Questioning: A Lost Capability among Executives

This blog post is not meant for those who are content to let their $110,000 MBA diploma hang on the wall as an indication of a job well done.  Nor is it designed for those persons who feel that now that their education is complete, they have all the necessary tools for success.  I encourage managers and executives to read and participate in this posting if they feel that there is a next step in the educational process...one that is more critical to success than showing off that graduation tie!

We are bombarded with information at a near constant rate. Managers face information overload challenges at their organizations.  They have to contend with information that is emitted from a wide assortment of agents and objects, and this information might arrive through various information channels and devices. Consequently, it is impossible to inspect and process all the information one receives. Some information nuggets receive attention and are carefully considered, while other nuggets might get lost (or are even purposely ignored), and yet others, might be acted on without enough consideration.

What is troubling to me is how frequently managers assume that information that stems from the external world is right or appropriate for their organizations. Often this gets exhibited as follows: a manager gets his recent issue of Harvard Business Review and skims through it during a business trip (of course, only after the manager has exhausted the batteries on the laptop). The manager reads a few articles, finds one or more them to be interesting, and then without much questioning begins to think about how to duplicate practices or approaches described in their own organization. Most managers take a lazy approach when it comes to evaluation of information from external sources. Consider the last time that you really took the time to evaluate information coming from an external source (e.g. a consultant or a recently released business book that touts the next buzzword) with the same amount of care as information that comes from your direct reports. Much of this lazy approach, in my opinion, can be linked to the MBA mills. During MBA programs, degree candidates are rushed through the fundamentals of accounting and finance, given tours of the latest practices in human resource management and information systems, and spend their time working through team and trust building exercises. These are all nice, but do not teach managers the art and science of questioning. Moreover, in some course and management approaches, questioning, especially, the questioning of authorities and authoritative sources is frowned upon. This is common in disciplines such as accounting and finance, where students are made to drink from the fire hose in terms of the terminology and techniques. Student learn to marvel at external information, especially information published in the so-called authoritative sources, rather than to critically evaluate it.

Most managers with whom I speak admit that they have a long way to go in terms of harnessing their questioning capabilities. Key aspects of a questioning capability include:

1.      Knowing how to develop questions for a given context

2.      Knowing when to ask questions

3.      Knowing how to evaluate and process answers to questions

4.      Knowing how to develop an effective, and efficient, questioning process that is refined, and optimized, on a regular basis

Being busy, or overworked, or just being fearful of consequences, are not legitimate reasons for questioning. To retain the human and intelligent aspects of organizations, one must question. Questioning prompts us to seek clarification, act intelligently and mindfully, and promotes constructive discourse.

I would like to hear your thoughts on questioning. Do you ask difficult questions of external information? What are some reasons why you are less critical of information that come from external versus internal sources? What challenges do you face in terms of asking difficult questions? Do you think questioning is a lost capability within current enterprises?

Idea Experimentation: Putting Your Ideas to the Test

Once you have advocated, screened, and funded ideas, the next step is to engage in experimentation. To experiment is to try something new. It allows you to observe the interplay between cause and effects—i.e., it is the application of scientific methods to generate actionable knowledge. Simply put, experimentation can be considered the sum of all activities we engage in to test the feasibility and elasticity of an idea. On the feasibility side, we are normally looking at the cost, benefits, effort, resources, and risks involved in transforming the idea into a viable product and/or service. In addition to feasibility, the experimentation process will also unearth the elasticity of an idea. Idea elasticity focuses on the reach of the product and/or service. Elasticity tries to see how far you can stretch ideas, both in terms of the number of products and/or services that you can develop from them, and also the domains in which you can deploy them.

It is through the process of collecting data through the conduct of experiments that we can find support for the ideas. Data collected during the experimentation process will help us gather the necessary evidence to support decision-making. Today, there is a big movement in medicine called evidence-based medicine (EBM), which demonstrates that a move towards more scientific and data-driven decision-making can prove to be valuable, rather than purely relying on gut instincts. Dr. Dave Sackett, a pioneer in the field states “EBM is saying rather than just rely on tradition, expert opinion, wishful thinking, let's try and find the evidence and apply it.” [1] To build a culture of experimentation one must focus on the following principles: 1) do not just discard ideas without adequate evidence, 2) do not support or move ideas ahead without adequate evidence, and 3) always look to exploit data from experiments.
While at Amazon from 1997-2002, Greg Linden prototyped a system that would make personal recommendations to customers as they checked out. Linden commented, “I heard the SVP was angry when he discovered I was pushing out a test. But, even for top executives, it was hard to block a test. Measurement is good. The only good argument against testing would be that the negative impact might be so severe that Amazon couldn't afford it, a difficult claim to make.” [2] Linden’s experiment showed how much the customer liked the feature and it won praise – the end result is that this has become a signature design feature for Amazon, and most online web marketers have introduced a similar concept. This illustrates the value and capabilities of organizations to test incremental ideas and achieve innovation through “continual tiny experiments in such areas as business processes and customer relationships rather than a single, company-transforming idea.” [3]

Experimentation needs to be made part of every employee’s work and has to move beyond the R&D Labs. The R&D Labs have natural constraints that leave a lot to be desired in terms of experimentation. For example, most of the R&D personnel are detached from the day-to-day running of the business and hence are not the best people to experiment on the problems and solutions of interest for today. In addition, these labs are often physically secluded from the operational centers of the business. This separation leads to difficulty when you try to transport (mobilize) ideas from the lab in order to address problems that are happening on the ground. Finally, you also have a numbers issue. The number of individuals working in an R&D lab is minimal compared to employees who are involved with the day-to-day running of the business. As such, no matter how brilliant your R&D lab personnel are, you will be at a loss if you cannot find ways to tap into the 85-90% of your organization’s employees who do not work in the lab. At the Engaged Enterprise, we had a R&D lab, the Institute for Engaged Business Research (IEBR). IEBR was focused on working on applied management problems that had value propositions to our clients. We determined upfront that simply relegating experimenting and innovation to the labs was not optimal. We needed to find a way to blend the experiences of those working on the consulting side with the R&D side. In addition, we needed to find ways to take knowledge that was being generated on the consulting side (as experiments were conducted “live” while projects were being done – i.e. as we tried to install a new service or strategize with a client – we were in essence engaging in experimentation) and move these into the R&D lab. We did this by having people share their time between consulting and R&D. Also, we had our R&D folks develop a method and handbook that could be used for experimentation which explained the basics of experimentation and how to capture and store results. We also encouraged sharing of results from experimentation efforts so that others might use the results, or provide their reflections on the experiments.

The effort to move experimentation beyond the R&D labs needs to be a conscious one. Both, organizational (management) and employee level interventions need to be in place to promote this concept. Managers should not only encourage their employees to experiment with their ideas, but even go so far as making it a requirement when ideas are being developed and proposed. In addition, employees should take responsibility to engage with the experimentation process, and be aware of methods and practices for conducting experiments.

please stay tuned for my new book or send me a note via email…

[1] Sackett, Dr. Dave. (October 30, 2009). Interviewed by André Picard. Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/when-we-began-we-were-almost-pariahs/article1344833/
[2] http://glinden.blogspot.com/2006/04/early-amazon-shopping-cart.html
[3] McCann, David. (March 15, 2010). Testing, Testing: The New Innovation Game. Available at: http://cfo.com/article.cfm/14482988?f=search

Speaking at Microsoft: Intranets for Collaborative Innovation: From Failed Promises to Emerging Potential: April 29, 2010

I will be giving a talk to Microsoft’s Enterprise Content Management team on the role of Intranets in fostering collaborative innovation. Since their initial debut, Intranets have been touted as a platform to promote collaboration within an organization. Most organizations have invested serious resources in developing viable Intranets. Despite the significant investments, only a handful of organizations will claim that their Intranets are anything more than glorified document repositories. In this talk, I highlight key reasons that Intranets have failed to deliver on their original promises. I will also point out how users have had to build work-a-rounds to avoid interacting with Intranets when engaging in collaborative work. My talk will conclude with key recommendations for designers of next generation Intranets that can support collaborative innovation.

Building Sustainable Collaborative and Open Innovation Programs – University of Ljubljana

I will be giving an invited lecture at the Raziskovalni center Ekonomske fakultete (Faculty of Economics) of the University of Ljubljana on February 15, 2010. My talk will focus on how organizations can design collaborative innovation programs.

Organizations cannot innovate in isolation. Ideas, knowledge, expertise, and processes needed for innovation are often distributed in the marketplace across a wide-assortment of actors from business partners, to customers, government agencies, and even competitors. Organizations have to find ways to collaborate and develop open, rather than closed, innovation programs. Collaboration calls for the ability to share required artifacts from ideas to knowledge and expertise, and even processes, with external entities. Being open requires an organization to unlock, and make available, its innovation process to external entities. Developing Collaborative and Open Innovation (COI) programs can be a daunting challenge. Issues such as ensuring trust, governance structures, rewards and incentives, and mechanisms for rent sharing from innovations can seem insurmountable. In this presentation, I will share actionable knowledge on how we can build sustainable COI programs. I will draw on research and consulting on designing organizational innovation programs in over 50 global organizations. I will share a framework for organizations that want to collaborate on innovation. This framework will outline methods for collaborative idea generation and mobilization, idea advocacy and screening, idea experimentation, idea commercialization, and idea diffusion and implementation. Examples will be used to illustrate how leading organizations collaborate with external entities for innovation and build open innovation programs that external entities can plug-into.

What do you mean by a “good idea”?

Here is a simple exercise: Find 20 people in your organization. Ideally, choose people across the various hierarchical levels and functional departments of your organization. Ask each person two questions: How would you define a good idea? How do you recognize a good idea? Chances are high that if you work in a typical organization, you will arrive at 20 different answers! Some individuals may not even be able to articulate what is a good idea or to clearly describe how to recognize good ideas. Is this a problem? You bet it is! One of the major challenges faced by organizations as they try to come up with good ideas is the lack of a definition of what constitutes a good idea. It is common to find organizations that take the stance that a good idea is in the eye of the beholder, or in contrast, that a good idea is like pornography, you will recognize it when you see it. Similarly, most organizations lack a clearly defined process on how to recognize good ideas. As one manager put it, “employees may not recognize a good idea if it smacked them right on their faces.”

The organization that wants to foster a spirit of intrapreneurship must: 1) clearly define what is, and what is not, an idea, 2) arrive at a typology for the various types of ideas, 3) articulate a process for refining thoughts into ideas and then into ‘good’ ideas, 4) reward employees for sharing ‘good’ ideas, and 5) reward employees who serve as brokers (or intermediaries) for mobilizing ideas from one corner of the organization to the next.

What are some practices that your organization has in place to address these issues?

For more details, please stay tuned for my new book on intrapreneurship…or drop me an email!

Advocating and Screening for Ideas

If you have ideas, what should you do with them? How do you know which ideas to pursue (and which to abandon)? As an idea creator, how do you know which ideas will get the attention of managers or how to present ideas for consideration? As a manager, how do you screen the numerous ideas you get from your staff? These are not simple questions to answer. Unfortunately, this stage of the intrapreneurship process represents the Achilles' heel for most organizations. Too many organizations spend a lot of time, effort, and resources to get ideas from their employees but then do not know what to do with them. Equally discomforting are cases where employees spend too much time creating ideas for which there is no organizational interest or need. The end result is a lot of waste – from the individual to the organizational level.

Consider the case of a global technology organization. The organization, founded in the mid 1990s, had seen unprecedented growth during the Internet boom days. As one senior executive remarked, “we were not only running on all cylinders, but were actually borrowing cylinders and fuel rods to keep up with demand.” The organization grew from humble beginnings (3 students!) to just under 200 employees in five years. It now has 10 clients in US states and 3 international clients (based in London, Brussels, and Amsterdam). As soon as the glory days came to a screeching halt with the dot.com bust, the organization, like many of its compatriots in the industry, had to do some hard thinking to redefine business strategies. To this end, the organization solicited ideas from its employees concerning the company's direction for the future– the slogan – 10 for 10: 10 big ideas for the next 10 years! The goal was to get the firm to think big and to identify 10 broad areas that 1) they would want to invest and build capability in, 2) they would want to build collaborative capacities by reaching out to start-ups and established firms, and 3) they would require re-tuning (or complete obliteration) of their current strategic focus. The company did what any other organization would do; It solicited ideas from employees across all ranks. The company commissioned online “idea drop boxes.” Employees could send in their ideas via filling in a brief online questionnaire. Within a week, the company had over 500 ideas (about 2.5 ideas from each employee!); and by the end of the four week idea solicitation period they had captured over 1200 ideas (a little more than 6 ideas per employee!) As one executive remarked, “we underestimated the whole [idea solicitation] thing…employees were scared…their friends were losing jobs, companies like ours were closing, venture capitalist were getting tighter with the purse strings…all of this contributed to fear…employees wanted to help the company, and themselves, by sharing their best ideas that would not only keep us afloat but secure a better future…” This was the easy part-- getting ideas-- the big challenge ahead for the organization was what to do with these and how do to go about screening them. Over the course of the next five months, the firm tried its best to bubble up the best ideas through applying various screening procedures, getting comments and feedback on ideas from internal (i.e. employees), as well as external (i.e. board of directors, collaborators from academia, venture capitalist, etc), sources.

Unfortunately, the organization did not have a robust process for advocating and screening ideas. The end-result is best summarized by a statement made by the CEO – “absolute disaster…we ended up pissing off more staff than those we appeased, lost good employees who felt their ideas were not duly considered, and what hurts me most, is employees lost faith in the organization as a place that valued ideas…front-line programmers and system designers who are our most important assets felt ideas get promoted based on ones political network and clout…we all lost, I will never do this again…we might never recover the trust and camaraderie that we had prior to this undertaking.

The bad news for organizations is that the advocacy and screening stage of the intrapreneurship process is fraught with difficulties.

To learn how to build sustainable processes for idea advocacy and screening, please contact me (or wait for a future posting…or my new book)

CIOs to CIOs*: Chief Information to Chief Innovation Officers

I will be giving a presentation at SIMposium 09. The presentation titled, "CIOs to CIOs*: Chief Information to Chief Innovation Officers"draws on my three year investigation of innovation programs in global organizations. In this presentation, I plan to address the critical role CIOs plays in fostering organizational innovation. CIOs that embrace their role as Chief Innovation Officers, rather than being just Chief Information Officers, will thrive in today’s turbulent and highly competitive marketplace. The CIO* must transform his/her organization by using information, and information management capabilities, in innovative ways to enhance the innovation capacity of the organization.

Crafting Organizational Innovation Processes – Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice

Crafting Organizational Innovation Processes” appears in the current issue of Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice

I co-authored this paper with Caroline Dombrowski (The Information School, University of Washington), Yukika Awazu (McCallum Graduate School of Business, Bentley College), Peter Baloh (Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana), Sridhar Papagari (Dept of Information & Decision Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago), Jeffrey Y Kim (The Information School, University of Washington), and Sanjeev Jha (Dept of Information & Decision Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago).

Research for this paper was funded by the Institute for Innovation in Information Management, University of Washington as part of the Leveraging Ideas for Organizational Innovation research project.

Abstract
Innovation is a crucial component of business strategy, but the process of innovation may seem difficult to manage. To plan organizational initiatives around innovation or to bolster innovation requires a firm grasp of the innovation process. Few organizations have transparently defined such a process. Based on the findings of an exploratory study of over 30 US and European companies that have robust innovation processes, this paper breaks down the innovation process into discrete stages: idea generation and mobilization, screening and advocacy, experimentation, commercialization, and diffusion and implementation. For each stage, context, outputs and critical ingredients are discussed. There are several common tensions and concerns at each stage, which are enumerated; industry examples are also given. Finally, strategies for and indicators of organizational success around innovation are discussed for each stage. Successful organizations will use an outlined innovation process to create a common framework for discussion and initiatives around the innovation process, and to establish metrics and goals for each stage of the innovation process.

A New Work Force Wave: Managing Millennials (See beyond the stereotypes of the ‘Me Generation’ to harness creativity)

I was recently interviewed for an article on innovation by Colin Simpson of the Bellingham Business Journal. To retrieve the article, please click here [LINK]. As I continue to study innovation practices in high-technology organizations, I continue to be amazed by the innovative capacities of the ‘Me Generation’….