Helping Frontline Workers Become Innovative
Innovative organizations do not miraculously come into existence. Rather, they are created by leaders who establish the conditions necessary to bring out the innovative ideas within everyone.
How can organizational leaders create these conditions? In particular, how can they create conditions that will encourage frontline workers to be innovative? This requires, I believe, that leaders fulfill two major conditions. They must convince frontline workers that the leadership supports the line; and, they must ensure that frontline workers understand the big picture.
In every effective organization, there is some kind of implicit contract between the leadership and the line. The line will produce what the leadership wants; in turn, the leadership produces what the line wants. The organization’s leadership wants to make this message as explicit as possible: “You produce for us, and we’ll produce for you”.
This implicit contract is needed by any organization that seeks to become innovative. Frontline workers will not help an organization’s leadership do a better job at achieving its mission unless they believe these leaders will help them.
Frontline workers: leadership on their side
But what should those frontline workers who have decided that being innovative is good for the organization attempt to accomplish? In what direction should they attempt to innovate? What are the constraints? How will an innovation fit within other efforts being made throughout the agency? What is the purpose of the agency and how will any specific innovation help to achieve that purpose? To be effective as innovators, frontline workers must understand what the organization is trying to accomplish, why it is trying to accomplish that, and how it might achieve that goal.
Frontline workers understand the big picture
Before frontline workers are going to become innovative, they have to believe that the organization’s leadership supports them, and they have to understand the big picture.
Be immediately responsive
When an executive first asks frontline workers or middle managers what should be done to improve the organization’s effectiveness, the responses will inevitably focus on working conditions. People will complain about the lack of a soft drink machine, the broken toilet, or the photocopier that barely reproduces the original. Obviously, workers will be more productive if they have the right tool.
The quicker that top management produces the new copier, the better its credibility will be.
In fact, before asking frontline workers what should be done to improve the organization, its leaders ought to know the answer they will hear. Before top management meets with the workers, leaders ought to find out what kind of improvements the workers will request. Before the meeting, they ought to check out exactly what they will have to do to produce the improvement and how long it will take. Then, when confronted with the request, they can commit to making the improvement and also state clearly whether the improvement will be completed in a day, a week, a month, or a year.
To identify the needs of frontline workers, the agency’s leadership ought to ask the union. In fact, in a unionized agency, if the organization’s leaders go straight to their frontline workers, the union will view this as a direct threat, an effort to undermine its role.
Innovative organizations make mistakes, lots of mistakes. And how the organization treats these mistakes and those who make them sends important signals throughout the organization. If the mistaken innovators are punished in any way, even if they are just perceived to be punished, frontline workers will relearn a basic lesson of bureaucratic life: It does not pay to experiment with new ideas.
Unfortunately, a lot of people make their living catching mistaken innovations. These mistake catchers get their jollies and their professional recognition from uncovering and exposing mistakes. The moral fervor with which they take on this assignment combined with the well-known and easily implemented strategy for publicizing any mistake creates the
If frontline workers learn that no mistake, even an honest mistake, goes unpunished, they will certainly be reluctant to be innovative. Consequently, leaders who wish to create an innovative organization have to figure out ways to prevent those who make mistakes from being punished.
- IT Innovation: is outsourcing possible? (worldofinnovations.net)
- Innovative Leadership Workbook for Emerging Leaders and Managers is a… (prweb.com)
- Free Yourself with a Fearless Front Line (cherylmcmillan.com)
- Should You Take That Innovation Job? (blogs.hbr.org)
- 2- Leadership and Innovation: Relating to Circumstances and Change (serdarbicer.wordpress.com)
- Should You Take That Innovation Job? – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)