Monday, September 20, 2010

Fostering a spirit of innovation: A necessity today...

While reading Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management, this paragraph drew my attention (there are other equally and even more memorable passages in this iconoclastic and must read book) for a reason. I will expand on that shortly but thought it worth citing the paragraph first.

 “When in your life have you felt the most joyful and the most energized by work? … Whatever the particulars of that episode in your life, I bet it involved people who were bound by their devotion to a common cause, who were undeterred by a lack of resources and by a lack of expertise, and who cared more about what they could accomplish together than how credit would be apportioned.”

This reminded me of an event that took place a few weeks ago. Bay decoration! A very mundane event that HR usually organizes in all organizations in a bid to demonstrate their attempt at engaging employees, “providing” for fun at the workplace and other such piffling stuff that no one really takes seriously. Everyone knows HR has to tick this event off on their to-do list of the year. 

However, this time it was different for our team.

Even in retrospect, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened and how did the chemistry occur but occur it did. On the morning of this event, the team was galvanized into action. Everyone participated. I with another colleague, committed to creating origami frogs and fish to decorate the bay, the theme being monsoon mela or something similar. None of us knew how to create either and after a few futile attempts and wasted glazed papers, we went to the ubiquitous Google. (We were undeterred by our complete lack of expertise!) And we found out the steps and executed a decent handful of fishy looking fish and frogs that leaped when pressed. One of the team members painted some of these to represent toads. Others got busy creating clouds out of thermocol sheets and some painted trees. Ideas cropped up from nowhere and were included in the execution plan. We ended up with a pond that held ducks and origami fish and bits and pieces of other stuff. A thermocol umbrella held pride of place with names of team members scripted on it. Raindrops graced the display wall with shimmers added for that “authentic” touch. And all of this took us (a team of about 12 folks) less than 3 hours. From scratch to end…It may not have been the most artistic decoration. I am sure the fish could have been more accurate and the clouds a better shade of grey; the mushrooms larger or smaller…Matters not! 

What amazed me was the perfect creative energy that flowed. In an absolutely unplanned series of activities, it was astonishing that there was no conflict. No one bickered about their tasks. We just naturally flowed to where we could contribute best. Even if it meant cleaning up the mess—and believe me, that was the toughest job. Have you ever tried to remove tiny shreds of thermocol and glazed paper from a carpeted floor with bare hands? Innovation stepped in here too, and the team members resorted to using cardboard pieces as makeshift brooms. 

No management; no focus on efficiency or resource allocation; no planning, controlling, organizing and directing…None of the regular 20th Century Drcuker-Taylor stuff could have engendered this spirit. 

The words and phrases that occurred to me as I reflected on this are:
1. Unbridled creativity
2. Cooperation
3. Perfect collaboration
4. Spontaneity
5. True spirit of innovation

Since then, I have often reflected on that event and how and why does it make me want to recreate that environment. Since then, I have wondered and dreamed of a workplace that would thrum with such energy and vivacity everyday; where work would be fun—fun in the true sense that inspires creativity and innovation, supports passion and collaboration.
As I read Hamel’s book, I realize that such a workplace will indeed be a necessity of the future—a future that is changing faster than change, where planning and organizing will become immaterial as the unexpected takes over. You may argue, if you are entrenched in the precepts of management that feeds on controlling and allocation and directing—power in short, that such activities are wasteful and contributes nothing to the bottom line. I would vehemently disagree. I am not supporting bay decoration but the spirit that it fostered. 

Today’s management, if they wish to build a competitive edge, need to foster that spirit through strategies and actions that reward creativity, provides space for innovation, and does not enforce employees to become automatons. Automatons can neither be passionate nor committed, zealous and zestful, innovative and enthusiastic.
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