“I’m from head office, and I’m here to help”

“I’m from head office, and I’m here to help”

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Plan A

Encouraging Innovation

The original quote was “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, famously stated by President Ronald Reagan referencing the view held by some people that the government, in general, is incredibly inefficient in everything that they do – sometimes to such a degree that their attempts to help end up actively harming instead. 

Some think the same holds true of the corporate head office.

I was reading an article recently about the BBC in the UK, titled ‘Who will save the BBC from itself?’. It tells the story of an R&D team that had managed to preserve its eccentric brilliance “despite corporate changes, as it was far from prying management”. The key was that the team worked from a location well away from the reach of head office. The author wrote “over the years I’ve studied three ambitious BBC technology projects where in each case, a small but highly expert technical team saved the management from their own vanity. Other parts of the BBC, embarrassed by this success, then worked hard to sabotage it”.

Thank goodness that kind of thing wouldn’t happen here…

I recall two occasions after joining large, well known corporates discovering groups of people furtively beavering away in their own time developing innovations.

In one case I was approached in the street by a woman tasked by her co-collaborators with asking me to sponsor their work as they ‘thought I was an executive they could trust wouldn’t kill off their projects’ (in a company with industry leading employee engagement scores I might add). In another, during a walk-about in an office after knock-off, I came across a young engineer working on a software development which turned out to be something his manager knew about, but which they had been keeping secret from previous leadership because they didn’t want it ‘killed off’ (the latter was evolved into an App later sold to their client).

Another example is an IT team whose security people had developed a global first in credit card security, which the marketing team had decided not to market because it “didn’t fit with the company slogan”. This shows how bureaucracy can arise in unexpected places, creating fixed views which are at odds with the need for a business to flex and focus on customer outcomes (here I use Webster’s definition of bureaucracy as “a system of administration marked by officialism…”). The brand slogan was removed (amongst other things), and the innovation was ultimately commercialised.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the people who come up with these innovations is how much they care – often their workarounds are so that they can do their jobs better – despite hurdles their own organisations put in their way. 

There is a popular saying among people who aren’t fond of consultants that “a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time”. What is often overlooked is that the reason consultants borrow managers’ metaphorical watches is that the managers haven’t been looking at them. Good consultants know that both the real issues and the solutions in many businesses can be discovered by talking with people at or near the ‘coalface’ – people who more often than not have developed workarounds to ensure they can do their jobs despite problems in the business (be they systems, software, applications, operational ‘workarounds’ or something else). What these people do is just another example of people in businesses innovating, away from the scrutiny of management.

The Plan A team often discover these sorts of people and innovations when working with a business to develop winning tender submissions. As we work with a business to understand their stories in areas such as social outcomes, relevant experience and track record, or in interviewing their people for CV preparation, we come across great stories of how people within a business have just ‘got on with it’ and created their own solutions. 

The designation “skunkworks” is often used to describe a group within an organisation given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects (Skunk Works being the official pseudonym for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs, famously responsible for producing the design for the P-38 Lightning in record time in 1939). But skunkworks don’t have to be ‘advanced’ or ‘secret’ work. Many Quality Systems have a continuous improvement component – which businesses can build on by bringing out those people creating innovations or workarounds and empowering them to help spread the benefit of what they have created. There is benefit in harnessing this power to innovate, while ‘protecting’ it from the bureaucracy which caused it to hide in the first place. 

Make them heroes.