By Tanja Yardley

A wise innovation mentor recently said something that stirred reflection for me. He said, “The American Industrial Revolution has done a great disservice to us. It shifted the context of the hiring process to considering humans as units of production, where people feel as if they are just a number, easily replaced by someone more productive or less expensive. Simply a cog in the production wheel. Some elements of this thinking still persist today.” He went on to talk about how powerful it is to replace that thinking pattern with the idea that people are instead “contributors to success.” In that more powerful mindset, we recognize ourselves as owners of results, owners of the problems that get in the way of results and owners of the innovations that hurdle those obstacles. 

As simple as that sounds, my work as an innovation coach is riddled with clients who bring me seemingly unsolvable problems that they perceive having no ownership of. My boss does “this,” therefore I can’t do “that.” The marketplace has shifted due to the pandemic, and I have no idea what to do. I don’t have the time/money/talent/so on that my competitors have.

Often there is a shadowy “them” lurking in the background of our conversation. Some feel as if they are pawns in a chess game that they can’t see. While acknowledging that there are factors that directly or indirectly influence the outcome in any given situation, my response always contains some version of “What do you or can you own?” An ownership mindset is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. When paired with creative strategic thinking, clear compelling communication and a focus on execution, amazing things happen. Innovation happens. And it doesn’t happen just at the leadership level. Infusing your teams with ownership of the problems that plague them—as well as the solutions—can create a culture of steady innovation, undergirded by accountability. 

Imagine what might happen if you handed each of your staff members a T-shirt that said, “I Solve Problems,” along with the time, resources and autonomy to do just that. What if you took a half or full day each week or month, dedicated to attacking real-life barriers in the way of your team’s success or an opportunity that looms on the horizon, just out of reach? What if you supported them in bringing their ideas, ingenuity and talents to the table? 

Schedule POST Days

The acronym stands for Problem-Opportunity Solutions Team. This is how they work: Employees brainstorm problems or opportunities that they see, put them on post-it notes on the wall and then vote on what they most want to tackle. A cross-functional team that is inspired to solve that problem assembles and begins the innovation process. The team follows the 6-Stage Innovation Framework outlined in The Innovator’s Advantage book. This process, by design, brings in people with diverse strengths, talents and perspectives from various parts of the organization and can include other stakeholders who are either interested or impacted (vendors, customers, etc.). The expectation, like other things we “post” (mail, for example), is that something will be DELIVERED by that team, whether it’s recommendations to leadership, a project plan or a product idea for consideration.

In order for POST members to thrive, they need:

  1. Training – in the basics of the innovation process (stages, deliverables, milestones, etc.). If it’s not feasible to train the whole group, have at least one innovation champion to lead the team through the process.
  2. Clarity – about the resources available and any relevant constraints.
  3. Time – without interruption or competing demands during the time dedicated to POST work.
  4. Space — conducive to doing creative work, that is bright, not cramped, equipped with white boards, post-it notes, etc.
  5. Autonomy – select a peer-level innovation lead, rather than a manager or supervisor, and encourage them to speak candidly and envision without restraint. Once the ideas have been fleshed out and narrowed down to the point of a project framework, then present it to the leadership group.

In exchange for the autonomy to work on personal projects that impact their work satisfaction, team members take on a high level of accountability. They often deliver brilliant solutions that spotlight their creative thinking talents. This results in a meaningful sense of contribution and positive feedback from the stakeholders who benefit from their solutions. The POST program provides opportunities to celebrate and be recognized for collective successes. Our teams joke that the POST-masters become Toastmasters, learning how to articulate and present their solutions to leaders, co-workers and even directly to the customers. This strengthens and solidifies the company’s reputation for outside-of-the-box innovating and invites customers to be part of that process.

As we move from the Industrial Revolution into the Digital Revolution with remote and hybrid teams, the problems to solve become increasingly more complex and interconnections we build between and within our teams become vitally important. When your team views themselves as co-owners, co-creators and contributors to success, it engenders a strong sense of purpose and community.  Ironically, by taking some time away from traditional “production” activities, you can create the potential to achieve even higher levels of success, boldly elevating your people in the process.

Header image by Johannes Plenio/Unsplash