Quinnsights: Skipping the Hierarchies

After last month’s column a reader asked, “Would you blog on skipping the hierarchies in working smarter, and not being afraid to speak up to leadership, including your boss?” I am appreciative that she brought this up, and of course I’m happy to oblige.

To start, you have to recognize that working smarter inherently includes innovation. You must be continually learning, and that requires research. In this case, research means continual experimentation. You can operate on what’s known only so long, and then you also need to try new things.

One of the reasons I don’t like the idea of best practices (although I inadvertently used that phrase in the previous column) is that they’re not re-contextualized into the current situation. I argue instead for best principles (abstracting from specific instances), and then re-instantiating. And that requires experimentation, evaluation, and refinement.

What truly benefits innovation is diversity, if the process is managed correctly. The lateral inputs that may move you into a more productive space can’t come from everyone thinking the same. You tap into diversity by deliberately choosing people who are different, while ensuring the necessary skills are represented and there is a shared understanding of what’s important. You then must employ appropriate brainstorming approaches; think individually before collectively, everyone gets equal time, don’t evaluate until you’ve exhausted the idea-generation stage, etc.

Skipping the hierarchies

Hierarchies are contrary to innovative thinking. They reflect a particular way of looking at the world. It’s hard to cross boundaries in hierarchies, yet boundary crossing is essential. This is why modern approaches to innovation explicitly talk about creating diverse teams (see General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams, Amy Edmondson’s Teaming, and John Kotter’s XLR8).

You may need hierarchies to perform the routine, but that’s increasingly being automated. The valuable work, the valuable outcomes, will emerge from innovation. New ideas come from crossing the hierarchy. Does this signal the demise of hierarchies? Some think so, but others argue that you still need the optimal execution to couple with continual innovation.

Implicit in the above innovation concept, by the way, is everyone having a voice. That means that you must talk to the boss, as well as everyone else. You must communicate to leadership. And, most importantly, leadership needs to listen.

The age of one person thinking for everyone is gone. There’s too much complexity, and things are moving much too fast for anyone to have their mind around all of it. You want lateral inputs to continually spark new ideas. You get better outputs when everyone contributes.

Ideas lead to experiments, not all of which are successful. It’s no coincidence that a startup manual was titled Fail Fast, Fail Often (Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz). If your leadership can’t hear of mistakes and discards thoughts from below, the stage is set for the success of the competition. Innovation is a competitive advantage.

Knowing the above is critical in learning. Not formal learning, but informal learning. It’s a critical part of working smarter. And I will suggest that this is a role that can and should be facilitated by learning professionals.

Thanks for the chance to opine about skipping the hierarchies and assuring an equitable voice in the organization. Organizations that fail to transcend hierarchies will be too hidebound to adapt. Being agile means tapping into diversity. And that’s smart!

The focus of this column is on working smarter and aligning technology with individual and organizational cognition. I will be covering topics such as ecosystems, measurement, and learning design. Practicing what I preach about collaboration, I also hope you’ll suggest topics you’d like to see addressed! Send your suggestions to clark@quinnovation.com.

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