Spreading Critical Behavior "Virally" and Free Innovation

Spreading things virally usually means getting a gazillion hits on the internet, or doing it less wholesomely, the old-fashioned way, with bodily fluids and stuff. However, in this interesting blog piece, Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan outline their experiences studying around 12 front-line supervisors in a large American telecoms company. They selected the supervisors because of their motivational abilities.

Their people simply did not ever want to disappoint them. The managers counter-intuitively simplified the guidance they received from HR into a singular focus on making people take pride in their day-to-day work.

The authors decided this was a learnable management skill and that it should be taught to others in the company. When they told the CEO, however, “he became impatient” at what was very obvious to him, and asked why others failed to do it. The writers suggested policy changes, faulty recruitment or selection, poor performance bonuses, etc. But the CEO stopped them. He had already done that, and was unwilling to spend more time making more programmatic changes.

So Katzenbach and Khan went back to the supervisors and asked for help. Surprised and flattered,

They argued for a kind of “viral” cross-organizational exposure and interaction. No more programmatic confusion. Instead, simply get groups of supervisors together with respected counter-parts to share experiential “tricks of the trade” in ways that would promote self-discovery.

The results were impressive. In less than 18 months, all 1,500 supervisors were using some or all of their new-found skills to spur on their teams. Amongst other findings, Katzenbach and Khan determined that formal training appeals to our rational side. A “viral,” or personalised, approach also appeals to our emotional side.

It’s a nice story and a clear example of an innovative approach that solved two problems. It ties in nicely with a paper on innovation I just completed for my MBA. In reading Kanter, Drucker, Covin & Miles, Lumpkin & Dess, and all the other heavy hitters, I was surprised at what they did not say. They did not attempt to put a dollar cost on how much should be spent on innovation. While things like R&D,  development or market research can cost money, administrative and process innovations are sometimes free.  Often there is little need to spend extra company cash to work these little improvements in to the system.