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Reflecting on a Career – A Manager of Managers

Playing football has taught me a lot beyond the pitch. It has provided me a framework by which to assemble a team, lead a group of players, deal with adversity, and win. Sir Alex Ferguson, in particular, is a manager, leader, coach, and visionary who inspires my approach to building organizations. He recently completed 25 years at Manchester United and has won more than 30 trophies during this period.

Yes, like all great leaders, Sir Alex Ferguson has been known to have a controversial (unique) style of leadership and management. But where others find controversies, I see the brilliance of his approach.

On Questioning Questions in Organizations

Reflect on how much of your day is spent asking questions and answering questions. How many questions do you ask a day, what kinds of questions do you ask, and why do you ask the questions you do. Try having a conversation with a colleague, or a friend, without asking questions, how long might you go without asking a question? The simple answer: not too long. Questions, and questioning, make for an integral aspect of our lives. Yet, how many of us take the time to be mindful about the questions we ask and how we answer questions. Within organizations, the asking of, and responding to, questions, makes for a critical mechanism through which we elicit information and construct dialogues. Managers that ask good, and hard, questions of their employees in an efficient, and respectful, manner are respected by their employees. Conversely, managers who ask ‘dumb’ questions (yes, there are things like dumb and stupid questions), and do not following basic etiquette when doing so, are more likely to be dismissed by their employees as being incompetent. Similarly, employees are perceived as smart (or foolish) based on the questions they ask and their ability to respond to questions. For the last few years, I have been fascinated with the concept of questions and the mechanics of questioning.

Questioning plays a critical role in organizational discourse. We often hear statement such as: ask the hard questions, question the status-quo, or there is nothing like a stupid question, among others. These statements give lip service to the concept of questioning. Managers are some of the most poorly trained questioners. Students in disciplines such as psychology, medicine, and law, are explicitly taught how to question. Business students almost never examine the art, and science, of questioning in a thoughtful manner. As a result, one of the most cited reasons for organizational failures (such as corporate scandals or committing to a failed course of action), is the inability for those who were observing the disaster unfold to be courageous enough to ask the right questions (and seek appropriate answers). Just imagine what would happen if a psychologist did not ask questions appropriately or if your physician did not ask the right questions to diagnose ailments. Would we tolerate this level of incompetency? Probably not!

Organizations need to urgently embrace the art and science of questioning. I believe that organizations will be healthier if individuals knew how to ask the ‘right’ questions and how to respond to questions. Being deliberate about the concept of questioning will lead to organizations expelling less effort in achieving their goals and objectives. I am currently beginning to write a few articles on questioning. While most of my writing will be for a business (management) audience, they are relevant to fields such as engineering, new product development, and education, among others. I want to encourage all readers to share their experiences with me on the topic. What do you think about questioning? How do you differentiate a good question from a bad one? What kinds of questions do you ask and why? Do you know of people who ask the ‘right’ questions, if so, why do you think they are successful in asking questions? These are just some of the questions that I would love to get answers to. If you have other reactions to the issue of questioning, please do share them with me.

If you would like me to come to your organization and conduct a workshop on the topic, please do not hesitate to contact me. I guarantee that if your organization gets smarter at the art and science of questioning, it will be a more ‘intelligent’ and ‘mindful’ place.

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.