Conversation with a Workplace

How do we create a sustainable resource for innovation?

It is strange how a workplace can take on the characteristics of an individual.  It develops a personality, an unique style, a circle of friends, acquaintances, and even adversaries.  Often, it can feel like an entity unto itself, but, in fact, it remains an ensemble of individuals aligned with a unified mission. Without its people is would cease to exist.  If, however, a workplace suddenly took the shape of an individual and was able to converse, here are a few of the questions I might ask:

How do you organize yourself around your work, workplace?  How do you keep your employees happy and engaged?  How do you communicate meaning when time and work volume are your antagonists?  And, how do you remain open to change, or for that matter, do you remain open to change?  Surely you have asked this of yourself, right workplace?    

These are some of the questions every workplace must constantly consider.  The answers to these, and many more, questions will become its culture, and given the influence a culture has upon a workplace, they should be considered carefully.  They may very well determine its fate.  Such was the case with the following two companies: one is thriving, while the other is in restoration after years of exposure to the wrong answer to the question, “how do we create a sustainable resource for innovation?”

The cannibalistic character

Vanity Fair recently published an article which explained how a cultural trait propelled a workplace into a state of limbo.  The particular feature is a management system known as ‘stack ranking’ and its behaviors are nothing short of cannibalistic.  If asked to imagine a method for sustaining innovation, I doubt cannibalizing would enter anyone’s mind, yet somehow it did, and it was acted upon with vigor.  The author of the article stated that of the employees interviewed, “everyone cited ‘stack ranking’ as the most destructive process . . . and one that drove out countless employees”. 

So, here’s how it worked. The program assigned employees to one of four categories:  top performers, good performers, average performers, and poor performers.  A former software developer who participated in this system shared, “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review.”  What began to manifest was a culture of employees competing with each other instead of with other companies, and a feedback loop that discouraged sharing ideas and purpose. 

The altruistic character

IDEO, a global design firm, has fostered an approach to sustaining innovation that requires employees to open up to other possibilities rather than placing their ideas to battle against another’s.  The practice is called ‘cross pollenating’ and as Tom Kelley described in his book The Ten Faces of Innovation, “it operates by creating something new or better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts”.  For example, a cross-pollinator borrowed the idea of a piano keyboard from the musical world and translated it to the business world creating the typewriter.  To cross pollenate is to see the connections between disciplines and ideas, rather than seeing them existing in their own separate space.  So, folks at IDEO embody this method by forming combustive groups.  Mechanical engineers, designers, brand strategists, graphic designers, and organization designers together in a room pushing their edge, while remaining open the influence of each group member.  The opportunity for fierce battle of perspective is ripe, but so too is the opportunity to meld complementary ideas, should we choose.       

Can you begin to imagine some opportunities for cross pollenating in your workplace?  Possibly, look to others in the same department, different departments, and other disciplines for new perspectives to view old problems?  Once you do so, remain open and observe what manifests.         

Interested in conversing with a few of this year's 50 Best Workplaces?Check out our upcoming Small & Medium Business Conference on October 24th in San Jose, California, featuring leaders from this year's 50 Best Small & Medium Workplaces.

Joseph holds a Master’s in Organizational Development from Saybrook University, and is an education and innovation consultant in the San Francisco, Bay Area.  Joseph is a guest blogger for Great Place to Work®.