Bringing out the Steve Jobs in joe jobs

For decades, the suggestion box was one of the few tools offered to employees looking to use their creativity and expertise to improve a company. The implication has always been, “Don’t like something? Tell us, and we’ll fix it.”

But the anonymity that empowered a factory worker to offer advice to management offered no accountability. Too often, innovation is stifled and the status quo reigns.

The Martin Prosperity Institute, Rotman faculty and members of the local business community recently sat down with Wharton professor, best-selling author, and MPI Fellow Adam Grant to talk about corporate decision making and how that process can help or hinder innovation.

Our consensus: build a company around its people rather than forcing people into defined roles.

Companies pledge fealty to innovation and “outside the box thinking,” but just like in the days of the suggestion box, are unwilling – or unable – to implement the changes to accommodate for it. But, innovation isn’t a one-and-done affair; it’s a long, continual process that requires cross-company commitment. When Google’s founders ceded control of the search giant to Eric Schmidt, with an eye to moving past its startup roots, they gave him a 20-year contract freeing Schmidt from the risk averse tyranny of short-term thinking.

But, the employees with whom the day-to-day decision making rests – middle management – aren’t usually given such leeway. Trained and incented to be risk averse, they are saddled with expectations of delivering certain benchmarks within a given timeframe. Theory and business cases are treated as gospel, while successes outside those parameters are viewed as unicorns. Tasked with making incremental change for short-term gain, it’s no wonder that a widely held view sees middle management as the place where “ideas go to die.”

The crux of the problem lies not in a lack of ideas, but in idea selection; it’s easier to do nothing than to back an idea that fails.

A solution might be closer than we think. Empowering employees to not only identify gaps and inefficiencies, but to work to fix those problems, can take decision making power away from management. Events such as innovation tournaments puts control in the hands of workers doing the routine service and manufacturing work. They are a company’s most passionate advocates who are also the most connected to its products, services, and customers. By giving them a voice we can “bringing out the Steve Jobs in joe jobs.”

Decentralizing decision making sounds like a reversal of the top down approach to leadership that’s shaped businesses for centuries. It doesn’t have to be. Bringing employees into this process actually makes them more accountable. Moving decision making from a closed door system to an open and transparent one isn’t just thinking outside the box, it eliminates the need for a box altogether.