represents the person’s job territory—what she thinks she is supposed to be doing, and where she is free to roam in getting it done. Everything outside the box is forbidden territory belonging to others. We then ask our clients, “Who defines the boundaries of your boxes?” This question brings on wry smiles and nods of recognition. Even those who have raised the loudest complaints about their bosses agree on the answer: “We create our own boxes.”

Sociologist Karl Weick described this phenomenon as the “enactment of limitations,” the passivity of managers in accepting the limits of their own private boxes. He says: “On the basis of avoided tests, people conclude that constraints exist in the environment and that limits exist in their repertoire of responses. [Therefore] Inaction is justified by the implantation, in fantasy, of constraints and barriers that make an action ‘impossible.’”

Action and results: Keys to learning how to innovate

How can managers break through their self-imposed constraints and become true innovators?

Let us consider the specialized product division of a large reinsurance company. After losing several key people a year earlier, the division’s efforts to generate new business were stalled. In an attempt to resurrect sales, the head of the division pulled together a team and gave it a mandate to significantly increase the number of qualified prospects in the sales pipeline. The team set a goal of bringing in 10 qualified prospects within 90 days—a dramatic improvement over the existing empty pipeline. One team member described the progress of the project as follows:

“The project started out different from the usual in that we had to achieve tangible results, rather than give a recommendation for what someone else should do. But we started out approaching it the same way as we always did: Here’s what the sales people need to do, and here are the inputs that we will provide. We went on like that for the first month, but it became clear that nothing was happening. The recommendations we were making to Sales were having zero effect. So we decided that if telling Sales what to do wasn’t working, we would have to do it ourselves with Sales’s approval. We started sitting in with the sales people on their calls, and even making calls ourselves.

“As we began doing the work ourselves, we started seeing things that needed to be done that we hadn’t thought about before. We thought a lot more carefully about what information people really wanted to hear, and how we could best say it. We started structuring calls differently and writing out scripts. That’s where our success came from—when we started doing things ourselves they became more real.

“We couldn’t do everything ourselves, so a lot of the work was still around trying to influence how Sales did their piece. This was one of four revenue generation initiatives ultimately sponsored by the head of Sales. So there was always some resistance because the sales people had demands coming from four different initiatives as well as their “normal” work. But we just kept on going back to them—we had five or six meetings, and we just kept digging in, working through new materials with them, talking through the scripts, and showing up for joint calls.

“We’re continuing to experiment with our materials—so far we’ve gone from extremely detailed and focused on solutions to more brochure-like and focused on customer needs. We didn’t meet our goal in 90 days, but we got five qualified prospects, which is still a huge improvement.”

This example shows that the key to breaking through self-imposed constraints and achieving real innovation is action that leads to the achievement of a compelling goal that could not otherwise be achieved except through innovation.

Shaken out of its comfort zone by the need to scare up 10 qualified prospects in 90 days, the team tried things that had not been tried before—things that had been outside team members’ self-defined boxes and pre-existing assumptions. For example, the idea that a product-division person could make a sales call in the absence of a sales person was a revelation. The idea that a potential customer might not find detailed descriptions of the new product particularly useful early in the sales process was entirely contrary to the prevailing modus operandi. The team found that once they broke a boundary, and succeeded, they never again saw it as a boundary. And they started seeing other “presumed constraints” as invitations to action. They discovered that, as Weick says, when the “presumed constraints” are breached, sizable advantages accrue to the person who does the breaching.

It was the requirement for real results that made the team keep asking “Is this working?” and if the answer was “No,” then to try something else. It engaged the team in rapid-cycle experimentation to find out what combination of sales and product experts should participate in a call, how best to involve potential clients in a meaningful discussion, and what kinds of materials could best support, reinforce and further the sales contact. It also forced the team to change its normal approach to innovation—“We come up with some great ideas and now the sales force needs to implement them”—and play a much more proactive role.

Helping managers learn to innovate

We believe that managers learn to innovate when they must achieve significant improvements in performance that are possible only through experimentation and the implementation of innovative ideas. This is not the same as doing studies, preparing reports, performing role-plays, or making presentations and recommendations. Companies can become more innovative only if their managers are forced to innovate, experiment, succeed and learn. The challenge is to figure out how senior management can create such an environment.

One way is to build learning opportunities into the challenges that managers face in the ordinary course of their work. As the reinsurance team discovered, such challenges should be framed by clear, measurable results and a time frame that is short enough to produce the urgency that drives creativity. To keep the work moving forward, we also recommend the use of proven project management disciplines, including a defined project team, detailed work plans showing time frames and accountability, and regular progress reports to the sponsoring executive. There are two good structured approaches for building innovation into ongoing business activity. One is the breakthrough strategy and the other is the “WorkOut process “that originated at GE. (Schaffer, R.H., The Breakthrough Strategy, Harper-Collins, 1988; Ulrich, D., Kerr S., and Ashkenas R., The GE WorkOut: Implementing GE’s Revolutionary Method for Busting Bureaucracy and Attacking Organizational Problems—Fast!, McGraw-Hill, 2002.)

Breakthrough projects are planned undertakings aimed at achieving tangible, bottom-line results in a short period of time. They are designed to unleash participants’ creativity and drive, and provide real experience in implementing change. The reinsurance story is an example of a breakthrough project.

The GE WorkOut process is a method for bringing a large number of people together to jointly pursue some urgent and challenging business goals and reach conclusions quickly. During an intense period of work ranging from one to three days, teams brainstorm and refine plans for reaching their business goal. They present these plans to the sponsoring executive for an immediate go/no go decision. The “go” decisions are then translated into projects to be carried out immediately. For example, Zurich UK, an insurance company in the United Kingdom that was losing large amounts of money, focused its initial WorkOut sessions on reducing claims and general administrative costs. One of the early Zurich WorkOuts yielded a set of projects to reduce average costs per motor claim repair by 10 percent over the previous year without reducing customer satisfaction. No one was told to be innovative. That would have been ridiculous; it was clear to everyone that they would never reach the goal they had set for themselves without new approaches. Every team experimented with new ways to reach their goal.

As the initial goals were achieved, tougher goals were set, and teams had to constantly push into fresh territory to achieve them. Within a few years the company became profitable, and what had been a losing company became a winning one. It was also a perfect example of how taking action to achieve pressing managerial goals impels innovation.

Learning to innovate in management development programs

The practice of having to achieve significant goals through experimentation and innovation can also be built into management development programs. We call it “results-fuelled management development.” Siemens AG, a large global corporation, built this process into a program aimed at their more than 30,000 managers worldwide. In addition to the more conventional classroom study, team participants were required to select a real, innovative breakthrough goal and achieve it in the four-month period between the launch of the program and the final workshop. Participants in each team came from different parts of the corporation. They were required to select goals that represented significant contributions to Siemens and that were not part of their regular jobs. Here are two examples of such projects:

There was a Siemens company in Norway and one in Sweden. Each company tended to focus on opportunities within its own country. One team of program participants felt that there were many opportunities for joint sales by the two companies to customers operating in both countries. But they were not being exploited because there was no good mechanism for such collaboration. The team decided to see if they could win some contracts as a result of better collaboration. To succeed they had to gain acceptance of their (uninvited) intervention from the senior management and get a number of other managers of both companies to participate. A test customer was identified, and by the end of the four months they had submitted a number of proposals to the customer that previously would never even have been conceived—and they made some new sales.

A Latin American team decided that at little cost and with virtually no capital investment, Siemens companies could get into the business of servicing the equipment that they manufactured and sold to their customers. This meant getting support from managers in charge of service in a variety of Siemens companies in about a half-dozen different countries. The team not only won approval of their ideas, but actually sold a couple of pilot contracts as a result of their work.

In the Siemens program, teams selected their goals with the guidance of program leaders. In the Department of Labour & Industries in Washington state, teams were formed to address certain predefined challenges: Recruit good candidates for jobs where there were too few candidates; process employee expense vouchers in a fraction of the time, with a dramatic reduction in errors; and reduce the department’s growing use of mainframe time.

In each of these projects, whether self-selected as in the Siemens case or management-selected as in Washington’s, the teams were faced with the challenge of achieving unprecedented goals. They had to innovate and experiment in order to succeed. If their first innovations didn’t achieve the result, they had to innovate again and, if necessary, again. The team charged with reducing mainframe time, for example, had to invent a way of measuring usage, since no adequate method existed. Once they succeeded, they were able to achieve huge savings. Their innovation not only permitted them to achieve their goal, but also provided a tool that other parts of the government could use.

You’ll need to be innovative if you want to make it work

Each of these approaches has different strengths, applicability and areas of focus. Breakthrough projects are extremely flexible and scalable, and can be used in a range of situations. WorkOut is most useful for mobilizing large numbers of people across organizational levels and divisions around a specific goal or challenge. Management development programs can teach innovation to large numbers of people who are at a comparable level, across diverse geographic locations and with different business goals.

As we look at these various approaches to helping managers learn to innovate, some themes emerge:

  • In each case, there is a strong demand from the leadership of an organization to accomplish challenging performance improvements that cannot be achieved except by innovative action.
    The requirement to achieve tangible results spurs teams into rapid-cycle experimentation outside of the old, self-imposed patterns of behaviour. It also forces teams to keep going until they figure out what it would take to actually put their ideas into practice. Think of the dogged persistence shown by the reinsurance team as they competed for the time, attention and co-operation of sales. Recall the mainframe team in Washington, who had to figure out how to measure usage before they could reduce it.
  • Time frames are short enough to create urgency, spur enthusiasm and creativity, and force teams to break through existing “red tape.”
    Ninety days. Four months. These are time frames that many people reject as too short to achieve significant changes in performance. “First we have to do the preliminary studies.” “What about the comprehensive plan we have to create?” But short time frames are critical because they spur creativity and focus. Knowing that something is “experimental” rather than “forever” frees people to lighten up and try new things without the usual bureaucracy. The urgency of a short time frame means that teams must find the true levers of performance quickly, and work them in entirely new ways.
  • Teams are composed of people who bring different, but relevant, perspectives and ideas to the challenge at hand, and who may not work closely together in day-to-day life.
    One of the reasons that people in organizations are so quick to hand their ideas off to others to implement is that they may not possess all the skills, knowledge or contacts to bring them to fruition. As the examples show, however, this does not have to be a stumbling block. The Siemens teams demonstrated again and again that sometimes the real innovation lies not in the original idea itself, but in the way that a diverse, highly motivated team can develop it into a powerful force for change.

The fact that these managers were participating in an official “program” seemed to give them a feeling of empowerment to take initiative on ideas they had been harbouring, sometimes for many years. With this little bit of extra confidence, they went out and breached their presumed constraints.

It is important to note that these programs granted participants no special authorizations or empowerment. It was the surge of self-confidence and “let’s try it,” and the willingness to take on and do whatever was necessary to put their ideas into action, that carried them beyond their presumed constraints and allowed them to turn innovative ideas into reality.

To go back to the sports analogy, you can have a dozen classroom lessons on how to ski, but nothing of significance will change until you actually ski down a trail. In the same way, to learn to innovate better, managers must actually innovate. They must do new things, things that lie beyond their original perceptions of “my job” and “my department” and “the way we do things in this company.” They must undertake the real work of translating an innovative idea into reality, in order to learn what it really takes to do so. The old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” was never more applicable.