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‘Why Not’ Concept
A Good Mantra for Organizations?

During the holiday break of my freshman year in college, I joined a few dozen other students on a three-day ski trip to Steamboat Springs, Colo. At the time, I had never skied before. Additionally, I was only six months removed from having knee surgery from a high school football injury. This surgery to repair meniscal tears occurred during the summer of 1978, when arthroscopic surgery was still in its infancy stage and not used by my Ottumwa-based surgeon.

Looking back, especially as a novice, I had no business barrelling down a mountain with a tender knee that was still fragile and sore. But as an 18-year old, I considered myself invincible, and besides, I could rely on a knee brace for added protection.

Why Not

The first slope I encountered at Steamboat Springs was a black diamond, simply labeled, ‘Why Not.’ Based on skiing abilities, slopes are assigned different colors and shapes. A green circle may represent an ‘easier’ slope, a blue square may be ‘more difficult,’ and a black diamond is considered ‘most difficult.’ The slope name, I felt, clearly represented my philosophy about tackling difficult obstacles. I attempted to ski down ‘Why Not’ every possible way but the right way. The slope introduced two primary obstacles – steep terrain and heavy moguls that required technical maneuvers at increasing speed. My abilities were clearly overmatched.

After many failures of descending this expert slope, I decided to take beginner lessons on a nearby ‘bunny’ hill. Applying those lessons eventually allowed me to navigate ‘Why Not’ more prudently (though, not expertly!).

Taking Risks

Organizations and their teams are constantly looking for innovative ways to be curious and experimental while encouraging team members to develop fresh solutions for new products or services. Past management protocols typically allowed managers to take the safest and more predictable routes – similar to hanging out on a bunny hill. These practices many times ran contrary to allowing individuals to initiate a more creative ‘laboratory’ of experimentation.

An article in Harvard Business Review by Sara Critchfield does a great job of describing how organizations can develop new ways to train their cultures to foster ‘divergent thinking,’ which is different from creative thinking. Divergent thinking is not about finding one right answer to a problem, but rather, promote a more intense process of exploring many different possible answers that may include:

  • Coming up with 15 solutions to a problem the organization is currently facing.
  • Rearranging company space to make work more efficient with staff, from executives to interns. From this, make 20 mockups for every design change.
  • Managers must stop answering questions, and instead, respond with “What do you think?” Wait for a response, then ask, “What else?’ Repeat this five to seven times.

Critchfield believes that team members who come up with the ideas must not be segregated from testing these ideas themselves, which allows for experimental learning. Empowered team members have the support, structure and time to do thoughtful, careful, creative testing – a recipe that allows cultures to thrive. Setting baseline failure and success rates will help initiate realistic team member expectations. Knowing that failure is always a possibility will both cushion and promote creativity.

Making the analogy of an novice skier with organizations allowing team members to fail might be a bit extreme. Yet, it was only through adaptive learning did I finally make my way down a problematic slope – and live to write about it!

Allowing employees and their team members to exercise their God-given creative juices is not a new concept. But finding new and different ways to confront risks within the work environment just may improve the culture in which employees are required to perform.

What do you think?

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Working in Pajamas

TelecommutingI enjoy “Idea Watch: Defend Your Research” in the monthly Harvard Business Review (HBR). There is usually thought-provoking discussion on various topics that may seem counterintuitive to many. Nonetheless, it does force one to ‘think outside the box’ when, on the surface, it may not seem practical.

The recent January-February HBR article,  “To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work From Home,” addresses one of these topics. On many different levels we can argue the pros and cons for allowing telecommuting. A typical ‘con’ is that employees will be less productive due to the distractions of home life, such as family members demanding attention, a mounting laundry pile that can no longer wait, the dog needs a walk, a favorite television show that was recorded earlier is too enticing, etc. Under such circumstances, how could anyone possibly get anything done at home in their pajamas? After all, who would hold them accountable in getting the necessary work completed?

Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, seems to have at least a partial answer to this very logical argument. Bloom and a graduate student, James Liang, who is cofounder of a Chinese travel website, decided to perform a study to learn how productive their employees were when telecommuting. The employees in the call center were allowed to volunteer working from home for a nine-month period, while all others would remain working from the company office.

The results: Employees at home were not only happier but also MORE productive – and less likely to quit.

It appears employees at home were more productive due to two major reasons:

  • Having a quieter environment to process phone calls.
  • Working more hours than those who work at the office.

According to Bloom, “The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits (for staying at home), we think.” The article does suggest that there is great value in having the employee work at home one to two days a week and spend the other time in the office. Not everyone is disciplined enough to work at home, given the many distractions they may confront throughout the working hours.

Knowing the composition of the workforce will also determine whether or not telecommuting will work. Employees who are older and have established social lives (parents, grandparents, married employees) may not feel they need to have the social contact found within an office environment.*

From a personal and professional standpoint, this makes sense to me. For some strange reason, I feel more motivated, creative, and yes, more productive when I am working on mundane stuff – at home!

I’m still not sure, however, about the pajamas!

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*According to results from the 2009 Iowa Employer Benefits Study, over nine percent of Iowa employers indicated they offer telecommuting for full-time employees. In addition, the top three workplace values reported by employees, based on results from the 2007 Iowa Employment Values Study, were: Respect, Achievement and Work-Life Balance. All three may possibly relate to telecommuniting in tangential ways.