Innovation: How Silence is Killing Your Organization

Memo to the CEO:

You tell me that you want your business to be more innovative. That it is necessary to free the energies of your collaborators, to transform your organization into an enterprise 2.0 or 3.0, to adopt a startup spirit, and what not. You seem to be enjoying the stories of Google, 3M, Apple of course, just like you liked to hear childhood’s tales. Again and again. Fascinating and moving. You say innovation is a strategic pillar. It is in the foreword of your annual report, illustrated with nice pictures with children. For children are the future. You organize creativity seminars, you set up ideas boxes, you also set up an innovation cell, hosted in a loft with designer furniture, and of course you open a Lab. You assure me that innovation is a priority. At least that’s what your managers are telling me. But this is not true.

About your managers. I work with them in executive courses and they have to write a dissertation at the end of their program. They are rather brilliant I have to say. You are lucky, or more exactly, you obviously know how to choose them and it is to your credit. Knowledgeable, intelligent, and often deeply attached to your organization. With the will to do well, and tools to do so: Their will and talent, and the tools and concepts we give them. All or almost all of them, and I see many. They are, really, beyond words, your capital.

And yet they are terribly frustrated. For what do you do with your ‘capital’? You control it. You’re watching them. You limit their autonomy. You spend dozens, even hundreds of thousands of euros to select the best, to recruit them, to train them. And what do they occupy most of their time with? Reporting and subordinates control. On average, they tell me they spend 30% of their time monitoring or reporting, by far their main activity. And sometimes more than that. And it is rising. Thirty percent! Why? Because you don’t trust anybody.

The perfect manager according to the boss
The perfect manager according to the boss

And all this in silence. I no longer count end-of-course projects that generate an exciting discussion about a company and produce a lucid diagnostic of its strategic issues – such as lack of innovation-, as well as bold proposals to remedy them. But when the time comes to write the memoir, it is impossible to write all this in black and white. “Because I cannot write that” says the manager. It can not be said. With each writing of memoir it is the same thing: Does not it bother me if one muddles the diagnostic, softens the tone and waters down the proposal? “You understand, it’s risky for me if I write this” I am told. Well, no, it does not bother me of course. It would be idiotic to think that six months of work by an intelligent manager could serve any other purpose than to align a few self-satisfied and harmless cliches, would it not?

The truth is, your company is an organization of fear and silence, where an intelligent manager, you recruit them for that, who often knows much better than you do about its strategic issues, has no right to say things as they are. Because basically, a tacit pact was passed within your company long ago. Concerned about your tranquility, from the top of the tower that houses your headquarters, you demand above all silence. This silence, you buy it with the rent you still get -but for how long? – from the innovations you did long ago. And that way, everybody is happy. Or almost everybody.

Almost, for sometimes one of your managers, more courageous or crazier, who knows, takes some initiative. Pushes a project. Takes risks. Oh, risk! Of course if it works, he or she will be immediately joined by an enthusiastic community of colleagues who will fall on him/her like a swarm of flies to take over the operation that had escaped their predatory gaze. If this does not work, however, the manager will be banned forever and condemned to eat his cabbage alone at the canteen for years to come. I knew a company that had once launched a major innovation project. This had been a total failure. Well I did not manage to find a single person in the company that had worked on it. No one! The project was done on its own. Oh, I was told there was a consultant, but he was not working with us anymore. Of course. Silence.

Trust them

So if I summarize: you are spending fortunes to recruit smart people, then you make them spend 30% of their time reporting to you and controlling their subordinates. You forbid them to speak. And if, unfortunately, one of them tries to do something new and does not succeed, this failure will remain as a stigma for the rest of his life within the organization. If he stays of course. And with all that, you tell me to want to innovate? Are you kidding me?

There is no easy solution to ingrained lack of trust in the very people you recruit and manage. So, let’s be blunt: clear the way. Let your employees go on with their job. They know more than you do. They are now over-educated. Over-connected. Over-creative. More in touch with the customers than you ever will (if you still know what a customer is; how long ago did you last talk to a real customer of yours?). I am always amazed by the number of intelligent ideas that any employee of your organization can have in ten minutes of discussion, and by their degree of lucidity on its situation. So let them talk. You really want to forbid something? So forbid silence, that silence that kills your organization like it killed socialist Czechoslovakia* and so many “well-run” businesses. And kick out your strategists in short pants and tie, they are useless; Strategists, real ones, you have them by the thousands and they are already working for you. They are even more attached to your business than you, who are often merely a mercenary. Let them get organized. Trust them. Who will believe that they can not control themselves, if you really want control, in less than ten minutes a day? Is there any sense of the waste of the 30% or more devoted to control? Get out! Goodbye!

* The story of how silence killed socialist Czechoslovakia is told by Nobel Prize winner Vaclav Havel in “The power of the powerless”.

Leave a Reply