Friday, June 30, 2006

Islands of Innovation

Richard Walton's phrase "islands of innovation" conveys the difficulty of diffusing innovations throughout a work group, department, company or market. The American Productivity and Work Center found that it takes, on average, two years for a company to implement innovations across work sites. There are at least four kinds of obstacles, as summarized by Zell (2001):
1. The Innovation itself. Advantages may be difficult to perceive, or the innovation may appear incompatible with other aspects of the organization. Problems of measurement, particularly of indirect benefits, complicate the clarity of advantages.
2. Transference. Top-down change may be resisted, while bottom-up change may take too long to implement. Communication barriers complicate matters.
3. Implementation. Lack of resources, commitment at all levels, leadership conflicts or inadequate training can reduce possibility of implementation. Employee turnover or the lack of long-term business practice/policy change also impede implementation.
4. Humans. Whether it's "not invented here" syndrome or just dislike, people undercut new policies and implementations and sometimes just won't adopt new methods. Overly successful pilot projects can alienate other members of the workforce and eventually isolate those who adopt the innovation.

HP in 1990: A decentralized, innovation-loving company that had sprawled beyond its means, according to Zell (2001). Not-invented-here syndrome impeded cross-departmental adoption of ideas. Consultants worked with small groups at individual sites and as success grew, a snowball effect developed and all groups requested consultations. The Work Innovation Network (WIN) was developed to overcome barriers to diffusion. Those principles, as described by Zell (2001):
1. Pull mechanism. Network and topics under discussion were driven by demand, not hierarchy; had to request to join, wasn't mandatory. Bottom-up, employee-driven approach. Rotating self-management. Knowledge brought in as needed.
2. Networking. Personal relationships and communication between divisions emphasized. Physical layout was arranged to encourage conversation. Lunches and small groups were encouraged. Social events planned and paid for. Learning periods were scheduled when bosses were coaches, not evaluators, and flexibility and openness to ideas was encouraged. The ranking system for employees was rethought to minimize competition and encourage teamwork.
3. Peer consulting. Knowledge sharing was encouraged by allowing employees and bosses to exchange tips for success. Bosses shared stories and then small groups discussed knowledge, blind spots, great ideas and strategies from the presentation. Peers became more trusting and told each other when language about innovations emphasized being radical or crazy, to prevent self-fulfilling prophecies.
4. Safe environment. Open sharing of mistakes. Honesty and freedom to admit error was highly prized by the WIN teams.
5. Action research. White papers were distributed at all meetings and collections of documents were created to track changes in thought.

Evidence of effectiveness came in several flavors. Internal satisfaction was high (80% said they received a full ROI, according to Zell 2001). Anecdotes were often shared at meetings discussing the success of WIN. Then in 1995, Zell reports that the project was cancelled and all funding cut. Infrastructure changes further reduced the possibility of meeting up in WIN-like groups, even informally. After a number of dormant years, the possibility of a virtual WIN was raised, but not executed. Zell summarizes the lessons learned by WIN's ending as a need for top-management support, the need of measures of success and the need for alignment with HP's end goals of customer satisfaction and improvement of products.

SOURCE: Deone Zell, “Overcoming Barriers to Work Innovations: Lessons learned at HP,” Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 77–86, 2001

[Summary Prepared by: Caroline]

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