I see “innovation campaigns” and change management initiatives all of the time in corporations. Most of them never achieve any positive results. In the worst case, failed change management initiatives increase cynicism and depress morale further.
Innovation and change, like morale, are things that all leaders in all corporations will agree they always need more of. However, innovation and change are very slippery items. Like the wind, you know they are there, but they can head in all directions, and are difficult to steer, and even more difficult to capture and grow.
Having watched the trends in IT solution delivery and service provisioning in corporations in the USA and Europe for over 30 years, I have come to some conclusions about why so many corporations are currently struggling with innovation and change initiatives.
Leaving aside the approaches to fostering innovation, which are often bizarre and superficial, there are several underlying current pervasive dynamics that have the power to totally derail all attempts at fostering innovation and implementing organizational and/or cultural change.
1. Psychological Safety
One of the best ways in which a corporation can ensure that innovation is suppressed is to make it clear that the reward for taking risks or attempting new approaches is to be penalized by Exile or by being made redundant. The organization shows little or no tolerance for failure.
This article explains the concept of psychological safety extremely well.
It is up to leaders to create a climate where taking risks is not immediately shut down, and failures of innovation are not immediately punished. Whenever I hear leaders commenting to the effect that “our culture is risk-averse”, I immediately begin to worry that they are stewards of a climate where nobody with any sense of self-preservation is likely to propose any sort of innovation or change.
2. The offshore delivery work fiction
Most IT delivery organizations have been relentlessly reducing staffing levels for decades, often sending work offshore, where it is often performed poorly, at which point the remaining onshore team members have to “paper over the cracks” in order to elevate quality levels to an acceptable level for the client or end-users. (By the way, this “acceptable” level is often way below the previous quality level that was provided to the client). The result is a corporate fiction that the work is being performed offshore. In reality it is being bodged offshore, and fixed up onshore by a small number of over-worked resources. Those resources are usually too busy to even think about visiting the restroom, never mind engaging in innovation.
3. Reduction in SME coverage and predominance of tacit knowledge
Over the last 15 years I have seen groups progressively slimmed down to the point where only one person is a SME for key areas of the solution. If that person is (say) killed in a road accident this upcoming weekend, the organization will be in a dangerous place starting on Monday.
However, a one-person SME, in the current climate, will not willingly train another person to be a SME, since that introduces a risk (as the SME sees it) that the organization can WFR them in favor of the newly-trained SME.
If the request is to train an offshore person to become a SME, well, if you are the corporate leadership expecting willing participation from the onshore resources, you are below naive.
Ditto documentation of processes. When a person perceives that their employer is looking for an excuse to WFR them, they are going to make damn sure that their business and technical knowledge remains implicit and tacit, not explicit and documented. The default in that sort of climate is that Knowledge is Indispensability. It is probably not true, but that is how employees will see it, and, like just about any employee, they will behave in a “circle the wagons” way to protect their position.
A culture of innovation, like credibility, requires constant renewal and attention to detail. Just as credibility can be severely or degraded by one perceived failure to deliver on promises or committments, innovation interest and engagement can be severely impacted and driven down to zero by one incident where innovators were seen to be punished for failures.