Overcommitted: Sam Houston gets a Nice Suggestion…The Story Continues

Thanks for all the comments and feedback on the story of Sam Houston. Taking a suggestion from a reader, I am extending the story…Let me know what you think

Sam returns from his meeting feeling frustrated. The company that he works for, PubIT, is being sued by a major competitor for intellectual property infractions and the product in question is one that was developed under Sam’s watch. Sam has just been assigned another ‘important’ task - do an internal audit to see where certain pieces of the code came from  (Damn, Open Source Gurus, he thinks to himself!)...he needs to figure out if there is any merit to the lawsuit. Sam summons his assistant to his office and asks, “Julie, do you need a caffeine fix?” From years of working together, Julie had learned to read Sam’s mood, no matter how well he tried to mask it.  She knew immediately that something was not right. “Sure, Boss. Do you want me to get you the usual?” Sam thinks for a minute, then gets up from his chair, “No, let’s walk down together.”

While standing in line waiting to order their drinks, Julie decides to break the silence. “Sam, I have worked with you for over five years, but I have never seen you so stressed. Maybe I can help? I know that I can take on more... just tell me what needs to be done!” Sam smiles and responds with a question, “How about a Venti, rather than your usual, Tall?”

With coffees in hand, they settle into the leather chairs of the coffee shop.  “That Venti is going to cost you Julie," Sam remarks in jest.  Then more seriously, he adds, “I need to know your secret. I keep giving you things to do but you remain calm and get all of them done as needed. How do you do this?” Julie pauses, looking down at the mug in her hands. It is her favorite secretary gift that Sam has given her over the years. It is a simple white cup decorated with the message ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Julie points to it, reminding Sam of what he had told her a few years before, “Sam, remember the long conversation we had at Finn MacCools (a neighborhood pub, or as everyone knew it - Sam’s Irish Office!), you gave me the history lesson about how the British Government’s Ministry of Information printed out posters with these words, Keep Calm and Carry On, to help its citizenry deal with the chaos of World War II.”

Sam nods his head. “I remember. A powerful message but much harder to put into practice!  What is your secret? How do you dodge all the bombs I send your way, so to speak?  I keep throwing so much your way!” Julie knows her boss is a ‘solutions guy' who likes to solve problems once he becomes aware of them. She suggests, “Sam, here is one technique that works well for me. I keep a list of the things you ask me to do. Next to each item, I answer the following three questions: 1) How important is it?  2) Who is the customer or ultimate stakeholder that I am going to impact with the task? and 3) What is the deadline for the task?  During our weekly meeting, I go over the items on the list, then listen to all the new things that you want done. Afterwards, I go back to my desk and reprioritize the list.  As needed, I get more information from you, including 1) I ask you what things I can drop from the list given the developments of the week, 2) If you need me to take on new tasks, I ask you to change the current deadlines for selected tasks so as to make time and energy available for me to work on the new assignments, and 3) Even though you do not like it, I keep reminding you of tasks that are vitally important (i.e. strategic) on my list that are my major priorities; when I do this, you feel reassured and actually begin to give me more items that can be cut out from my list.”

Processing this information, Sam remarks “So, you developed a system to keep your boss’s demands in check.” Julie giggles, “Sam, if I don't, who will?”  It's another good question.  Taking another sip of coffee, Sam makes a decision to try out Julie’s system. The two of them head back to Sam’s office. Sam proceeds to wipe off his whiteboard, then requests Julie to begin writing down his current tasks, noting for each 1) who the stakeholder he wants to impact is or who is responsible for the task, 2) what the deadline is and 3) the impact (strategic, tactical, or operational) to the organization and to Sam’s career. He pleads with Julie, “Remind me for the next few weeks-- before I take on another task, to reprioritize this list myself.  When people ask me to do something, remind me to walk them over to this whiteboard, just where we are now.  I need to ask them if they are willing to help me with one of the current tasks on my list while I take on something for them. Or, if the person has power to reprioritize my list, I need to ask him or her to grant me permission to drop a task or change a deadline.”

Sam's face looks far more relaxed as he gazes at the whiteboard and imagines how he will use it to manage his upcoming commitments and projects. Something about having the tasks organized boldly in black and white makes him feel mentally prepared to take on the challenges of the day. He gives Julie a thumbs-up and tells her, “Julie, the Venti upgrade was my best investment for the last month.  Thank you!”

P.S.  How successful do you think Sam will be in using this new system? Do you see any issues that Sam will face as he tries to make public his list of commitments? Will Sam be able to convince his stakeholders to reprioritize commitments as new developments and emergencies surface? 

Writing of a different style, fiction, or at least I hope so…Overcommitted

It is 8 AM and Sam Houston is on his way to his office in downtown Chicago. He drives from his house in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago, then catches a train into the city. During his roughly seventy-five minute train ride, he has learned to balance his laptop, notebook and pencil, his blackberry, and his triple shot frappuccino coffee. He begins his trip by reviewing his agenda for the day, thinking through his upcoming meetings, his to-do list, and the projects under his supervision.

For some reason, today Sam finally comes to the realization that he is overcommitted.  He thinks to himself, "I need to cut things off my lists!" (Good for you, Sam!) As Sam tries to think of solutions, he cannot resist the temptation of going through the mail that came in during the night. Alas, he sees that both Susan and Charlie have asked him for ‘small’ favors that would require him to be part of two different teams- one exploring strategic priorities for the organization, the other making a decision on which vendor the organization should choose for its new social media platform re-design. Sam knows that he cannot turn these opportunities down; they are both critical to his career, not to mention that he does owe both Susan and Charlie favors for their help on one of his past efforts. Sam tries to think how he might organize his tasks and prioritize his ‘big ticket’ items. As he works on his list, he hears the soundtrack of ‘We are Champions’ by Queen playing, and he rushes to silence his ringtone by answering his blackberry. His wife is calling to remind him that he has three social events on his calendar in the next two days. Reluctantly, Sam acknowledges that he had promised to attend two school events for his children and visit his in-laws for a birthday celebration. Becoming frustrated at his increasing commitments, Sam has now forgotten what he was doing before the phone call and he is also reminded that he is only two stops from Union Station. He begins to pack his stuff up, takes a moment to enjoy his now cold caffeine drink, and takes a quick glance at the headlines from the Chicago Tribune. The train makes its entry into Union Station and Sam walks briskly to the exit where he hails a cab to take him to his offices in the Merchandise Mart. As he takes the elevator up and heads into his office, he makes a mental promise to himself, "No more commitments today. No matter what, I have to say no!" Sitting in his comfy leather chair and taking a moment to enjoy the view of Lake Michigan from his office window, he is interrupted by his assistant who tells him about an emergency meeting that is being called by the CEO. Sam realizes that today may not be the right day to say no…

Can you connect with the above scenario! Unfortunately, (and yes, I do mean unfortunately) may of us can. As much as we try, we never seem to manage our ever increasing commitments. We over-commit and continuously extend ourselves. Many of us  can do this for seemingly good reasons. We want to seem helpful or we do not want to allow opportunities to slip us by.  Other times, we may have underestimated the resource and time investment that the various commitments would require of us. Commitments do come due, and troubles build as the timelines draw near. We get irritable and annoyed with ourselves and the tasks at hand. As a result, the quality of our work suffers, both in terms of the output that we deliver and the process that we employ to arrive at the output. In the final analysis, we, as individuals, suffer. Our quality of life is impacted.

If you have strategies, decision-tools, or process frameworks that you use to manage your commitments, both in terms of identifying how to decide what commitments to take on and how you manage your ongoing commitments, please share them with me... and with Sam!

P.S. My wonderful students of IMT 580 the last year brought me a fiction book. I enjoyed reading it. So, here is my first attempt at writing what I hope is fiction (based on reality, of course!)…Stay tuned for the entire book, if I ever manage to stay focused on my current commitments!

Optimizing Idea Generation for Innovation

I have spent the last few days meeting a number of executives from technology giants like Microsoft, to smaller, yet highly innovative firms, such as biomedical research institutes. During my meetings, I engaged in very interesting conversations, most of which centered around helping organizations design sustainable innovation programs. A key question that kept coming up is how organizations should get their employees to be more effective, and efficient, in generating ideas that can advance the business cause.

One challenge for organizations is directing their employees’ energy toward spaces that need ideas. Deciding whether the focus is domain-specific (perhaps limited to engineering, sales, or accounting), or cross-domain is a first step. Another option is identifying the future areas that an organization would like to enter. For example, if the organization is thinking of entering a foreign market, it should solicit ideas about entry strategies, clients to work with, and finding the markets that are ripe for investment. The ideal organization will update its focus areas on a regular basis as conditions in its internal and external environments change. Of A.G. Laughley’s leadership at Proctor & Gamble, Tim Brown comments “He seems to see his role as constantly reminding teams of what they should be focusing on, rather than telling them whether they've got the right idea or not.”[1]

In addition, the organization should appoint key personnel to govern the ideas being generated in each area. These individuals can serve the role of contact points for employees who would like to submit ideas. They can also champion the focus areas and develop specific guidelines on how to submit ideas, specify what kinds of ideas are needed, and determine how ideas will be evaluated when submitted. The contact personnel is also important in transferring ideas between domains.  An idea submitted to one focus area may be more suitable for another one. In addition, there might be opportunities that are submitted in one domain which should be pursued as cross-domain collaborations. For example, CEMEX, the highly innovative cement manufacturer, has an Innovation committee composed of three directors, three VP’s, and one outside consultant. The team is responsible for defining the broad themes for innovation and structure for the innovation process.  Often, the committee considers strategic areas that are outside of the core product; recent focus areas included “integrated construction solutions for affordable housing, ways to support regional development, and making it easier for customers to do business with CEMEX.”[2]

Once focus areas are defined, it is equally important to communicate them to employees and inform employees across the hierarchical levels and functional divisions that they may contribute to these focus areas. It should be clear to employees that the work they do on a daily basis is related to at least one of the focus areas. Some organizations erroneously think that their mission statements are the best guide to how employees should focus their idea-creating. But if you asked a sample of employees in your organization to repeat the mission statement, by my estimates, less than15% would be able to give you a half-baked recital. Most employees do not see the relevance of these glorified statements as they have not been translated into terms that matter to their daily work. One useful strategy that I have seen work is to build archetypes that resonate with employees of what an idea contribution might look like in each of the focus areas.

To learn more about how to design innovation programs at your organization, or to optimize your current innovation processes, please send me an email.


[1] Brown, T. (2009, October 24). Corner Office: He Prizes Questions More Than Answers. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from Interview by Adam Bryant of NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/business/25corner.html

[2] Sull, D. N., Ruelas-Gossi, A., & Escobari, M. (2004, January 26). What Developing-World Companies Teach Us About Innovation. Retrieved March 2010, 22, from HBS Working Knowledge: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3866.html

Co-Evolution of Organizational Network and Individual Behavior: An Agent-Based Model of Interpersonal Knowledge Transfer – International Conference on Information Systems

Yuan Lin, my doctoral student, and I have a paper accepted at the Thirty First International Conference on Information Systems. The paper describes our ongoing efforts to develop robust models for studying the dynamics of knowledge transfer within organizations.

AbstractThis study focuses on the co-evolution of informal organizational structures and individual knowledge transfer behavior within organizations. Our research methodology distinguishes us from other similar studies. We use agent-based modeling and dynamic social network analysis, which allow for a dynamic perspective and a bottom-up approach. We study the emergent network structures and behavioral patterns, as well as their micro-level foundations. We also examine the exogenous factors influencing the emergent process. We ran simulation experiments on our model and found some interesting findings. For example, it is observed that knowledgeable individuals are not well connected in the network, and our model suggests that being fully involved in knowledge transfer might undermine individuals’ knowledge advantage over time. Another observation is that when there is high knowledge diversity in the system, informal organizational structure tends to form a network of good reachability; that is, any two individuals are connected via a few intermediates.

Lin, Y.A, and Desouza, K.C. “Co-Evolution of Organizational Network and Individual Behavior: An Agent-Based Model of Interpersonal Knowledge Transfer,” In Proceedings of the Thirty First International Conference on Information Systems, St. Louis, Missouri (December 12-15, 2010).

A Longitudinal Analysis of Stakeholder Sentiments: Business Modernization Project at the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service Business Modernization Project undertaken by the Tax Agency of the US Government has been singled out as an example of a massive failure. As envisioned, the project was intended as an Enterprise-wide intervention that would provide modern services and effective data access to citizenry and several government agencies. After more than a decade and 3 billion dollars later, the results appear to be less than exemplary. Sandeep Purao and I have a paper accepted for presentation at the Enterprise Architecture Research (TEAR2010) Workshop that identifies different stakeholders who participated in the project, and analyzes the sentiments and confidence each expressed regarding the fate of the project. We conclude with lessons learned from our investigation including recognizing the importance of multiple stakeholders for Enterprise-wide initiatives.

Purao, S., and Desouza, K.C. “An Enterprise-wide Intervention at IRS: A Longitudinal Analysis of Stakeholder Sentiments,” In Proceedings of the 5th Trends in Enterprise Architecture Research (TEAR2010) Workshop,  Delft, Netherlands (November 12, 2010).

Speaking at Bangkok University on Designing the Innovation Process

I will be giving a talk at Bangkok University (Kluaynamthai Campus) on designing organizational innovation processes. The talk is organized by Institute for Knowledge and Innovation South-East Asia (IKI-SEA) as part of their KM World Seminar Series and will take place on October 28, 2010 from 1.30 PM to 4:00 PM. Please click here to download the flyer.

Interview with KM Leaders: Stan Garfield

I am currently interviewing an eclectic group of knowledge management leaders on their experiences. These interviews will appear in my new book on knowledge management. Here is an excerpt from my interview with Stan Garfield. I first met Stan Garfield at the APQC Conference in St. Louis in 2005. I was immediately impressed with his depth of knowledge and experience. He invited me to give a talk to his knowledge management community of practice soon after. Through the years, I have kept abreast of his work in the knowledge management field. Through this interview, I am hoping that you will gain an appreciation of what it takes to be a KM leader.

Current Title and Organization: Community Evangelist, Global Consulting Knowledge Management, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited

Biography: Mr. Garfield began as a computer programmer, research assistant, and manager at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis University from 1975-1983. He then moved to Digital Equipment Corporation (later, Compaq and HP) and held a wide variety of field and headquarters management roles in presales, consulting and system integration. Among his many achievements, he launched DEC’s first knowledge management program in 1996, helped develop the corporate KM strategy for Compaq in 2000, and led the Worldwide Consulting & Integration Knowledge Management Program for Hewlett-Packard, 2004-2008. After leaving HP, he briefly served as Retail & Consumer Knowledge Domain Manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers, before joining Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited as Community Evangelist in Global Consulting Knowledge Management. He lives in Northville, Michigan.

How do you define knowledge management?

Knowledge Management (KM) is the art of transforming information and intellectual assets into enduring value for an organization’s clients and its people.  The purpose of knowledge management is to foster the reuse of intellectual capital, enable better decision making, and create the conditions for innovation. KM provides people, processes, and technology to help knowledge flow to the right people at the right time so they can act more efficiently and effectively.  To practice knowledge management, share what you have learned, created, and proved; innovate to be more creative, inventive, and imaginative; reuse what others have already learned, created, and proved; collaborate with others to take advantage of what they know; and learn by doing, from others, and from existing information.

Can you tell us a bit about your first job as a knowledge manager and how did you get this role (i.e., how did you make the transition to a knowledge manager, if it was not your first job)?

In 1996 I was asked by the senior vice president of systems integration at Digital Equipment Corporation to start a knowledge management program after we visited Ernst & Young's Center for Business Knowledge in Cleveland, Ohio.  When he heard that Ernst & Young had a Chief Knowledge Officer, he turned to me and said, "I want you to be our CKO."  I had been doing knowledge management for many years in addition to my official duties in professional services management, but we didn't call it that.  It has been referred to as something like "resource management" or "capability development" or "information."

My job was to launch the first KM program at DEC.  I had to define the strategy and approach we would use, and start the process of implementing changes incorporating people, process, and technology elements. Along the way, I had to endure many ups and downs, enlist allies in the cause to join my virtual team, get executive sponsorship from a succession of leaders, increase investment and commitment to the program, deal with constant organizational change, adjust to changing technology, migrate from and integrate with legacy software, exercise diplomacy with many other groups, and cope with two large-scale corporate mergers.

Thanks. What did you learn from this experience? What were three of the major challenges you faced? How did you overcome these challenges?

I learned:

  1. Put a strong KM leader in place, and ensure that the KM team has only strong members.
  2. Balance people, process, and technology components, with a project leader for each category.
  3. Establish a governance and collaboration process to engage all groups within the organization (e.g., business units, regions, functions), and to formally manage and communicate on all projects – appoint KM leaders in each major group.
  4. Hold annual worldwide face-to-face meetings to get all KM leaders informed, energized, and collaborating.
  5. Communicate regularly through newsletters, training, web sites, and local events.
  6. Get the senior executive to actively support the program.
  7. Engage with other KM programs, both internal and external, to learn, share ideas, and practice what you preach.
  8. Focus on delivering tangible business benefits that match the overall objectives of the organization.
  9. Deliver regular improvements to make the KM environment effective and easy to use.
  10. Set three basic goals for employees and stick to them for at least a year.

Three keys to the success of a KM program:

  1. Set three simple goals and stick with them for the long term.  Communicate them regularly.  Incorporate the goals and metrics into as many parts of the organization as possible (e.g., employee goals, incentive and rewards programs, and newsletters).
  2. Keep the people, process, and technology components of the KM program in balance.  Don't allow one element (e.g., technology) to dominate the other two.
  3. Lead by example.  Model the collaboration and knowledge sharing behaviors you want the organization to adopt in how you run the KM program.

Five pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Trying to take on too much.
  2. Focusing on technology.
  3. Not engaging the constituents.
  4. Doing too much studying and planning and not enough prototyping and piloting.
  5. Not reusing what others have already learned and implemented.

Can you say a bit more about the pitfalls, especially how did you manage not to take on too much. I have heard from a lot of KM leaders that the number one reason they fail is that they over promise and under deliver. What strategies do you recommend for budding managers?

Pick one focus area which addresses a widely-perceived need, where you can achieve positive results relatively quickly, and which can be implemented without the need for extensive approvals, expenditures, or custom development.  Direct most of your energy and resources behind this effort, and when it succeeds, pick the next focus area using the same criteria.

Find out if the senior executive has a hot button, pet project, or wish list.  Respond to these by implementing something for them, getting their endorsement and participation, and then widely communicating how everyone else in the organization can emulate the leader.

Pick the three goals and repeat them in all communications until everyone knows them.  Relentlessly stick to achieving these goals until you can declare success on one or more of them.  Then pick new ones and repeat the process.

Harness the efforts of others and connect their people, processes, and tools into your program.  For example, if another group has implemented a blog platform that your program can use, embrace that as your blog platform rather than launching your own.  If yet another group has an innovation process, adopt it as yours.  And invite people outside your group to participate in your activities as virtual or extended team members.

Thanks. Can you please also say a bit about the importance of prototyping and piloting approaches and solutions to KM?

Classic software development projects included lengthy time allocations for analysis, design, and development before users ever had a chance to try out the results.  Given that it is difficult to know exactly what features users want and how they should actually work before using a new program, the "finished product" would often be unsatisfactory to the users for which it was developed, despite the fact that it met their specifications.

Knowledge management programs and intranet systems often make the same mistakes as software development projects.  Lengthy designs or redesigns are followed by big launches and then by users disliking or ignoring the touted offerings.  I call this the "big bang" approach, such as when a new or revised web site is unveiled after six months of development, only to miss the mark as judged by its intended audience.  What are the users supposed to do during the time prior to launch?  It's much better to quickly launch a simple site serving up the most important content (as defined by the users) and then continue to improve the site and add more content on an ongoing basis.  This results in a site which is both immediately useful and which is also perceived as being continuously improved.

Whenever you have a potentially good idea for a people, process, or technology innovation, try it out as soon as possible.  Start by discussing it with a group of trusted colleagues, fellow members of a community of practice, or insightful friends and family.  Mock up a simple picture, screen shot, or process flow.  Encourage candid comments and suggestions, and incorporate as much of this feedback as possible in your initial design.

Implement your idea directly, through a colleague, or through a team good at development.  Do this sooner, rather than later.  Publicize your initial implementation through a relevant community of practice, your social network, and your work team.  Solicit feedback for improving functionality, usability, and effectiveness.  Then quickly make improvements and repeat the cycle.  Continue this process indefinitely, with longer cycle times as functionality better aligns with user requirements.

Over the years, can you describe what has changed in your approach to leading knowledge management programs in organizations?

My approach has evolved as opposed to changed.  I emphasize understanding the needs of the organization and responding to those needs, rather than trying to roll out a system and try to get it adopted.

Here are 13 insights I have drawn from my 14 years in KM:

  1. Collect content; connect people
  2. Try things out; improve and iterate
  3. Lead by example; model behaviors
  4. Set goals; recognize and reward
  5. Tell your stories; get others to tell theirs
  6. Use the right tool for the job; build good examples
  7. Enable innovation; support integration
  8. Include openly; span boundaries
  9. Prime the pump; ask and answer questions
  10. Network; pay it forward
  11. Let go of control; encourage and monitor
  12. Just say yes; be responsive
  13. Meet less; deliver more

To read more about the interview, stay tuned for the book…

To be interviewed or recommend renowned KM leaders and managers for interviews, please send me an email.

Looking for Clues to Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects

Sandeep Purao and I have a paper accepted at the 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences in the Electronic Government Track (Development Methods for Electronic Government, Minitrack). The paper analyzes the IRS’s Business Systems Modernization Project using sentiment analysis.

Abstract
We describe results from historical analysis of a large-scale, public sector effort: the IRS Modernization Project that has already spanned a decade and consumed more than 3 billion dollars. The results focus on analysis of Sentiments and Confidence expressed by different stakeholders, as found in various documents. We explore how such analyses may provide a window on project progress and potential early clues that may contribute to preventing undesirable outcomes in the future.

Reference: Purao, S., and Desouza, K.C. “Looking for Clues to Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects: A Case Study,” In Proceedings of the Forty-Forth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-44), Los Alamos, CA: IEEE Press, Kauai, HI, (January 4-7, 2011).

Speaking at Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Global Knowledge Management Leaders Meeting – September 13-17, 2010

I will be flying to NYC to speak at Parsons Brinckerhoff’s (PB) Global Knowledge Management Leaders Meeting. I have collaborated with PB since 2005. During this time, I have had the pleasure of seeing, influencing, and designing components of their knowledge management strategy. My presentation will focus on strategies for enhancing tacit knowledge transfer within engineering firms. Specifically, how do you design robust mechanisms and incentives to promote exchange of tacit knowledge across global and functional boundaries.

Rewards for Idea Generation and Mobilization: Good/Bad Idea?

A question that I often get from managers and senior executives is should the organization provide rewards to encourage idea generation and mobilization?

I have seen a wide array of tactics deployed to encourage idea generation and mobilization. In my forthcoming book, Intrapreneurship, I explore how leading organizations foster entrepreneurship by employees by enabling them to leverage their ideas. In this blog post, I draw on material that I put together for my book to answer the question of whether rewards should be given for idea generation and mobilization.

I believe that no rewards should be given for the generation of new ideas. By rewards, I am referring to extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, American Express gift cards, or even recognition as “Idea Generator of the Month.” In my experience, extrinsic rewards do not work because they set the wrong precedence and can be easily gamed. Employees should not be rewarded for a required activity (you do not reward employees for coming to work on time!). Contributing ideas needs to become second nature and part of the work fabric, and employees should not be rewarded for the same reason that they are not rewarded for carrying out their regular job responsibilities. I might even suggest that for those employees who do not contribute ideas, disincentives and negative reinforcement be used. Similarly, managers who do not foster employee creativity and build a constructive environment should be coached or moved out of their management position.

The other reason that I think rewards do not work for idea generation is simply that they can be gamed. For example, when a reward is given for the most ideas submitted, employees might submit a large number of low quality ideas in order to get a reward. Here, you may get employees contributing worthless ideas in order to get gift cards or to get a leg up on their peers. This may have the opposite of the desired impact, as Alcatrel-Lucent discovered. They offered new car for best idea for part of a “Stretch Your Mind" event. As Guido Petit, senior director at Alcatrel-Lucent commented, “It was a big event, but a bad practice…It created more negative energy than positive energy because there was one happy person and 149 unhappy people…And although the contest tripled the ideas generated, none of them became products.”[1]

I do believe that rewards play a vital role in fostering the mobility of ideas. Employees who take time out of their schedules to communicate ideas to their peers need to be rewarded. Simply put, this behavior is not natural and cannot be expected. Moreover, employees’ actions to look beyond their own interests and collaborate with their peers needs to be recognized and rewarded. In some organizations, employees are polled regularly for the names of the people from whom they received the most ideas and the most valuable ideas, and asked to describe how they furthered the idea. The employees then write a personal letter of thanks and appreciatio,n which goes a long way in showing their gratitude. In some cases rewards will be given across departments, where one department will use part of its budget to reward an employee in another unit who has helped the department with its ideas. Such peer-to-peer recognition of the value of idea mobilization is energetic and vital.

A case in point: Whirlpool convened a research team in the Alps for the sole purpose of creating exciting new products, but the team returned with only non-starters. David R. Whitwam, Whirlpool’s recently retired CEO, didn't give up. Instead, he decided innovation could occur along with normal work, with every employee’s contribution. The first successful step towards an innovative scale-up was convening an Innovation Team to examine every department and ask employees for ideas—and no idea was outrightly rejected.[2] The team included employees from almost all departments and almost all functional areas.[3] They created a screening process to review every idea, focusing on customer needs, not existing technology or skills.[4] Every idea was graded and recorded. The review board persists as a crucial component of the innovative effort, and is still in place to this day. The grading scheme focused on customer needs and Whirlpool core competencies to maximize the possibility of finding the very best ideas.[5] Quickly, Whirlpool created internal courses on innovation which focused on two components of creating good ideas: product development skills (such as emphasizing customer needs) and venture capital skills (such as marketing and implementation concerns).[6] Whitwam demanded that employees come to him with ideas—any ideas—if their managers won’t listen.

Those who complete the company’s internal course on innovation skills (a five and a half day process) and then oversee the generation and advocacy of a few products can become I-mentors, or Innovation Mentors.[7] These mentors are key figures in the Whirlpool innovation process because they serve as innovation managers: their role is not to control or oversee, but to support and advocate for those with ideas, and to connect ideas with departments or people who might benefit from them.[8],[9] Mentors nurture the beginning stages of innovation. The role of mentors is not limited to seeking ideas, but also includes actively generating them. I-mentors lead team meetings in which employees reflect on customer knowledge, business trends and their own experiences, and “insights” are developed and recorded.

Whirlpool supports employees who act like entrepreneurs, and funds their ideas, not just by providing time, but also investing in employee business notions and allowing them to open businesses within the organization.[10] For instance, one employee, Josh Gitlin,  dreamt up in-home cooking classes across the country, using Whirlpool’s KitchenAid® line as well as other Whirlpool products. The generous budget for innovations also has a carrot for managers: managers’ pay is linked to revenue derived from new products and services.


[1] Dutton, G. "Innovation Acceleration." Training, January 15, 2010.

[2] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[3] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[4] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[5] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[6] Dolezalek, H. “Imagination Station.” Training 40, no. 6 (2003): 14.

[7] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[8] Melymuka, K. “Innovation Democracy.” Computerworld 38, no. 7 (2004): 31-2.

[9] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[10] Arndt, M. (2002) “Whirlpool taps its inner entrepreneur.” Business Week Online, Feb. 7, 2002.