I recently spent some time with an engineer I have known for many years. This talented engineer can see opportunities to improve the operations of the machines he is tasked with servicing, there are also improvements to the business process they have identified. However, on joining the organisation as an employee this engineer had to sign a contract that ensured that any improvements or ideas generated in the mind of the engineer are the property of the employer. This is a fairly typical contract and one we have all signed at some point in our careers.
The employer, like so many organisations in the UK, has a large middle layer of management that carries the management title, but has none of the skills good leadership requires. As a result this talented engineer is demotivated and already the signs of “them and us” and “they don’t listen to or care for the workers” are becoming evident. This has resulted in the ideas to improve the machines, refine the business processes and therefore delight the organisations customers are locked away inside the mind of a talented individual who now spends their time looking for a new position.
Slapping contracts preventing innovation and allowing middle management to continue to meddle and damage frontline teams is a major contributing factor to the UK’s poor productivity, which recent reports have shown is slipping rapidly below that of France and the USA to name just two.
Although it may be the middle management doing the damage and preventing the innovation to flourish, it is the fault of the senior leadership for allowing this situation to exist. A move into or a continuing career in management requires constant training, coaching and development. Parents may complain about inset days at schools, but it is also heartening that our teachers spend regular days revising and learning new skills. Yet in business many middle management are skilled at a craft, but are then given a management role and offered no opportunity to gain new skills. In the meantime the frontline market is changing and the middle management have an outdated view and no training or insight into the real challenges of management.
Innovation is on the lips of every senior leader, yet access to new ideas is right there in the most important asset your organisation has access to, your team. The monetary value of an idea from a frontline engineer compared to the cost of an expensive report from a consultancy doesn’t compare.
So these old contracts that show no respect to the relationship between individuals and innovation have to be torn up. In today’s economy where so many barriers to entry are low, an idea can be turned into reality rapidly and before you know it your organisation has lost margin or customers where it needn’t have done. Having torn up the contracts organisations must invest in coaching and training for its management teams (all members of the organisation in reality). If the UK is to become as productive as its European neighbours it cannot continue with meddlesome incompetence.
An organisation has to be a joint endeavour. Everyone involved should feel valued, have the opportunity to contribute new ideas and improvements and feel that they will be rewarded, as Chris Lord CTO, points out in our recent podcast, reward those that identify data opportunities. If organisations fail to embrace their teams, invest in those teams, then the endeavour will walk out of the door carrying a very dangerous weapon – ideas.