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Innovation & Collaboration

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On the face of it you wouldn’t think a group of blindfolded adults trying to put a nail into a bottle would be genuinely thought provoking but the exercise illustrated one of the issues that has come up in every workplace I have been employed in, that is a lack of common understanding of organisational objectives and the impact this has on innovation and creative thinking.

The discussion after the exercise highlighted several issues. Firstly, both teams reported the lack of vision made people feel disempowered and dependent on their leader. While there was a time pressure to perform, only the leader really felt that pressure because no one else had any real control so it was out of their hands. Being blindfolded meant they had no opportunity to provide input or ideas so the success or failure of the team was almost entirely dependent on the leader’s performance. Overall, people didn’t feel like they were part of a team so much as observers blindly (literally!) following instruction.

In all the organisations I have worked in throughout my career, there has been a common complaint from general staff that they don’t have a good understanding of the organisation’s strategic objectives and how these objectives relate to work performed on a daily basis. There has always been overwhelming support from staff to have more access to engagement activities such as organisational planning days to provide feedback and ideas along with identifying key priorities. This lack of engagement results in staff becoming dissatisfied with their job which in turn leads to presenteeism and low quality work.

On the flip side, in my experience the suggestion of holding a planning day has been met with extreme reluctance from Executives. The main reasons given are that planning days are a waste of time and money, produce no real outcomes and are just a ‘talk fest’. While most of the Executives I have worked with are open to feedback generally, there has been no real culture of encouraging staff to think of new and innovative ways of performing their work.

All staff members don’t need to have a complete understanding of the different roles and responsibilities of their colleagues. However, it is critical for staff to have a clear vision of the overarching goals and objectives in order to successfully achieve them.

So why do most organisations find it challenging to achieve this seemingly simple goal? The reasons are no doubt many and varied, however, I believe that fundamentally it comes down to the fact that most organisations do not foster innovation and in some cases actively discourage it. An innovative organisation is one that celebrates collaboration and ideas and is willing to fail in order to learn. For the majority of people, stepping outside your comfort zone and accepting that failure is a possible outcome is completely foreign and it is not an easy concept for an organisation to come to terms with either.

Having clear organisational objectives is only the first step. The second, and infinitely more difficult, step is to engage staff and get their ideas on how best to achieve those objectives. This tends to fall into the ‘too hard’ basket for many organisations because of the time and effort expended in engagement activities. So why do it? Why not just tell staff what you want and expect them to follow through? Well, because the lesson learnt from the nail in the bottle exercise is important...if staff just blindly follow their leader with no real input, they don’t invest in the outcome. On the other hand, staff who clearly understand the objectives, have the opportunity to put forward their views and feel valued are much more likely to put in the extra effort required for success.

The other advantage of having clear objectives is the ability to constantly challenge staff to revisit them and ensure any suggested activities align with the overall goal. During the visit to Kopernik it was very clear that while they were an organisation undergoing significant change, the underlying objectives of the company were still strong and the driving force behind their direction. There are clearly opportunities for Kopernik to generate profit from some of their activities, however, that is not why the company was created and therefore staff can stay focused on potential projects that meet their objectives rather than being sidetracked and changing the fundamental character of the company.

Teamwork is essential to the success of any business but building a cohesive team is difficult. Every person on the team needs to take responsibility for the role they play and respect their colleagues. The benefits of building a cohesive team are huge but it does require a long term commitment to fostering a collaborative, innovative environment.

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