Huffpost Business
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joan Michelson Headshot

Corporate America Needs to Get Out of Its Own Way

Posted: Updated:

Imagine being in the room when Grey Advertising's Amanda Zolten suggested to her colleagues that they use her cat's soiled litter box to pitch a new client. How many people laughed? Or rolled their eyes? Or even thought she'd be in trouble?

That's the problem. Corporate America is in its own way.

Every day, in a corporate meeting room when someone comes up with a "crazy" idea, someone else in the room snickers, or sighs deeply, or rolls their eyes, or gives "that look." No one wants to be laughed or scoffed at, especially by their coworkers, so when they do, that tells them to stop doing what caused it. That's why Corporate America has an innovation problem. Obsessed with controlling and measuring, corporate executives often forget that employees are people too.

Here are some suggestions for affecting what happens in the room:

1. Have performance review and compensation systems that support the behaviors and values you want. Do you incentivize "crazy ideas" and tolerate "mistakes"?

2. Keep attention on the collective goals.

3. Eliminate (or reduce) fear. Fear kills creativity and innovation. How many successful entrepreneurs are described as "fearless"? As executive coach Robert MacPhee says, "People are invested in being comfortable, and to do things differently they have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable breeds fear, and fear makes people shut down, but being uncomfortable also opens us up to all sorts of new possible solutions and actions."

One way to breed fearlessness is to take a page from Grey Advertising and think about a "Heroic Failure award for taking a big, edgy risk," or SurePayroll's "Best New Mistake" award, as described in the Wall Street Journal in September 2011.

4. Be vigilant about enforcing a "zero tolerance" policy for ridicule, including subtle, non-verbal ridicule (the rolling of eyes, snickers, "coughing" or "that look"). Empower all levels to take a stand against people who ridicule others' ideas.

5. Model constructive, respectful debate at the top. Observe yourself and your top team when you're brainstorming or discussing different strategies, because you're modeling how to treat people -- at all levels. Healthy debate results in better solutions.

6. Use humor. Humor deflates the tension in the room and breeds comaraderie. Studies show there's a positive chemical response in the body when people smile and laugh. It makes it easier to disagree without being disagreeable, defuses tough moments and opens the space for progress.

In today's fast-paced world, great ideas come from everyone, especially the good folks on the front lines interfacing with the market and the products directly (e.g. customer service, sales, call center workers). Yet, the input from these people is often dismissed.

Diane Tremblay, General Motors' Chief Manufacturing Officer, led the transformation at GM by bringing all levels into the process. She was proud that you couldn't tell who was what level in their negotiations between management, unions, and assembly-line workers. In a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment called "The Big Three's Dramatic U-turn" by Lee Cowan, Tremblay said, "You wouldn't be able to tell who was an hourly worker and who was a salary worker, who was UAW-represented, who wasn't, who was inside, who was outside. It's all one team."

"But it was a sacrifice that signaled a change in attitude between labor and management -- from confrontation to cooperation -- that (UAW President Bob) King credits for saving the U.S. auto industry as a whole," Cowan reported.

"I hope people look at the auto industry as a model of what should be happening across America," King. said. "Here's government, and management, business, labor and community all working together. And look at the results: everybody is further ahead."

GM employee Carl Montrose said "Instead of just pushing numbers, we're pushing quality and really doing a lot of the right things," said Montrose. "There's still a lot of folks that are having a hard time adjusting to the new system, because they're still nervous that, you know, if you do the right thing you're going to get in trouble because it might stop production, slow production down, and it's really not that way anymore. Now it's about getting a good car out."

Employees are overwhelmed, eager to fit in and be accepted, eager to have their bosses and others' approval and desperately afraid of losing their jobs.

Therefore, management needs to make sure its performance review and compensation systems are aligned with the behaviors they want and values the organization reflects - because employees "follow the money" as Tom Cruise famously said in the movie Jerry McGuire. Management also needs to create a culture where it's safe to present "crazy" ideas, including a zero tolerance for ridicule and dismissiveness. It's about what happens in the room.

Fortunately, someone at Grey Advertising realized this and gave Amanda Zolten their Heroic Failure Award before they knew whether her soiled litter box idea won the client.

Ms. Michelson is a communications expert writing a book on innovation.

Grey Advertising's Amanda Zolten and her Heroic Failure Award