Empowerment, Engagement, and Creativity – the Essence of Innovation

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

Empowerment, Engagement, and Creativity Drive Your Innovation Potential

Innovation is needed for sustained competitive excellence in today’s world of work, but so many teams and organizations struggle to sustain improvement, let alone innovation. What we often fail to recognize is that empowerment, engagement, and creativity levels are the essence of innovation.

Most work systems are not designed to promote high, sustained levels of empowerment, let alone engagement and creativity. This post explores the connection between these three factors and innovation rates. More importantly, it includes concrete work system design changes to help you move towards realizing higher levels of innovation across your organization.

Empowerment Gives People the Chance to Contribute

What percent of your team, let alone your organization, is truly empowered to help make a difference? In too many companies, most people show up, do their job (which is often tightly controlled and limited in scope), and go home. The reason General Electric, Allied Signal, and Motorola succeeded with their Six Sigma initiatives, while others failed to replicate that success, is that they designed their work systems to consistently empower an ultrahigh percentage of their workforce.

Do the math. You can’t generate innovation after innovation unless you give people more freedom to learn, work with others, and in general, expand their work horizons. Ideally, enhancing and expanding empowerment levels is part of your leadership development process, strategic plan, capital and expense budgets, and ultimately, your culture. All too often, leadership egos and actions keep great ideas from spawning into innovations.

DISCOVER MORE: In Search of Innovation

Do Your Job Designs, Measures, and Compensation Plans Encourage Empowerment?

I was fortunate to learn early on in my career that empowerment works because everyone is great at something. I worked in companies where leaders were expected to both be part of improvement teams and let others lead those teams. Doing so was part of their job description, and they were evaluated relative to those defined expectations.

More importantly, leaders must be taught how, and required to, let people make decisions that lead to consistent customer delight. “I’ll have to check with my supervisor” is not heard very often in a truly empowered organization. This does not happen by chance, however. The opportunity to contribute must be built into your job descriptions, your performance measures, and your compensation plan designs.

When given the chance, people will make the right choices and do great things. How well is your company built to support, encourage, and reward empowerment? A suggestion box is not enough. In fact, suggestion boxes are often the kiss of death when it comes to empowerment and innovation potential. Simply put, our jobs, processes, and systems aren’t designed to effectively evaluate, let alone install, all of the great ideas that such an approach initially generates. All too often, the exact opposite is the case. Expectations for change get raised, and then are smashed.

Engagement Gives People a Reason to Contribute

How many of your people care about their jobs beyond the paychecks that go into their bank accounts? How many of your people are willing to go the extra mile to help make the organization better? What percentage of your staff will bounce as soon as a better job offer comes along? Engagement won’t happen just because the word is part of a mission statement or the biggest word in the company’s word bubble poster.

Engagement happens when people feel like their leaders care about both them and their ideas. The systems necessary for true empowerment drive the potential for engagement, but every leader has to support those systems. They have to consistently treat their people with respect and encourage people to truly make a difference. Empowerment and engagement effectiveness must be included in your core measures of leadership effectiveness and assessed regularly using formal and informal methods.

EXPLORE MORE: How to Measure Employee Ownership

Keep in mind that engagement goes way beyond ‘mere’ satisfaction. Effective engagement results in people who are willing to serve as advocates for the organization, its mission, and its values. Retention rates, absenteeism rates, and idea submission rates are all indicators. Jobs have to be designed to provide access to multiple vehicles for engagement. Perhaps more importantly, leaders must be taught how to perform their jobs in a manner that encourages involvement in such vehicles.

Creativity Turns Great Ideas into an Innovations

How many of your people are creative? In reality, that percentage is much higher than one thinks, but all too often, the ‘prevailing system of management’ has hamstrung our ability to be creative. As Dr. Deming once said, “The forces of destruction begin with toddlers.” We put people into boxes and expect them to stay there. We fail to effectively empower our people to try new things, do things differently, and learn and contribute in ways that they never thought possible in a workplace.

Creativity is more encouraged and enabled versus taught. Skills for enhancing one’s creativity are readily available, but such skills are not encouraged as often as they should be. Even when they are encouraged and developed, restrictive work systems, and overly restrictive leadership practices, prevent people from putting their ideas to work. How often is creativity recognized and rewarded in your company? How often is creativity expected as part of one’s job description?

LEARN MORE: A Matter of Job Ownership

Eight Concrete System Changes to Help Foster Empowerment, Engagement, and Creativity – the Essence of Innovation

Several systematic changes to help foster the growth of these three concepts are sprinkled among the above paragraphs. Here is a summarized list to help you create a structured plan for changing your workplace into one that wants innovation to occur regularly, versus one that only hopes it happens:

Benchmark those companies who have demonstrated the ability to effectively empower and engage their workforce. Recipients of the Malcom Baldrige Quality Award provide one great source of ideas in these areas, as the criteria are designed to recognize companies who systematically empower and engage their staff for the purpose of driving excellence and innovation. Study their system designs and avoid reinventing the wheel.

Redesign jobs to provide time for formal empowerment and engagement activities. Workplace job descriptions and expense budgets include time for formal empowerment activities in high performing companies. Systematic empowerment examples include process improvement teams, pre-shift work group meetings, focus groups (safety committees, recognition teams, and planning teams), and company-sponsored volunteerism.

Use social media, intranet pages, and other technology to provide ways for all team members to share ideas and build relationships. Your 21stcentury company bulletin boards can come in many forms. More importantly, they can be designed to help facilitate high levels of two-way communication. The people who do the work are your best sources for identifying process improvement ideas and existing process barriers, so give them an effective way to share their ideas and provide ‘bottom up’ feedback on a regular basis.

Build formal skills training with an empowerment, engagement, and creativity focus into all jobs. Most formal education people receive in life offers little on how to develop in these three areas. Common ‘best practice’ training topics include managing group dynamics, facilitating group events, understanding communication styles, and creativity and innovation enhancement. What percentage of your staff has these skills included in their competency maps?

Measure empowerment, engagement, and creativity levels at least annually as part of a formal engagement survey. Too many companies are conducting culture / satisfaction / engagement surveys on a less frequent basis, such as every other year. Their reasoning is often based on cost versus the low level of change experienced between annual surveys. Today’s technology however allows short, pop-up surveys to be conducted quite frequently, and the low rate of change problem is often more of a ‘no time for projects’ job design issue.

Include measures of leadership support in your annual survey. What gets measured, gets done. Formally measuring leadership support using bottom-up feedback from each leader’s team has been proven to drive change. Check out the Survey-Feedback-Action process used by FedEx for a great systems model. Adding a Leadership Index to your annual assessment offers one way to obtain such measures.

Formally recognize anyone who contributes to meaningful process change. What percentage of your workforce receives formal recognition for their contributions each year? How effective are your formal recognition approaches from your internal customer’s perspective? Formal recognition plans must be assessed and improved over time as well in order to maintain their effectiveness. They must also be supported by the use of daily, consistent, and meaningful informal recognition from leaders at all levels.

Stop using processes that discourage empowerment, engagement, and creativity. ‘One winner’ recognition programs such as ‘Employee of the Month’ discourage more people than they positively motivate. Similarly, tolerating poor performance, compensating only a few people for the work of many, and failing to provide skill development paths to all staff are also guaranteed ways to drive down empowerment, engagement, and creativity levels.

Other work system improvement options also exist – this is by no means an exhaustive list. Feel free to contact me with your thoughts and questions on these topics.

Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

WEBSITE: www.greatsystems.com            EMAIL: kevin@greatsystems.com

FOLLOW me on Twitter: @greatsystems

LIKE Great Systems on Facebook

CONNECT with me on LinkedIn