When I engage my clients I always have a notebook at hand so I can write down notes and observations. At the end of every week and month I review all pages to see if there are any recurring patterns emerging. It is a simple, yet rewarding practice.

Situation

In one case I noticed following:

  • Senior managers were complaining to me how whenever they try to innovate people are submitting ideas that are “uninspiring”, “too out there”, or “lack any appreciation for our strategy.” They felt like they were wasting time reviewing all these ideas.

  • Innovators at various levels were complaining to me how their ideas were shot down without any reason, even though they are basing their proposal on their rich experience and view of how their industry should look like in the future. They felt like they were ignored and have wasted time submitting ideas.

Something was amiss, and I decided to investigate further. After obtaining the strategy documents I could see that roughly half of the ideas weren't in the same direction. Innovators weren't the only to blame, since the document itself was (a) quite vague, and (b) difficult to obtain.

Frustration aside, this mismatch was resulting in a real waste. Strategies and ideas don’t manifest out of thin air. People put time, effort, creativity, and themselves into it. No one should work on something that stands no chance of being supported.

Intervention

Good news were that the situation was easy to fix. Here are the interventions I’ve undertaken:

  • Work with management to refine their strategy. Both content and language are important. Content-wise, we had sound strategic analyses from before, so most of the effort went to make sure everybody is aligned. Language-wise, we've eliminated all contradictory statements, replaced passive voice with active, and increased the number of verbs.

  • Repeatedly test the strategy for comprehension. Those that write strategy often forget they have much more context than those who have to read and use it. That’s why we tested if people at different parts of the organisation have the same understanding. This led to further refinements.

  • Training both management and innovators in using strategy as a filter. We had a simple guideline: before any work is done on the idea it should be checked if it is aligned with strategy. If not it shouldn't be considered further. Management shouldn't spend time in order to figure out what the idea is about, and innovator shouldn't spend time writing eleven ideas that have nothing to do with where the company wants to go.

  • Increased transparency of the idea-handling process. Innovators put time and effort into submitting ideas, and that must be respected. We introduced a simple system where innovators could check the status of their idea. If it was rejected they'd know why.

Results

Above didn't take long, and results were immediately visible:

  • More relevant ideas were submitted. Both total number of ideas submitted and a percentage of ideas passing the strategic filter increased. Former saw roughly 30% increase, while later went from roughly 50% to almost 90%.

  • Quality of ideas went up. Once strategy was clear and understandable it provided boundaries that innovators could probe. Proposals were sharper and more specific.

  • Innovators felt more respected. Even though some ideas were still rejected, since the process was transparent people felt like their idea has been treated justly.

Garbage in, garbage out

Although I’ve focused on innovation, process above applies to all initiatives within the organisation.

Strategy can be a powerful filter, but won't be of much help if it is poorly thought through, unintelligible, and inaccessible to the intended users.

Clever employees can make almost anything work, but that is no excuse for poor strategy work.