There is a bush growing on a branch of a pine tree in our backyard. Though we weren’t present when it happened, we imagine that a seed from a bush alighted on the pine tree branch, found a comfy little nook and took sprout. We noticed the “growth” this past summer: a completely different set of needles (denser, darker, a completely different shape) growing UP from the branch. At first it was a novelty – the “hmm, that’s interesting, let’s see what happens” sort of novelty. It’s doing quite well on the branch. Getting bigger, heavier, more lush…
From an organizational perspective, new growth should be happening all the time: a new product is developed, a new hire introduces a novel approach, a team is formed around an innovative idea. Each of these early buds takes a good deal of energy to get formed and start growing but they each have a chance to develop into a sturdy branch of their own and provide sustenance back to the core.
The bush in our tree is not that kind of growth. Our tree unwittingly gave this seed an opportunity to use its resources for its own gain without any hope of returning the favor. This too happens in organizations all the time and to remain strong, here are a few tips for staying vigilant:
1. The “Let’s Try It!” Attitude: Don’t be afraid to try new things. Innovation stems from a “let’s try it” attitude where staff at all levels of the organization can spot an opportunity and nurture it to fruition. HOWEVER – many a novel idea has grown unchecked and done significant damage to its host organization. Indeed, just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Avoid unchecked, damaging growth by having a clear business plan for the idea including a defined market, confirmed market need, launch budget, project roles, milestones, metrics and kill criteria. (Which brings me to my next tip)
2. “Let’s Kill It!” Resolve: An organization I worked with had “Let’s Try It!” as one of their 10 corporate values. The eleventh value (that they didn’t inscribe on the plaque but practiced almost religiously) was their “Let’s Kill It” resolve. This is an extremely healthy environment for innovation. People throughout the organization knew that ideas were welcome and that trying them (see Tip #1) was encouraged. They also knew that if the idea didn’t contribute to organizational success, they would be rewarded for responsibly identifying that fact and shutting it down. With clear cultural support for this cycle, morale is preserved to a greater degree when things “don’t work out”. Responsible risk is accepted, responsible failure is tolerated. The whippings only begin when the business foundation isn’t there to support the decision process. Combine Tips #1 and 2 for best results.
3. Decide and Deliver: Be clear about your core, be clear about realistic market potential, create and abide by decision criteria for new initiatives. Most importantly, ensure that every decision maker in the organization understands and abides by those criteria. (Combine Tips #1, 2 and 3 for best results)
The bush in our tree is thriving. The pine tree itself may not even be suffering any noticeable damage yet. But the bush needs water and its roots are burrowing into that branch and as it grows it will strain the branch – maybe even break it. And then the tree will be exposed at the break and be without the protection and sustenance it was receiving from that branch. Trying new things is NEVER a bad idea. But letting them drain energy from existing resources – time, energy, people, systems – without a solid plan and a supportive culture – will damage your core every time.