November 2009

How do you feel about near-misses? Ok for horseshoes and hand grenades, eh? Well, in part two of our discussion about the cost of failing to keep employees engaged during an economic downturn—the cost of creating corporate zombies—I’d like to discuss one simple premise of employee motivation that applies to our present environment where so much emphasis and demand is placed on innovation:

Without permission to fail employees will never feel secure enough to be truly innovative.

Does this sound like a radical assertion? In the last post (see below) we discussed the fact that employees are the only ones who can innovate us out of this economic stupor. But by perpetuating a corporate culture typified by risk-aversion rather than transparency, of fear rather than trust, companies are cutting themselves off from the very clever and creative employee ideas that will help them survive.

zombie mintsCome again? You say corporate culture should reflect a propensity and willingness to embrace innovations that fail as well as those creative employee endeavors  (to grow the business) that result in success? Are you tipsy or something?

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. A risk-averse culture will never be the fertile soil for creative ideas; an atmosphere of guarded speech and careful interpersonal interaction can never produce real innovation. The tragedy here is the fact that employees are  the untapped resource with the winning ideas who never bring them up because they have never been given permission to fail. Yes, mind the business tactics and make sure everything rolls up to something of strategic importance to the enterprise, senior leaders; but without an ear to the ground—without actively listening to the pipeline of ideas from front-line employees (via two-way communication channels)—corporate strategy will fail.

There’s an outcome that’s just shy of success—it’s called a near-miss. You’re not ok with a near-miss? Glad Einstein didn’t think like you, or he would have given up after the umpteenth failure to invent the light bulb. May I wax pedantic for a moment to point out that Thomas Edison spent several years back in the 1870s experimenting with more than 100 substances, all of them failures, before he found the right filament for the first electric light bulb? 🙂

An interview published this week with Jeff Katzenberg of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., in a New York Times Leadership Corner feature called The Benefit of a Boot Out The Door underscores this argument.

“In my business (computer-animated feature films) if you stop being creative and innovative, you’re finished,” Katzenberg says.

Rhetorical question from me: Are there really businesses out there where this isn’t true? How many blue chip and legacy-based organizations are trying to innovate in order to survive right now?

Katzenberg concludes: “In the world we live in today, the single most important thing is making people feel secure. It’s a very different era today than it was five or 10 years ago, even two years ago. We’re in a moment in time when people don’t want to take risks, they don’t want to gamble. In my business, you must. If you stop being creative and innovative, you’re finished.”

“In order to strike a balance between organizations who are unwilling to take risks but who must innovate to survive, “the equation works quite simply like this: In order to succeed at the high-end of the movie business, you must be original and unique. Now if you were putting an equation up on the white board and you wrote “original + unique = what?” Then the answer would have to be “risky.” And if you said, “risky = what?” The answer would be “some failure.” It has to, by definition, just sort of in the most fundamental way.”

“If you don’t make failure acceptable, you can’t have original and unique. And so in a world today that punishes, brutally punishes, any of us for failure, it’s the single most important quality that I think we work so hard to provide for our 2,000 employees, the understanding that they are expected to take risks.”

Are we on to something here? What say you?

Photo credit:  Archie McPhee Seattle’s photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.

Is anyone talking about this? In looking for ways to innovate and grow their business right now have any companies thought of placing a renewed emphasis on employee engagement? Along with profit-to-earning-ratio calculations and the slashing of expenses are businesses calculating the total cost of owning a disengaged talent pool?


The opportunity cost of failing to keep employees engaged—the cost of creating corporate zombies in a down economy—is considerable, precisely because employees are the only ones who can innovate us out of this mess. Keeping employees motivated and engaged makes all the difference in the world—especially now.

I’ve spent most of my career in corporate communications—in what’s considered the corporate staffing side of the equation—but I’ve also had the opportunity to work in the trenches, on the business side in marketing and sales. I know what it means to beat the pavement for a sale, and what it means to cold call—to pick up that telephone (or other channel used to drive sales) for yet another time—to muster the courage to be “appropriately persistent” one more time with that business prospect you’ve been working with for six months or a year.

You have your own inner fire and yes, motivation comes from within. But believe me, an employee’s understanding of particular company’s culture can become a game-changer in this situation: Are senior leaders trying to be transparent? Are they committed to using two-way communication channels in order to incorporate my feedback into their decision-making? Does the company recognize the value of my contribution to the bottom line? Is there a career-path for me here, developmental opportunities, work-life balance? When it comes to capturing the discretionary effort of employees—that extra something—company culture and the perceived value of the employee deal can make the difference between success and failure.

Yet many organizations have been slow to capitalize on the inherent value of interpersonal connection. We can’t control some of the mediums (social media) that enable two-way communication and doesn’t networking serve a purely social function, senior leaders reason, one that is best left outside the workplace doors?

The reasoning of social media consultants like Stacy Wilson has not yet made an  impression on these senior leaders:

“Even the term ‘social media’ is driving fear. Along with podcast, blog, wiki, etc., these are just different technologies that can serve as different communication channels to enable culture change—they can drive collaboration and dialog more effectively than traditional channels,” says Wilson.

“If we work with senior leaders to help them understand the business value and benefit of conversation, dialog and collaboration, the fear melts away,” Wilson adds, noting that social technologies drive innovation:

“Innovation is an important business driver because it takes a lot of ideas in the pipeline to come up with that one marketable/patentable idea; conversation and dialog help to generate a constant stream of ideas.”

We have not yet begun to fight, said that lion of perseverance, Winston Churchill, as he faced down the adversities of World War II. For our purposes, the company’s battle to be profitable is over before the first shot is fired if it lacks one indispensable asset; namely, engaged employees.

During a recent business visit to a Fortune 500 company in the Midwest I learned that retention is no longer part of the vocabulary of many talent management professionals. Since jobs are scarce, they reasoned, where were employees going to go? What’s more appalling is that many employees are told that the elimination of their job is a distinct possibility or that it’s being “explored,” yet no voluntary package or reasonable severance is made available so they can at least move on with dignity. So they remain at their jobs, plodding on like corporate zombies, waiting for the axe to fall.

Much of this sentiment was reflected in a recent Business Week story by Krisztina Holly and Jim Clifton, which suggested that improving employee engagement is the surest way to turn the economy around. Less than 30% of corporate workers really care about their jobs—and nearly 20% actually want to undermine their co-workers, according to the Gallup study, yet boosting engagement just a tenth of a point can have a huge impact on a company’s sales, they reason. Is this not common sense?

For more on this you can check out this presentation from Netflix, which is a great example of a company that understands culture and employee engagement: Seven Aspects of Culture.

Let me know what you think.

Photo Credit: Archie McPhee Seattle’s Photostream, Licensed under Creative Commons.