Wednesday, 9 April 2014


A CEO decided that he wanted to "shake up" his rather stodgy company to turn it into an outward-looking innovative juggernaut. The industry had been so comfortable for so long that innovation had not been necessary for survival. With the market upended and significant pressure on margins, the CEO thought that the innovation imperative would be evident to all. He envisioned a company where a question from Asia would find an answer in France, and where people who didn't know each other would collaborate to innovate. He put a team in charge of innovation, reporting directly to him, and bypassed the IT department to launch an enterprise social network (ESN).  

He acted fast and decisively, and expected quick results - an enthusiastic snowball effect of sorts. What he did not foresee, however, was that instead of rising to the challenge of the transformation, the majority decided to either 'wait and see' or to oppose him outright. In particular, there was strong resistance among second and third-line managers against the ESN. An idea that seemed obvious at HQ failed in the hands of the people it was supposed to help.  

What happened? 

For one, this is a classic case of "transformation by bus". The tools are deployed in the hope that people will use them. There is no clearly articulated and desirable target that the organization will reach by using this tool, and the employees have not formulated a need for the tool as a means to reach the target.  
Further, signing up for the ESN was an individual initiative for each employee. In a culture steeped in conservatism, that was already a stretch. Some staff resisted using a tool for which they were not specifically trained.  

More disturbingly, some second and third-line managers actively forbade their direct reports from using or engaging in discussions on the ESN. Upon inquiry, three things stand out:  
  • the time spent collaborating and innovating (through the ESN or not) could not be clearly tallied towards the objectives guiding the managers' decisions. Nobody was going to get a bonus for or by using the ESN - it was "a waste of time". 
  • the managers seem to have perceived the ESN as the threat to their authority. Specifically, if their reports could bypass them to engage directly with others in the company, they might discover that their bosses were less competent than previously believed. Alternatively, if someone had to ask the ESN for help, it might reflect poorly on the manager who, it would be assumed, had not provided the answer or guidance.  
  • the managers also perceived, in a less explicit way, that an informed workforce requires leaders, rather than managers - that is to say bosses that inspire and facilitate rather than know and control. Ill-trained (or untrained) for this new responsibility, they could not take it on. 
We see here that this attempt to free knowledge and information in the corporate organization was thwarted by fear; fear of being exposed as less-than-competent and fear of actually being unprepared for one's new tasks. This fear, obviously, is just that: most of the managers are actually competent, and it results from lack of confidence. 

Confidence both in oneself and in the goodwill of others is a crucial ingredient for success that appears to have been lacking at the individual and corporate levels. To "develop individual initiative and individual ability to work with each other" in particular through the liberation of information flows within the organization - the ESN's purported objective - we need to ensure that the staff understands and buys into the shifts required in their positions, prerogatives and responsibilities. I propose that one way that this can happen is if those affected by the changes are :  
  1. sufficiently self-confident that they accept to challenge the status quo and their position therein 
  1. convinced that their management, peers, and reports will treat their experimentations and questions (and potential failure) with goodwill and that they will be given the necessary training and support to succeed.  
Treating employees with kindness, trust and respect is a good place to start building  self-confidence and corporate goodwill. Almost more importantly, giving employees the freedom to err, and even to fail, is the highest show of confidence and encouragement to their ability to make decisions - to take initiative.

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