Is it right to innovate at any cost? Nicolas Arnaud & Thibaut Bardon, from the Audencia Nantes School of Management in France, share their six rules to get it right
Liberation management, holacracy, lean management, self-managing teams, communities of practice… Innovation at any cost seems to be one of the new mantras of business. What is new is often considered to be best simply because it has not been done before and so can allow a firm to steal a march on its competition. For the past two decades, we have observed a counter-productive craze for what appear to be management fashions rather than carefully thought-out managerial innovations. However, managers would be well-advised to temper their taste for the new with the need to keep in mind the human aspect of these changes. In this way, management innovations should become vectors of meaning that therefore profit both those in charge and the workforce. They have to make sense from the bottom to the top.
To achieve such a state of affairs, there exist six commandments that any manager keen on managerial innovations would do well to respect.
1. Do not use ready-made solutions
It would be foolish to think that off-the-shelf answers exist to the challenges found within a firm. Gurus and consultants tend to propose such ready-made solutions and present them as sure-fire recipes for success. These products are therefore sold as techniques that have proved their worth in countless major groups. Their references are impressive so making them credible in the eyes of the business leader. The problem with this approach is that each firm is unique. To seek an answer without keeping in mind an organisation’s past, its culture or its way of working would be short-sighted.
2. Practice what you preach
Sadly, there are too many managers who bring to mind the expression, ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’ Such contradictions can take on many forms. A business leader may plea for responsibility within the firm and then fail to adhere to those values. In the same way, a conservative manager who sings the praises of innovation will not pass the test. There is also the case of authoritarian directors who call for management participation for all. These gulfs between the message and the action can create conflicts of meaning among the employees which translate into a lack of understanding, a reduction of engagement and even a resistance to change.
3. Be aware of paradoxical prescriptions
It is worth stressing that bringing about managerial innovations always takes place in an existing structure. This means that a certain company culture and functioning method are already present. It would not be a good idea to neglect this fact and to announce a new era at one fell swoop. There is a clear need to take into account the current context and to build on it so that the new aspects introduced do not produce paradoxes. Should these occur, they could destroy any economic value for the firm and have a negative impact on members of the workforce.
4. Respect that not everyone is an entrepreneur
Beware of innovations that seek to make every person within the firm act like an entrepreneur. Experience shows that this is simply not possible. Each person has a certain potential and harbours different aims and desires. For example, it is not uncommon for some staff members to want to avoid being any kind of leader on new projects or to enter into a logic of constant and targeted improvement. This doesn’t mean they do not wish to work well, but simply that they do not feel the need to lead. Alongside these non-entrepreneurs we also find staff who are very keen on change but do not possess the profile to oversee it. Others may favour their own interests before those of the firm. With such a mix within a company it seems of little use to try to impose an entrepreneurial approach on a whole workforce. No firm requires 100% leaders among its staff.
5. Recognise that technology is not always the answer
Today, it is clear that (too) many business leaders see the hi-tech/digital route as the only one to take in all circumstances. To question this is not to do down technology as it can often help to find a path through the complex context of firms in an ever shifting world. However, if technology can provide answers it can also create headaches. Indeed, it would not be going too far to label hi-tech initiatives as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Because of their strict operating rules seldom in line with unknown quantities, exceptions or a new-look management ethos, these technologies can make a firm less agile, decrease creativity and suppress the will to innovate.
6. Accompany the changes
Periods of change within a firm are always delicate, not only for the people who feel the daily impact of the new measures, but also for those who implement them. During such a period, the success of innovations can be closely linked to the level of support and accompaniment given to the personnel. Those who head up plans of change tend to have a very global vision of what is required and of the stakes involved. This means they can easily fail to take account of a more specific, ‘local’ reality. Perhaps the best solution is to call on middle managers. Well-placed to translate innovation aims for the workforce, they can help ensure that the main goals are not out of touch with the daily activity of a service, a department or a business unit. It is then up to those who head up such plans to give middle managers room to manoeuvre.
What these commandments show is that it is vital for managers to take care when adopting and implementing a managerial innovation. They are an invitation to managers to ask themselves key questions about the social impact of their own practices.
Nicolas Arnaud is a Professor of Management and Organisation and Deputy Director of Audencia Grande Ecole at Audencia Nantes School of Management in France. His research interests include inter-organisational relations, collective competence and middle managers' practices. He is the author of numerous research papers and press articles in both French and English.
Thibaut Bardon is a Strategy Professor at Audencia Nantes School of Management, France. His research focuses on managerial innovations, change conformity and resistance, identity at work and management consultancies. He regularly publishes in international scientific journals and is active at conferences in France and abroad.