Last evening I sat through a very informative presentation given by a colleague of mine; the topic was on why Canadian industry is suffering from an “innovation gap” (comparatively speaking, based on international ranking systems) and what the various actors — industry, government, academia, etc. — needs to do about it to systematically close the gap. The objective, of course, is that improved innovation (at the company level) leads to improved profitability and sustainable company health. And, presumably, at the national level, increased innovation leads to higher productivity, more investment, better employment, and higher standard of living. All good stuff, of course…
One of the things he presented was a fairly clear and obvious “blueprint” for companies to become more innovative — it is a straightforward model: conducting a reality check on where you are, alignment around a strategy for where you want to get to, identify the areas where “innovation” could drive you forward, invest in building a culture of innovative thinking, set metrics, and hold yourself accountable to driving forward and measuring your progress.
As I pondered the presentation, I was struck with this thought: “we’ve been gnashing our teeth on this for at least 2 or 3 decades now. The recipe for doing this is straightforward, however I’ll bet we’ll get nowhere quickly with this because the vast majority of executive teams are in denial about their own effectiveness and capabilities, and are delusional about their own role in innovation and company performance…”
This has been my own experience with many business owners and executive managers, and unfortunately much of this “management reality gap” was further quantified by the hard data from the research study that was presented that evening.
This morning, I came across this blog post in the HBR about change management, which further illustrated this point. In the post, author Ron Ashkenas states the off-mentioned statistic that 60% to 70% of change management initiatives fail, and provides the following personal observation: “While it might be plausible to conclude that we should rethink the basics, let me suggest an alternative explanation: The content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped. In fact, instead of strengthening managers’ ability to manage change, we’ve instead allowed managers to outsource change management to HR specialists and consultants instead of taking accountability themselves — an approach that often doesn’t work.”
The key word here for me is: “accountability”. The minute that managers actually step up and take personal accountability for any change — regardless of what that change is — then things begin to happen that eventually lead to better learning, communications, team leadership, and good business and organizational outcomes. That has been my own experience with client companies: those executive teams that are willing to accept responsibility for the situation and hold themselves accountable for results — no matter how reluctantly they approach that at the beginning, or how unclear they are about what personal accountability actually looks and feels like — are the people and teams that really grow personally and professionally, that develop better communication habits, that become more confident and complete as individuals, that become better leaders to their teams, and that ultimately drive their businesses to new performance levels.
Without a focus on real accountability, you get executive teams that excel in finger pointing, scapegoating, and excuse-making. Their companies expend a huge amount of effort to deliver nothing more than status-quo performance, and they all end up working harder and harder and falling further and further behind. Nobody has much fun and the workplace becomes increasingly toxic.
Ultimately, unless and until those executive teams change (willingly or through eternally imposed shock-treatment), their companies are on a path to irrelevance and ultimately death. And as it turns out, there are a dearth of stops on the road to ruin.