Layers and Lines: Barriers to Corporate Innovation

This contentious election cycle has drawn unprecedented focus on the character of the candidates. What are the qualities that make a leader good or bad? Historian Robert Stauss has a pretty sharp answer in his new book, titled Worst. President. Ever. He says it comes down to one big skill: decision-making.

“The attribute you want most in a president is decisiveness,” Strauss said in an interview with the University of Pennsylvania. “No matter what you think, even liberals have to acknowledge that Ronald Reagan was decisive. You might not have liked what he did, but he said he was going to do it and he did it. Lincoln was certainly the same way.”  

I couldn’t agree more with Strauss about the importance of decision-making, and it’s no less significant when you frame it in a corporate context. We’ve all experienced the bewildering process of decisions being run up the flagpole, strangling the flagpole, unraveling and come back down, months behind schedule and resembling nothing like what they started out as. I believe inept decision-making is one of the biggest barriers to innovation in the workplace.

The traditional hierarchy, with its layers and layers of managers, is partly to blame. Many companies are flattening in this post-recession era as the result of massive layoffs and the elimination of mid-level managers, yet the problems persist because the layers have just turned into lines of decisions to be made by a small few. In this world of overwhelming information and accelerated change, that structure doesn’t work.

The only answer is empowering more people to make decisions. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to make a good decision within an organization. It takes some training and definitely some trust, but it is the only way to innovate at scale.

I’ll give you a personal example. Several years ago, I worked on a project with a  television news website. I had been exposed to fast-paced environments before, but the incredible pace of the media was really eye-opening. My work had me spending a lot of time with the top boss, who was largely absent from the newsroom while the project was underway. But she never worried about what her staffers were doing because she had empowered each and every one of them to make editorial decisions. This empowerment was driven partly by the speed in which news breaks. Decisions need to be made carefully and quickly. There is simply no time to run every single thing up that pesky flagpole. The key is to hire smart journalists and trust them to do their thing. The benefit is that by letting them do their thing, they also come up with great, innovative ideas along the way. Many of those ideas were implemented into the project, so the end result was something that the employees felt more invested in.

Executive educator and coach, Marshall Goldsmith wrote about the importance of empowering employees for the Harvard Business Review:

“Your employees understand their jobs. They know their tasks, roles, and functions within the organization, and it’s time for you to let them do what they need to do to get the job done. But there is a critical point that is often missed: It isn’t possible for a leader to ’empower’ someone to be accountable and make good decisions. People have to empower themselves. Your role is to encourage and support the decision-making environment and to give employees the tools and knowledge they need to make and act upon their own decisions. By doing this, you help your employees reach an empowered state.”

Perhaps you are a manager who can’t make wholesale changes right now, but I would challenge you that there are many things you CAN do right now to help bring your employees to a more empowered state. Take a cue from this election and start democratizing the process a bit. Ease off the notion that decisions must be top-down and give over some control to the team.

In this time of leaner, meaner work environments, we’re all dealing with the daily frustrations of doing more with less. And for the vast majority of workers, their Herculean efforts are not reflected in their pay raises. They need to feel ownership in what they are doing, they need to feel entrusted, and they need your support. Your reward as a manager will be a workplace where ideas are shared, creativity is sparked and innovation flows.

Before I leave you, I just want to circle back to Strauss’ book on the worst president ever. He gives that title to James Buchanan, our 15th president. Strauss describes him as a “waffler” whose poor decision-making skills led to divisiveness, political upheaval, and the Civil War. Yowza! Strauss even jokes that perhaps Abraham Lincoln, who was elected after Buchanan, is regarded as one of the best presidents because the bar was set pretty low. The takeaway here is, don’t be a James Buchanan. Think about what you can do to effect positive change and set your business on a path toward greater innovation.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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