What do you do when you realize your team ISN’T that great?

Managers that I’ve worked with love to do one of two things when discussing their team and its members:

  • Praise the hell out of them and talk about how they’re the “best team in the biz” (80 percent of the time, which is nice!)
  • Throw them under the bus and talk about how they need to get X-Person off the bus (20 percent)

Those numbers are approximate, of course.

The fact is, you manage a team of individuals. They have strengths and weaknesses, capabilities and limitations. In short? They are human.

They’re probably not the best team in the biz — and they’re probably not the worst. Again, it’s all good.

But what should you do when you realize this full-on? 

Not everyone in your organization will be innovative — or Steve Jobs

Here’s an article from UVA entitled “What if your organization isn’t full of geniuses like Steve Jobs?” In reality? It probably is not. The post is by George Barbee, who wrote this book about innovation and learning. Here’s kind of the “big idea” of everything:

This is what  innovative learning  can be all about — discovering these practical, experience-proven nuggets and making them your own.

Yep. I agree there. Concepts like “learning” and “innovation” and other business terms can often seem fluffy or pie-in-the-sky. In reality, it kinda works like this:

  • An organization has goals
  • People in the organization have individual goals
  • An organization has products and ‘talents’ that make it money
  • People have talents and capabilities
  • You want to align Bullet 1 with Bullet 2, and Bullet 3 with Bullet 4
  • That’s the pathway to ‘innovative’ thinking and clear, clarity-focused management
  • This can be true even if you have a bunch of dolts in your company

I have some additional thoughts on all this, so let’s lay ’em out.

The role of management in innovation

Here’s what Barbee says:

At the top of an organization, it is important to realize that many employees throughout the organization possess this capability and that it’s simply a matter of encouraging, training and unlocking it.

I don’t think I could agree with that more if I tried. Organizational breakthroughs can come from anywhere — and often do — even though the attitude of most senior leaders is something like this:

  • I paid my dues!
  • I have formal power!
  • I have industry/organizational knowledge!
  • Nothing happens without me driving it!

Even if that is your attitude, here’s a new, financially-centric way to conceptualize employees and innovation:

  • Our company’s goal is to make money and generate revenue and growth
  • In exchange, we part with some of that money to pay people for tasks
  • In the process of working on those tasks, those people might encounter better ways to build mousetraps
  • We should listen to those mousetrap ideas
  • Those ideas might make us more money
  • Since we’re senior leadership, anytime we make more money, more of it goes to us anyway!

See how that simple that was? It’s just about listening and coaching. It’s not about protecting your place in the hierarchy.

Is there really such a thing as a ‘bad employee?’

I’ve become fascinated with this in the last couple of months. 2015 was a rough year for me, and I got canned, right? I think a lot of people at my old org — and probably some of my friends — assume that I was a bad employee, and many times I’ve thought that about myself too. I started doing some reading on it and came to this prevailing mentality that, in fact, there probably isn’t such a thing as a “bad employee.”

Rather, there are people with talents and abilities in the wrong fit.

Think about it: someone could totally stink up the joint at one company, and have everyone hate them, right? Then they move to a company in the same industry and they’re a superstar high-performer. This stuff happens a lot. But how does it happen?

Because the first company was a bad fit, and the second company was not. So, the employee could shine more in the second company. It’s fairly simple logic.

This is the same way to think about ‘innovation’ on teams: not every single member of your team is Bill Gates Junior, no. But everyone God (or whatever deity you believe in) puts on Earth has some talents. Even Ted Bundy had talents. Hitler had talents (heck, Hitler was quite good at marketing). The talents are there. It might be the ‘innovation’ or ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ we all seem to deify, but it’s something.

Find it.

Bring it out.

That’s what managing and leading is about — team energy, not necessarily team performance.

If your team isn’t innovative, can you maximize their performance towards innovation?

Sure. I think it’s possible. Here would be the factors, IMHO:

  • Foster a culture of curiosity: Most managers want heads-down target chasers; if you create a culture where it’s OK to go off and work on other tangential-to-work things, you’ll find some real breakthroughs.
  • Foster a culture of self-awareness:  I have this joke with my therapist (odd) about a lot of work cultures, whereby this is the model you follow:
  • Step 1 is define what success will look like. (Good!)
  • Step 2 is figure out how to measure success. (Still good!)
  • Step 3 is worry more about tasks and deliverables than the actual idea. (Not as good)
  • Step 4 is find a metric that loosely proves you were still successful, and report that to everyone! (“PR Impressions” or “Facebook shares!”)
  • Rinse and repeat.

That’s how a lot of places are, and it totally rips self-awareness or real conversations out of anything. As a result, you get a bunch of heads-down Cubicle Jockeys who won’t question anything. That means the company keeps doing the same things they understand and the bosses like. They get stagnant. That’s the opposite of innovation. So, uh, don’t do that.

That seems to be ‘easier said than done,’ though, yes?
How do ‘not do’ something that is inherent to the DNA of most companies, i.e. following the bosses’ will and not questioning a thing? There are small steps you can take. Consider, for example:

  • Fire yourself: Not literally, no. But sit down and talk about what you did badly in a quarter. You definitely missed a deadline or a target. We all do. But rather than bottling it all up for a once-a-year performance review, how about we get that stuff out in the open and learn/build from it? A culture where it’s ‘safe’ to do that is certainly going to be more friendly to ‘innovation,’ you’d imagine.
  • Talk openly about failure: Doesn’t happen often. In fact, failure is something a lot of people don’t discuss — along with sex and salaries, and those three things explain a lot of your life. Create a culture of transparency. Allow people to discuss failure. You cannot grow and learn and innovate unless you understand that failing is perfectly OK. If you want to maximize your team to do things that will please your boss (which is the hidden goal of most managers), you need to let them know not pleasing people is also fine — so long as you learn, grow, and (hopefully) innovate from it.
  • Rethinking questions: Many people at work like to approach the idea of ‘questions’ from a fraught place, either as “Why don’t you know?” (belittling a person) or “Why did such-and-such happen in this way?” (accusatory). Neither of those styles leads to growth and innovation. Questions should be about purpose, clarity, goals, priorities, etc. They shouldn’t be a defense mechanism. At offices, they usually are.

The big picture on innovation in a work team

Not everyone will be innovative. Not everyone will be brilliant. Most people will, frankly, be middle-of-the-road. But you can still maximize that to goals, ROI, results, metrics, etc. You just need to think a little bit differently and confront some honesty — instead of rushing around screeching about how amazing your team is (with no metrics to back it up) or how awful your team is and how you need new headcount (ditto).



My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.


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