Software innovation versus the WENUS

Sheesh. I just read a blurb about this McKinsey article:

“Some people are passionate about innovation, while others shy away from new ideas. McKinsey research finds that, in some organizations, managers who are most frequently sought out for advice on new concepts often have the most negative attitudes towards innovation — partly because they have difficulty balancing new ideas with current priorities.”

One way around these bottlenecks is to intentionally create networks of managers charged with encouraging new ideas. This kind of decentralized team can identify promising new concepts and prioritize them so that they receive the attention they deserve.

It’s a premium article which means you have to pay for the whole thing, which I don’t generally do, so I haven’t read it. But the summary above was enough to get me thinking. Big companies seem to have real difficulty balancing innovation with their WENUS. (Remember the WENUS, a statistic that Chandler from the TV program Friends was in charge of managing at work? “I’m LOOKING at the WENUS, and I’M NOT HAPPY!” (WENUS = Weekly Estimated Net Usage Statistic). Chandler was a middle manager.

The mention of a “middle manager” in the McKinsey blurb above frames the core of the problem. Once a company gets big enough, the temptation to have middle managers who’s jobs are defined by operating metrics alone (think: productivity) is a dangerous game. What McKinsey is referring to is a manager who is only focused on managing the existing business process and is not too concerned with improving it. Perhaps it’s not their fault — perhaps their compensation is ONLY tied to these metrics and they have absolutely no incentive to rock the boat. In fact, perhaps they would be punished for new ideas if they take a small short term hit on their WENUS because they let someone on their team work on something that might improve things in the future.

McKinsey’s recommendation? Create teams of managers who are charged with encouraging new ideas (from the troops). Great. Yet another layer of management, who is now by definition at odds with the line managers, and if they are to be effective (at encouraging new ideas) they must swindle resources from the line managers to implement these ideas. With no ability to simply hear one of these great ideas and say, “Wonderful — make it so!”, how effective could they be? Does the person coming up with the idea have to hand it off to dedicated “innovation implementers” who work for the innovation manager? How much of the idea is lost in translation?

This is a terrible organizational structure. A team member’s reward for coming up with a good idea is that they have to feel like they are “going around” their direct boss to someone else and then be put in the awkward position of having that other manager get into a pi–ing match with their direct boss over the team member’s time. Wonderful.

Big companies love to specialize. Your job is the WENUS. Yours is innovation. No wonder in the tension between status quo and progress, big companies are often slow to change and lethargic. Their very organizational structure is tuned towards optimizing the status quo, rather than adapting and thriving on change and progress. What if these so called “middle managers” were also charged with innovation? Not some arbitrary quota like “three good ideas per month”, but rather, at least reward them for thinking progressively instead of tying their rewards only to the WENUS.

Worse, the way you define a role determines how you recruit for it. So, after creating the traditional line manager roles which aren’t encouraged to innovate, you’ve likely staffed up for them as well. Now, suppose you change the definition of that role? Drat. You’ve already recruited people who may not be the ones to shine. Now what do you do?

Fitzpatrick is the CEO of Ottawa-based DevShop and author of the blog Uncommon Sense (For Software), from which this was reprinted with permission.

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