BUSY but BORED? Are your innovators OVERWHELMED but UNDERUTILIZED?

Busy But Bored

It sounds like an oxymoron… how can a person be both wildly overwhelmed and insanely busy, while still being filled with an underlying sense of boredom? There is no question that our top people have more than enough work to do. In these times where competitive pressure is high, technological advances are accelerating, and businesses are being (over)stretched to do “more with less”, our top people are not only being challenged with extra work… they are being disproportionately counted on to carry an ever-increasing workload. As managers, it is natural to look to our top people when the latest “crisis of the day” emerges- they have proven their talent, agility, work ethic, and passion so as to be relied upon to deliver with excellence. But in doing so, are we doing a disservice… not only to the individuals but to our businesses as well? What are the long-term opportunity costs in overreliance on our top innovators to carry the burden for shorter term crises?

This is not to say that we shouldn’t challenge our top people… in fact, I am saying the exact opposite. These top innovators, without question, should be the most challenged individuals in our organizations. The trick is to insure that we provide the right kinds of challenges to the right people, and that our top innovators are working on the hardest problems. And by “hardest problems” I am not referring to the most urgent but rather to the most important. Not the highest quantity of deliverables but the highest quality. Not the biggest workload in our groups but the biggest impact. Conceptually, this sounds easy but in actuality requires an enormous amount of discipline. As managers, there is an immense amount of pressure to focus on short-term results… and annual performance reviews, financial incentives, and resource allocations are designed accordingly. And while the challenges are real and the pressure is warranted, we need to be careful that in investing heavily in the present, we are not mortgaging the future.

Clearly, we cannot ignore our short-term crises. Failure in the present may result in there ultimately being no future to support. That being said, there must be a balance… over-investment of our top people on crisis management and an under-investment in long-term innovation will lead to smaller and smaller programs, necessitating the initiation of more of these short-term interventions, leading to even smaller programs… and so on and so on the cycle will continue. And while the business impact of this cycle is immediate and apparent, the effect on our organization’s top innovators is even further detrimental over the long-term. Ultimately, not only will these innovators likely burn out, they will also become intellectually bored along the way. When the puzzles to be solved become more about how to manage an over-zealous workload as opposed to solving a profound innovation challenge, the innovators will eventually tire of this cycle and seek challenges elsewhere- whether in another organization or outside their “day job”. Either way, these individuals can and will not bring their best efforts into work and our organizations will pay the price. So what can we do about it? The crises and short-term challenges are not going away, so how do we insure that while this critical work is getting done it is not at the long-term expense of our innovators themselves?

1) Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. It is a natural instinct to throw our most critical and urgent challenges at our top, experienced innovators and not at our junior, inexperienced employees. It may even seem counter-intuitive to entrust these junior people with a crisis when you have battle-tested “warriors” at your disposal. The result of this decision… not only do your top innovators take the brunt of the crises, but your junior people miss out on opportunities to get their own battle-testing to become the warriors of tomorrow. (Not only that… these junior folks, by default, often end up leading the “future” innovation work that your experienced innovators ultimately yearn to do!). What if instead of this default position, we instead threw our hungry, junior innovators into the short-term fires with the coaching, but not the active engagement, of our experienced innovation leaders? While there will be some risk and apprehension for managers in this situation, the overall benefits can be profound. Your junior innovators get the battle-testing they need and the skills to grow their own mastery and leadership, while your experienced innovators get to focus on the bigger, more profound innovation problems… while teaching the future leaders as well.

2) Emphasize work that is not just “filling” but is “fulfilling”. This one is less concrete but probably the most important of all of the points. Top people want to contribute as much as possible and will invest an immense amount of effort in helping the organization succeed. These individuals see challenges and opportunities everywhere and want to help solve as many as they can. So… when they are feeling under-utilized, for whatever the reason, they will often look to fill this void by taking on extra work- essentially looking for fulfillment through quantity instead of quality. This ultimately will be detrimental not only to the organization but to the individual as well, as the excessive stretching and “box checking” can become the adrenaline rush or the drug to replace the seeking of true job satisfaction. Are your innovators proud of the work itself or are they substituting physical stretching of their capacity for true intellectual stretching and growth? Living on snacks, appetizers, and fast food can be filling for awhile, but in the long run serves to be very unhealthy.

3) Watch for signs that the work itself is no longer “reward enough”. Some may disagree with me here, but in my experience, the truly sought after reward for innovators is not the money, promotion, or recognition… it is the work itself. Sure, we all want to be successful and to provide for our families. And, yes, we want to be recognized for our work. However, we don’t want to seek these things- we want them to come naturally as the effect of our doing something that we love, and doing it well. When a talented, innovative individual starts becoming (sometimes irrationally) obsessed with a raise or a promotion, I have found that the root cause typically is an overall dissatisfaction with his/her job. Essentially, the work is not rewarding them, so they are seeking this reward elsewhere. When this situation arises, try to find ways to enrich their work plans, even if you cannot enrich their pockets. What do they want to STOP, START, and CONTINUE doing as part of their jobs… and how can you work with them to make their day-to-day role more fulfilling? Also, are there places where you can give the gift of time or money to a “side project” that they might want to pursue? This investment can go a long way in driving job fulfillment, while also enabling some incremental organizational innovation as well.

4) Are your innovators “boldly going where no one has gone before”? Innovators want growth, and growth comes from extending into new frontiers. From a work standpoint, are we challenging our innovators to take risks and to try new approaches or are we asking them to repeatedly go from point A to point B? Beyond the work, what about our cultures? Are we supporting fearlessness or promoting fearfulness? Do our reward structures value and recognize risk taking and even failure or do they punish for mistakes. Our innovators want to take risks and to boldly pursue “impossible” problems and to make them possible… but at the same time they don’t want to fail in their careers. If boldness and exploration ultimately do not support success in our organizations, then individuals likely will move away from these behaviors. I once talked to a top innovator who was working on what was, by far, the most important and challenging program in her organization. This person was doing great work but the nature of it was such that there was a high probability of failure. Her management, instead of encouraging her risk taking and creative work, recommended that she take on additional, “safer” programs so as to hedge her bets… to make sure that something she worked on succeeded rather than to put all of her eggs in one “risky” basket. The message to her… success on something small and safe was valued more than risking failure at something big with a high “degree of difficulty”. The result- diluted effort on the “new frontier” work so as to work on the safer bets. While the intention was good in the short-term so as to protect and support this individual, in the long-term it will ultimately lead to “boredom” and dissatisfaction.

5) “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…” Are our innovators enabled to take a “recess” during the day? To spend a few hours a week on a fun side project or on exploring new ideas within their existing projects? To have conversations and brainstorming with individuals outside their teams and their industries to look for new ideas and approaches? It seems that most of us are so busy that there is no longer time to stop for lunch, much less to stop and “play”. Innovators love to solve problems, to try new things, and to explore new ideas. Are we supporting, encouraging, and enabling this time to “play” or are we focusing too much on efficiency, tracking and allocating each hour for each individual, every day? This commitment to “play” will, on paper, look like it dilutes work on primary objectives… in actuality it will make us much more effective. We will have a far more empowered workforce, will generate new ideas and approaches, and strengthen our current programs through renewed passion and creativity.

I ran into a colleague last week, who was obviously stressed and flustered, and asked him how he was doing. He answered, “Well, I’m definitely not bored!”. I honestly don’t know if that was true. We often mistake activity for progress, and are often running so fast and furiously that we fail to realize that we are trapped in the “hamster wheel”. We need to insure that our top innovators are inspired, growing, and working on our top challenges… and not just frantically stuck in the endless cycle of short-term “crises”. When our business is over-stuffed with busy-ness, our innovation will suffer and our innovators will become overwhelmed and underutilized.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Innovators… Why saying “Yes” is Too Easy and saying “No” is Just Lazy

Yes is Easy Button, No is Lazy Button

Our jobs and our lives are too busy.  For a whole series of reasons, we have reached a point on this planet in which there is way too much “stuff” to do and not nearly enough time to do it.  For example, I read once that the average man works far more hours, spends more time doing house chores, invests more time in his children, and takes on more extra-curricular activities than his father did.   How can that be?  There are still 24 hours in a day and seven days a week, and we still have to make time for essentials like sleeping, eating, and exercising.  Sure… technology has enabled higher speed and capacity and there are fundamentally just more opportunities now than there have ever been.  Still… eventually something has to give.  We all have some limit of capacity for how much that we can do.  At the very least, we have a limit for how much that we can do well. 

So what do we do about it?  Specifically, in our jobs I will venture to say that nearly all of us are either at or exceeding our ideal capacity.  Virtually every minute of every day is accounted for, and we still can’t get it all done.  And yet, there is more coming.  We are consistently met with additional “opportunities” for new projects, additional meetings, or extra capability building.  As our industries get more competitive and the speed of change increases rapidly, the pressure to “do more” and to “be more” compounds exponentially.  And in the midst of this, we do want to be successful in our careers.  We don’t want to be the one who breaks under the pressure or who fails to keep up with the increasing demands.  We also don’t want to be the one who doesn’t take risks or refuses to show agility to exceed expectations.  So when at full capacity and presented with a new “opportunity”, it seems like it should be a simple choice:  Yes or No?  However, this simple answer, while clean and fast, will only compound individual problems while also being bad for business.

Just Say “Yes”?  Mangers love “yes men”, and their “can do” attitudes and willingness to do whatever it takes to make things happen. Agility, vigilance, courage, and fearlessness all are words used to describe the person who says “yes” and finds a way to get it all done. These are the “go to” people in an organization, running from meeting to meeting, sending emails at all hours of the night, and filling up annual performance reviews with page upon page of contributions.

However… “yes” comes with a price. 1) To the individual… the rest of their work does not go away so this is an additive exercise.  The long hours, family stress, and mental exhaustion will ultimately take a toll on health, family relationships, and job satisfaction.  2) To the teams… I often say that we can sprint or we can run a marathon, but we cannot sustain sprinting a marathon.  Too much time spent over capacity will ultimately lead to exhaustion, increased mistakes, and an overriding feeling of insufficiency (“no matter what I do, it is never enough!”)  3) To the company… On the surface, getting more done looks like nothing but positive- the epitome of “doing more with less”.  In reality, teams and individuals will be forced to compromise the quality of work in some areas, to acquire less depth of understanding, and to experience delays in critical programs.  While there may be more projects, the projects will get smaller and slower, necessitating more and more to compensate and ultimately leading to the vicious cycle that many of us experience today.

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” –Bill Cosby

Just Say “No”?:  This two-letter word can be one of the most empowering and decisive that we use. “No, we cannot (or will not) do that” is conclusive, definitive, and deliberate.  I have often heard that a person willing to stand up and stop a project provides a far bigger contribution than one who allows himself or herself to limp along working on more things than he/she can handle. These individuals can be seen as decision-makers, bold, vigilant, governing, and commanding. Not as “weak” as the “yes man”, these individuals will lock scope early, and not allow their teams to invest time or energy beyond the base plans.

But at what cost? Missed opportunities? A culture of risk averseness? Stubborn refusal to be agile when actually required? Every “no” shuts down uncertainty… but does it also trade off agility?  The truth is, no matter how good that our plans are, how strong our teams perform, or how much time and money we invest on a program, at times we will need to make changes.  Competitive activity, market changes, and new ideas and innovations can and should change the priorities of our work.  While saying “no” can drive efficiency and rigor, it can also stifle innovation and flexibility.  And worse, if “no” becomes the standard answer for new ideas or agile approaches on a team or in an organization, there can be a tremendously detrimental effect to the long-term culture of innovation.

“Ifs and Buts”!  In the end, every “Yes” and every “No” comes with a price.  There will be some unintended tradeoff to the individuals, to the organization, or to the culture that will ultimately need to be managed.  So instead of allowing these tradeoffs to happen and dealing with them retroactively, we should proactively make choices to deliberately decide what tradeoffs that we should make.

Saying “yes” is too easy.  In trying not to let anyone down or in trying to pursue everything that is interesting and novel, the lowest resistance path is to just accept the extra work with the faith that you will “figure it out later” in terms of how it will all get done.  This ultimately will not work in the long run.  Instead we should say “Yes, IF…”  Yes, I can take on Project X, IF we stop working on Project Y.  Yes, Report A can be done tomorrow, IF Report B can wait until next week.  Yes, we can place that study, IF you give me additional money and resources.  This still allows for the positive energy in saying “yes” to what will get done, while also making a deliberate choice as to what will not.

Saying “no” is lazy.  Many may disagree with me on this one, but hear me out.  Absolutely, we must make choices about what not to do so as to allow us to focus on the truly important ones.  One of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes is, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things”.  Even in this quote, however, there is an element of “No, but…” and/or “No, because…”.  No, we cannot launch that new project in February, BUT we can get it done in August.  No, John does not currently have the capacity to work on Project A, BUT if we delay Project B he will be available.  No, we should not innovate in that new area, BECAUSE it is not part of our strategic vision.  Again, this isn’t about not making hard choices, but rather about making them completely… either through offering an alternative or for providing a strategic basis for making them.  While we want to be decisive and efficient, to survive in an innovative company and particularly to sustain an innovative culture, we must not stifle an organization through unilaterally shutting down new approaches.  We must instead have the discipline and the rigor to provide an alternative or at least to provide a real and fair justification.

We truly are living in amazing times, with unprecedented speed, uncertainty, and opportunities.  And by all indications, each of these will only increase as we march forward into the future.  As we face this future, we have to determine what our key priorities are and make sure that we allow ourselves the time and energy to not only invest in them, but to invest fully.  That is not to say that these priorities will not change over time or that tough choices will not need to be made.  Rather, we need to be deliberate and proactive about making these choices ourselves or they will be made for us.  In essence, there will be tradeoffs, not just in our careers but in our lives as a whole, and we have an opportunity to choose them for ourselves.  Saying “Yes” or saying “No” are inadequate… when there are no “ifs” and/or “buts” about it.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Are we first drawing up the “BLUEPRINTS” before “ARCHITECTING” our Innovations?

Blueprints

In my experience working Innovation programs, I have found that the failure of programs typically comes not in the inability to successfully execute a solution, but rather in the failure to first define the right problem to be solved.  While this may seem obvious, frequently in our rush to start inventing something, we fail to take the time to clearly define the “blueprints” for what we should actually invent.  We need to remember that “Activity does not equal Progress”, and that the upfront investment in “architecting” a clear mission, big idea, and success criteria will not only ultimately yield better results, but typically will also yield a faster overall development time (Measure twice, cut once).  The following outlines 6 principles that I encourage innovation teams to establish at the definition of any new program so as to map out the course before starting to run.

 

1. Clearly define WHAT the objective is, before diving into HOW to deliver it.

Set clear, actionable, and inspiring success criteria and align with your Innovation Team, your internal and external “customers”, and your respective management at the onset of your project.

“We more frequently fail to face the right problem than fail to solve the problem we face.”        –Unknown

 

2. First AMAZING, then Actionable.

First, define the “Wow”… no matter the cost.  We are very good at taking something amazing and figuring out how to deliver it… it is virtually impossible to start with something actionable and to then make it amazing.

“Vision without action is daydream.  Action without vision is nightmare.”   -(Japanese proverb)

 

3. Perfect is the Enemy of Amazing.

We must be comfortable taking risks, failing early, and failing often.  If we measure success by minimizing mistakes, we are destined for mediocrity.

“There are no rules here, we’re trying to accomplish something.”  –Thomas Edison

 

4. Simplifying too early makes things more complex.  On the surface, defining the “box” early may appear to simplify via driving focus and minimizing choices.  In reality, closing off Degrees of Freedom too early often adds limitations and makes work more challenging.

“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.” –Albert Einstein          

 

5. Activity does not equal Progress.  Amidst a constant pressure for “Action”, make sure that precious resources and time are focused on the 3 critical issues*. (*At least 80-90% of time and resources anyway… do leave some capacity to play a hunch (e.g. Google’s 20% projects) without derailing the team!)

“There is nothing more useless than doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”         –Peter Drucker            

 

6. Empower the team to set the vision and to lead the way.  Get aligned with management on success criteria early… but lead from bottom up and not from top down.

  • Managers:  Help when needed, but get out of the way.
  • Team:  Beg forgiveness, don’t ask permission.

“The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.  The best people don’t need to be managed – Guided, taught, led – yes… but not tightly managed.” –Jim Collins

 

Again, this is not intended to be rocket science… however it is remarkably common for teams to skip past the critical first step of “defining the problem” before jumping into execution mode.  Innovators tyoically are problem solvers by nature, and are most energized by the chase of finding the answer and not necessarily in the discipline in rigor of clearly outlining and refining the problem statement.  As architects of our innovation programs, we must take the time to get clear on our blueprints up front before starting to build the program.  While this upfront investment will take time and may drive impatience among both the team and the management, the discipline to maintain this investment will not only yield bigger results, but will most likely yield faster results as well.