Our family pet is a French bulldog. His name is Lucky. In their behavior, dogs of this breed are somewhat like houseplants: They don’t like to be too hot, too cold, or really too anything. They are known for range of common ailments, and as a result we spend an inordinate amount of time at the veterinarian. During a recent bout with breathing problems, our veterinarian prescribed a medicine that Lucky needed to take each day. Given the stubborn nature of French bulldogs, Lucky would have none of this. We decided to wrap his medicine in baloney, his favorite snack. The goal was obvious: hide the bitter-tasting medicine inside the delicious baloney.
At first, Lucky took a few bites with great enthusiasm—but then he spit it out! We tricked him for a while but it didn’t take him long to realize that the delicious baloney was tainted with bitter tasting medicine. In fact, to this day he will no longer eat baloney.
The takeaway here is pretty simple. Innovation leaders know when you try to inspire team members based on a fake message or one that is not attainable, very soon they stop taking the baloney. Be very careful about how you manage your reputation with your team. Let them take their medicine without the baloney. Give them the real, honest facts about what’s required and your motive behind anything you ask them to do. So many leaders who can’t innovate default to disingenuous messages. Our teams are smart, intuitive, and they talk to each other. If you want to inspire your teams, be honest about your vision, prove its value, and make certain it’s not baloney.
Accent the Positive, Not the Negative
We were engaged by a multibillion-dollar healthcare system to assist them with organizational optimization. In other words, to help them get better. When we arrived on scene we were told that they had an urgent need to save $35 million. In a frantic panic, they put together seven “waste-out” teams in order to find and root out waste as quickly as they could. These teams climbed through every crevice of the organization looking for money spillage.
In a shockingly naïve move, the leader in charge of looking for $35 million in waste put together an internal branding strategy in the form of a slogan bumper sticker that simply said this: “We need to be better stewards of our financial resources.”
Really? I can’t imagine anyone who would be inspired by a simplistic, authoritarian message that basically said, “Stop wasting money.” As a vision, it’s both vague and unattainable. It has no value to the listener.
Not surprisingly, with a few exceptions the effort came up empty-handed. Was there waste within this organization? Absolutely! But they didn’t find it because they didn’t understand how to inspire waste-facing team members (people whose jobs put them in a position to know about where money was being spent) to collaborate in the game of waste out. This corporate-speak language was not only disengaging, but for most team members it was simply repulsive and seemed a bit accusatory.
The message was not only bad, it was neither meaningful nor collaborative. It did nothing to inspire the employees to see and understand the problem, and become motivated to help solve it. It did not demonstrate winning leadership.
Challenge Your Employees to Innovate
To get the healthcare company on the right track, our team leveraged four key behaviors: Inspire, Connect, Adapt, Respect. We did a bit of preliminary investigation and found that no one had really asked anybody where the true waste was. Our team put together an innovation challenge that went out to their 3,500 employees entitled the Biggest Loser Challenge. We leveraged an internal enterprise social network that used leader boards and other game tools to drive higher levels of engagement to the challenge. We also conducted waste-out hackathons (an ideation method used by software developers) to engage the teams in a fun and personal way. Instead of asking these amazing people to be better stewards of their financial resources, we asked them to identify the dumb things we do that waste money. (As an example of the ossification of the company’s management culture, it took us two weeks of wrangling with HR and legal to get permission to use the word “dumb”!)
After launching the initiative, we received literally hundreds of ideas—some innovative, some painfully obvious. The first submission was an observation that the company was wasting $1 million a year with a vendor who had been hired to just the water houseplants! This approach worked because we used language that was engaging and fun. We asked the waste-facing employees to tell us the dumb things they observed, and that language was really powerful.
The net result of this engagement was a tremendous return for our client’s investment, by identifying better ways of gaining innovative insights from the problem, opportunity, and waste-facing employees.
Remember… winning leaders inspire others to reach for the stars. And when you do, you ensure that you and your organization will stay ahead of the pack, even in the most brutally competitive market.
Three Action Items for Innovation Success
1. Learn how to create an unbreakable bond between your organization’s vision and the individual team members’ goals and desires.
Do you know the reason why your employees wake up every day and go to work, and where they want to take the organization? Can you tie the mission of the organization to the employee personas of your team members? Do you inspire them to reach higher?
2. Understand that charisma can be developed and honed like any other skill.
Don’t just whine and say, “Leaders are born, not made.” This is nonsense! You can learn how to exude a sense of enthusiasm and passion about what you do and why it matters. You can become a winning innovation leader if you work at it! But always be yourself. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs to inspire your people. The best leaders are charismatic by virtue of their authenticity in their sincere commitment to achieve innovation that matters.
3. Appreciate that your words and how you say them are how you articulate your vision to engage your team members.
This is critical to your success as an innovation leader. Your team members don’t care about making you rich or saving money. Your team members care about a beautiful vision that connects to their own personal goals and objectives. They want to make a difference. Be deliberate in how you use language to inspire your team.