Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 49;   December 5, 2007: Annoyance to Asset

Annoyance to Asset

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Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flower

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flower. Nectar is a fluid rich in sugars, secreted by plants. It serves little purpose to the plant itself, except to attract pollinators, such as hummingbirds and insects, which consume it as fuel. Most plants are very particular — specific plant species often attract only one or a few different pollinating species. Pollination by traveling pollinators is one method plants use to gain access to pollen of other members of their own species. In effect, plants use nectar to acquire genes from other individuals of their own species — genes that might offer their offspring competitive advantage. In flowering plants, nectar is the incentive for animal species to provide transportation for those genes. Indeed, one way to look at sexual reproduction generally is that it provides a mechanism for rapid propagation of genetic innovation.

Encouraging cross-functional contributions within an organization can serve a similar function — it can make that organization more competitive, more quickly, and more cheaply than hiring consultants or acquiring competitors. Photo courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Department of Agriculture.

In large projects or small, the need for the big idea is the same: one project, one big idea. That's one reason why organizations that tackle large projects have disproportionately smaller needs for new or big ideas.

Since large projects are more accessible to large organizations, those that tackle large projects tend to have more people, many of whom are very capable and creative. In large organizations, we find more people with new ideas that have more trouble finding truly receptive listeners. That causes some of them to try harder, further annoying the people whose jobs are to generate and champion ideas. Tensions develop, and frustration builds. Sometimes, good people leave.

There is a better way. It begins with the recognition that capable, creative people have good ideas — lots of them — and those ideas often apply to parts of the company other than their own. Here are some tips for crafting a large organization that can deal with unsolicited cross-functional contributions.

Assign process and problem owners a responsibility to listen
Sometimes people who "own" a particular process or problem can feel that contributions from others are infringements on that ownership.
Make clear to everyone that responsibility for a process or problem includes responsibility to listen to and evaluate ideas from elsewhere in the organization.
Make originality a pre-requisite
Devise measures to control repetition and redundant suggestions. Deprecate rehashing of settled debates. One possibility: make previous contributions available to anyone contemplating making a contribution. Make the history anonymous if necessary.
Requiring originality dramatically reduces the load on recipients. By assigning contributors responsibility for determining that their contributions aren't redundant or repetitive, we reduce the flow of contributions and improve their quality.
Recognize that for new ideas, "not your job" is a toxic concept
Recognize that for new
ideas, "not your job"
is a toxic concept
When we tell people, either explicitly or otherwise, that thinking about a particular process or innovation isn't their job, we're creating frustration and tension, and discouraging initiative.
Sometimes, only the internal customers of a process can really see where it can be improved. And sometimes only people far enough away from a problem can see the solution. Contributions from afar are often critical to success.
Provide non-bureaucratic, responsive contribution channels
Since great people are always thinking, give them a way to pass their thoughts along. It can be as simple as an email address or a wiki. Or it can be an actual appointment with a person.
Whatever you do, be certain that people feel heard. Automated responses are ineffective. Mechanisms that just listen without evidence of active consideration fool nobody.

Unless you own the idea-management process of your organization, beware. If you offer these ideas — or anything like them — they'll likely be received as unsolicited contributions. Tread lightly. Go to top Top  Next issue: What We Don't Know About Each Other  Next Issue

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