21st century workers, you should own the means of innovation

Xmas Means of Production - People's tee

This blog post comes from a joke and a conversation. The joke is the t-shirt by People’s Tee whose Ad I saw on Facebook and it made me laugh. Dead ugly yet extremely cool.

The conversation is one I had with my E20 friend Emanuele Quintarelli around an article posted on HBR. This is a post on a « study » regarding innovation. The actual study is rather one related to the data collected by an ideation tool : Spigit.

Online Suggestion Box

Spigit is an « idea management software for crowdsourcing ideas for enterprise innovation ». My translation in plain english : an online suggestion box. IMHO, if suggestion box was such a great innovation tool, we’ll know about it by now and innovation wouldn’t probably as a sexy and glamorous topic as it is today. So one has to be very pedagogic to explain to me how scaling a boring idea makes it a great idea.

This all goes back to the definition of innovation. Many people, including Spigit, seem to confuses innovation with ideation. Hence their baseline and their product. There are many definition of innovation out there but the one I came to prefer is Schumpeter’s[FR] : the introduction of an invention into a social group. Remember the Chris Sacca quote : « Ideas are cheap, execution is everything ». It’s the introduction bit that is a lot of work.

Approved by Managers

Yet. That is not the worst part. Here it is :

« The key variable that we identified across all the companies in our analysis is the ideation rate, which we define as the number of ideas approved by management divided by the total number of active users in the system. »

This is the very sentence where I quit reading. I’m sure it is the same people who make this type of study on one hand and then post on their linkedin board the Steve Jobs quote about « hiring smart people and not telling them what to do » or posting hundred of demagogic platitudes about empowerment. To end up telling us that the right indicators to measure innovation is the number of ideas validated by their managers. Oh dear, how embarrassing.

Taylorism Vs Empowerment

This is sheer Taylorism (separating the people who think and who know from the people who do). And if we can’t see this is sheer taylorism, it is probably because our mind is formatted by taylorism to such extent that we don’t even see it anymore.

Empowerment is giving the people the mean to improve their process and the product and services they work on by giving them a safe space to experiment. A safe space means that they won’t get a crack on the head if their experiment is not conclusive (refer to the psychological safety criteria for teams to foster as per the Amy Edmonson study).

Experiment means that they have to take responsibility for their idea : “you think it, you run it” to paraphrase Werner Vogels (Amazon CTO) great concept of IT solution management (“you build it, you run it”) which implies that developers should take responsibility for the code they write by configuring, deploying, running and operating it on productive environments. It is the same with idea. You have it, you experiment it. How will you know it works ? How are you going to test it ? How are you going to introduce it in the process / product / services ?

Idea Approval Index

If you ask Scott Berkun, a much better indicator of an organisation ability to innovate is given by the Idea Approval Index :

« To get this number, simply ask one question : How many approvals are needed for an employee to deliver on an idea for a customer? »

Management Vs Taylorism

Likewise innovation and ideation, people often mistake management and taylorism. As an example, Toyota has a a manager for every 5 or 6 employees. However, this company is the furthest you can imagine from taylorism. The reason is: people who do the work (i.e create tangible value for the customer) are not only entitled but also encouraged to think and change their processes. This is how Toyota became one of the most agile (and most successful) company in the industry of all industries as Peter Drucker defines automobile’s, with millions of implemented suggestions a year.

Therefore it is not because you get rid of your managers that you magically change the culture and get rid of taylorism. I’ve seen the scariest presentation by a company implementing free enterprise only to replace managers with Trello bots pinging people whenever they don’t follow standards procedures. That was taylorism on steroïds. I’ve seen the future of work and it’s Black Mirror.

21st century workers, you should own the means of innovation

21st century work is just as much focussed on production as it is focussed on innovation. Therefore, if we want to relieve 21st workers from alienation, we have to let them control the means of innovation.

Stop telling them How they need to get the work done and stop validating their ideas. Rather teach them how to validate their ideas by themselves. Tell them What you want to achieve and give them control on the means of innovation by allowing them a safe space to experiment ideas in a view to improve internal processes and customer products or services.

Until then, please spare us with the demagogic platitudes about “empowerment” because all we want for Christmas is the means of innovation.


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