Over the course of the last three years I have taken a massive deep dive into the world of Design Thinking (or Human Centred Design if it suits you). Specifically, I’ve been working on understanding how we can take a simple theory, combine it with Lean Startup Principles, and unlock the potential value in the grassroots of large organizations.
It’s more complex than that, but in essence that’s what Innovation Catalyst is all about: unlocking the potential in early stage ideas at the grassroots level of large organizations.
We’ve worked in healthcare, private sector, public sector, not-for-profits, at the community level, and one overwhelming theme has occurred over and over: We Aren’t Leaving Our Desks Anymore. And it’s a real problem.
Members of the 2018 ENWIN Innovation Catalyst cohort take part in a “ENnovation Day” brainstorming session at EPICentre
Here’s the challenge in a nutshell, as far as I can see it. From a very young age we are taught to see a problem and solve it, but not just solve it, solve it QUICKLY. And we are rewarded for that speed, or in adult terms “efficiency”.
Over time we get really good at this. We graduate grade levels in school, those that get really good at it get scholarships to go to prestigious Universities and we get harder and harder challenges to solve. We graduate and go into the workforce where we get a space to work from (continually changing albeit, but ours nonetheless), and we are tasked with solving a particular set of problems.
When we get really efficient at solving those problems we get promoted and get to solve bigger challenges that people bring to us. On surface this works well, problems get solved, people get paid, businesses make money, and away we go.
But when you dive deeper, as I have had the privilege of doing over the past three years, you confront the human challenges associated with this problem. They sound like this:
“If I could only fix the way this works I would love my job.”
“We’ve always done it this way why would we change?”
“I don’t understand why there isn’t better uptake on employee program X.”
“Why is our marketing campaign not working? We did everything we were supposed to do.”
“I’m the boss and I know best.”
These are the voices of the disconnected, and I can prove it.
After working with grassroots employees of 30+ organizations over the past three years I can clearly tell you the answer is to leave your desk and go talk to another human.
See, Empathy isn’t this soft buzzword, that by somehow harnessing it for a few weeks, makes you a better decision maker, or a better leader. It’s a business tool, that if left in the toolbox for too long rusts, and becomes forgotten.
But it requires a framework, leadership support, and most importantly, it needs time. It takes time to go out and visit your customers to understand what value you provide them, what makes their eyes pop, and to develop a good marketing campaign. It takes time to go person to person and ask them about their needs, and to develop an employee program people really want. It takes time to change the way a culture views a particular solution to a problem and to test a better way to do things. And it takes time to go to your manager and try to fix any problem as a grassroots employee, even if it saves the company money.
Members of our 2019 all-female Innovation Catalyst cohort, powered by Automate Canada, with funding support from Invest WindsorEssex through FedDev Ontario as part of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy.
For some reason we have become so obsessed with efficiency, that we forgot about building solutions that work well as opposed to building things that solve problems quickly.
I know, I know, we have businesses to run, and we could lose countless man hours exploring ideas that won’t ever work. I get there needs to be a sandbox to play in here.
So here are a few solutions to the Empathy Challenge that we have identified at a grassroots level that may even work higher up the hierarchy:
1. Build a Sandbox
Build a Sandbox, and show people where to go if they want to play in it.
For some this may be a team that works on operational efficiency, for others it may be town halls where people can come and pitch ideas that may make the company better and get placed with others to help solve that problem. It may be as simple as stating that it is in fact okay to leave your desk to meet others in the organization and try to fix something (trust me, even if you think it is, it is not common knowledge in most organizations). Or physically bringing your team out of their offices to meet others and see how they work – or more specifically to your end customers.
Either way, if your employees don’t know the path to leaving their desk, they never will.
2. Incentivize Managers to Enable Employees
This may feel like a no brainer, but it’s not.
Often times your best middle managers who move the needle, are the worst at staying in their offices, and can act as glass ceilings to solving meaningful problems. This can happen if they in fact don’t know the Sandbox or how to play in it (see “we’ve always done it this way stop complaining and make it happen…”), or simply if someone is a really good problem solver. However, one of the most interesting realizations I have had over the last few years is that managers rarely have meaningful incentives built into their job description to do this. There is no ‘50% of your job performance is on people development’ written into roles. If you want real change, incentivize it, and mean it.
3. Design Collision Days.
Make them internal collisions, where people can bring ideas and meet others from departments they otherwise would never meet. Make them external, and bring real customers in for your teams to meet with. Make them professional development opportunities, and bring in folks who are stimulating, and get people excited about problem solving.
4. Be Consistent.
There is NOTHING worse than the escalator to nowhere. Do not get your employees excited to only turn around and put their ideas on a map over the next five years, especially if it’s a simple fix. It will have the opposite effect on your culture, and only drive people back into their offices where they are the domain experts.
Empathy is about more than listening, it’s about action. It’s a deeply valuable business tool, that if harnessed will smash silos, enable a large portion of your employees to achieve more, and is likely going to solve a lot of challenges your business is currently facing.
The downside, it takes time, and might not be as efficient as sitting at your desk.
My advice, bet on your people. Enable them to be creative in finding solutions, adopt those solutions, and get people out from behind their desks.