Category Archives: Employee Engagement

Apollo 13 Timed Challenges

Apollo 13 Command Module

Apollo 13 Command Module

One of the cornerstones of successful innovation is the use of Timed Challenges™, a concept originated by MindMatters Technologies that helps guarantee innovation results.  Timed Challenges combine the best of business processes and psychology to insure that your organization can rapidly tap the latent intellectual knowledge of your workforce.


The Timed Challenge uses:

  • Focused Problem Solving
  • Management Participation
  • Strategic Goals
  • Employee Engagement
  • Limited Resources, and
  • Time Constraints

to inspire creativity and innovation.  One of the most outstanding real-world examples of  Timed Challenges is the Apollo 13 event that turned a near-certain disaster into a spectacular save.  Apollo 13 had taken off from earth on its way to the moon with 3 astronauts on board.  Shortly after takeoff, there was an explosion that severely incapacitated the rocket and put the lives of the astronauts in jeopardy.  While there were many technical issues that were solved by Mission Control, one of the most critical was that the astronauts were running out of oxygen to breathe–their expired CO2 was not being removed and they were getting lethargic and hypoxic.  They was no question that they would die before they could return to earth.  To solve this issues, engineers had to use their limited resources (supplies available to the astronauts in the space capsule) to adapt equipment so that a “square filter would fit into a round filter” as quickly as possible.  Clearly it was a matter of life and death, and it required engineering experts in all fields to collaborate and engage.

Clearly it worked, and the astronauts made it safely back to earth.

There were many other innovations made during the entire flight that saved the crew.  It’s been over 45 years since this happened, but the methods and principles are just as applicable today.  Read the full story here.



Innovation in Recessions

thick_arrow_up_5575Successful innovation in recessions was examined in a Harvard Business Review article, Roaring Out of Recession, by Ranjay Gulati, Nitin Nohria and Franz Wohlgezogen.  They looked at increases in sales and earnings during a recession, and the strategies that were employed.  The goal was to determine the best strategy during a recession.  The strategies were grouped into four general categories:


  1. Prevention-focused,
  2. Promotion-focused,
  3. Pragmatic, and
  4. Progressive organizations.

Prevention-focused organizations focus on cost cutting and avoiding losses–a purely defensive strategy.  Within this category, the authors examined two major subcategories:  employee reduction and organizational efficiency.  These types of organizations are risk-averse, and will “batten down the hatches” when a storm approaches.  As a general strategy, prevention is the worst, however, organizations that pursued organization efficiency (vs. employee reduction) were more successful in this category.

Promotion-focused organizations focus on building assets and marketing–a purely offensive strategy.  The thought is that during a downturn, by investing in your core assets and building your branding, you’ll hold onto your current customers and build new ones.  Compared with organizations that pursue the prevention-focused strategy, they tend to do better.   The authors divided this category into market building and asset building.  In general, building marketing worked more effectively than building assets.

Pragmatic organizations do everything.  The pursue both offensive and defensive strategies, in essence, throwing everything they have at the problem.  This strategy is significantly better than either defense or offense alone, but is still not the most optimal.  In this case, they don’t “fine tune” the amounts of each type of strategy, and waste resources.

Finally, there are the pragmatic organizations.  They too pursue both offensive and defensive strategies, however, they only pursue operational efficiencies (with respect to prevent-based methods), and pursue both marketing and asset/capital investment with respect to promotion-based methods.  With this strategy, the financial outcome compared with the next best method, as measured by sales improvement is nearly 40% greater, and the improvement with respect to earnings is nearly 160% greater.

So, the bottom line is you keep your employees, and make capital investments that improve operational efficiency and marketing development–two areas that are best addressed with innovation.  Your people are your best asset, again.

Best Leadership style for Innovation

A recent bit of research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in the Harvard Business Review looked at the types of leadership qualities most likely to spur employee engagement, or in other words which employees were the most happy/(or not) with their jobs. Generally, they grouped individual leaders as either Drivers or Enhancers. Specifically,

Drivers are very good at establishing high standards of excellence, getting people to stretch for goals that go beyond what they originally thought possible, keeping people focused on the highest priority goals and objectives, doing everything possible to achieve those goals, and continually improving.

Enhancers, by contrast, are very good at staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others, acting as role models, giving honest feedback in a helpful way, developing people, and maintaining trust.

They drew on research from nearly 150,000 interviews (with approximately 30,000 leaders). Not surprisingly, employees believed that the leaders who were the best enhancers were considered to be the best at engaging employees. However, after carefully reviewing the survey results, they discovered that the leaders who had the best employee engagement scored highly in BOTH areas–as drivers and enhancers.

From an innovation perspective, this fits neatly with much of what I’ve seen in many organizations.  Leaders in innovation must get people to focus and stretch on important goals, while acting as role models and providing feedback.  The Challenge methodology provides a framework for building and maintaining this structure and helps guide organizations to innovation success.

It Wasn’t Raining When Noah Built the Ark

noah_arkAnd so goes innovation.  It’s easy to dismiss it on a sunny day, but once the floods start, it’s too late.

Innovation is an underlying cultural strategy.  Because it requires the coordination of many different aspects, such as management, human resources, and work processes, the foundation must be established before results can be seen.

Low workplace motivation remains a clear and present danger to productivity in 2013, and according to multiple studies/articles/research, employee engagement continues to remain at very low levels.  Perhaps the fear of looming layoffs, being skipped over for a raise, seeing an important project cut due to budget constraints, or some other factor, has caused the disconnect.   The end result is that it is impacting innovation.

In order for innovation to work, these issues must be addressed continuously.  Think about this simple example.  An airline pilot trains repeatedly on flying an airplane when one or more of the engines are not operating.  They learn how the airplane handles, what the procedures are, and the best way to solve the problem.  In reality, most pilots will never have to face the issue.  But, when they do, solving this problem is second nature, because they have done it so many times before.  (Read about the Gimli Glider which is even more amazing the the landing on the Hudson.)

In order to build a culture of innovation, use this methodology to drive innovation from the top of the organization:

  1. Engage a key decision maker in your organization on the need to solve one of their pressing problems.
  2. Meet with experts and flesh out all of the details of the problem. Make sure that
    the statement is understandable and “visible”.
  3. Advertise your problem (and process) in company newsletters, web home pages, bulletin boards and meetings.
  4. Review and comment on submitted solutions.
  5. If you’ve been successful, then you should have no trouble finding and assigning accountability to the ideas that should be implemented.
  6. Award your submitters. To figure out the best motivators for your
    organization, answer the question: “What’s in it for me?”




A Fictional Example of Innovation

Tara had just finished visiting with her largest customer, a network of 13 hospitals in her county. She had met with many people that day, but one meeting in particular had stood out. She had met with Dr. George Freeman, chief of surgery, who explained the problem they were having with their aging set of surgical instruments.   Dr. Freeman explained that they have the budget and are prepared to buy new sets, but they have one major reservation with the ones that Tara’s company makes.  They are uncomfortable for left-handed surgeons, and George happens to be left-handed.  He goes on to explain that without something different, the sale will go to Tara’s competitor.

Tara knows that this is a major problem.  This hospital system is a major customer and purchases millions of dollars of products from her company.  Letting her competitor get an advantage like this could be devastating.  Tara takes her problem to her supervisor.
Tara works in the marketing department and presents her issue to the group.  She explains Dr. Freeman’s problem, and how they’ll lose the sale without a change.  Tara champions a suggestion made by Dr. Freeman, which simply involved moving the finger clasp about 20 degrees off center.  Tara is familiar with her company’s manufacturing capabilities and realizes that although this is a significant change, they can (and have) made this accommodation in the past.  After they talk with a few others in marketing, they realize that this is their only chance to make the sale, and take their issue to the engineering department.

A few days later, a meeting is scheduled with engineering, and they make their presentation.  The engineering group has assembled their senior engineers, and they’re joined by the company’s controller and manufacturing VP.  Tara prepared slides outlining the issue, and she documents how sales will likely increase substantially as a result.  No one else has instruments with this capability.  Engineering spends a few days and designs a new set of instruments, noting that the clasp should only be moved 19 degrees off center.   Preliminary mock-ups prove the point, and the change to manufacturing is estimated at $850k (a fraction of what the potential sales will be).  Finance approves the money and the project is started.

Tara’s company is responsive, voice-of-the-customer oriented, and innovative.  They addressed the need of a major customer, secured new sales revenue, and improved their product.  But did they really do the best that they could?

Tara’s company has repeated the missteps of many organizations.  They answered the question for an important sale, but they really didn’t innovate.  Find out how using MindMatters’ processes and the Innovator™ software system can make supercharge your organization.  Click here to request a copy.

Signature Strengths

signature strengthsSignature strengths” are things/skills you are uniquely talented at that bring you joy/satisfaction when you use them. People who deliberately exercise their signature strengths daily are significantly happier both presently and for as much as a month into the future.

The more signature strengths were applied at the workplace, the higher the positive experiences at work, such as job satisfaction and engagement.

These signature strengths are grouped into six general categories as shown below:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge(strengths that involve the acquisition and use of knowledge)
    • creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective and wisdom
  • Courage(strengths that allow one to accomplish goals in the face of opposition)
    • bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality
  • Humanity(strengths of tending and befriending others)
    • love, kindness, social intelligence
  • Justice(strengths that build healthy community)
    • active citizenship / social responsibility / loyalty / teamwork, fairness, leadership
  • Temperance(strengths that protect against excess)
    • forgiveness and mercy, humility and modesty, prudence, self-regulation and self control
  • Transcendence(strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning)
    • appreciation of beauty and appreciation of excellence, gratitude, hope, humor and playfulness, spirituality

If you want to find out what your own signature strengths are, you can take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths here, by the University of Pennsylvania. (Look under the “Questionnaires” pull-down menu; you’ll need to register.)  If you don’t want to take the full University of Pennsylvania test, you can click here to rank yourself. (Click on the “Signature Strengths Self-Rating Scale” link.)

Successful Motivation

successful motivationLearn how to successfully motivate people to do things that they don’t want to do.  This article illustrates how some simple techniques can be applied for just that problem.  Among them:

  1. Breaking tasks into small conquerable chunks.   This makes sense from many perspectives.  Management is much easier when work is subdivided, and the saying, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,” is a indicator of how long the concept of subdividing has been considered.
  2. Using tracking and estimation tools to help plan work and understand each task’s importance in the entire job.  This is a powerful concept, however, an additional bit of information can help you even further.  Researchers examined how people pursue their goals by imagining either 1) how far they had already come, 2) or what was left to be accomplished.  It turns out that it was more effective to think about #2, what was left to be accomplished.  So instead of tracking percent completion, track percent uncompleted.  Read more here.
  3. Utilizing incentives, particularly those awarded with an element of variability.  There is a lot of research/proof that backs up this though, however, you have to be careful that rewards are not used as part of day-to-day operations, as they can actually disincentivize people.



Employee Innovation: Should we include everyone?

employee innovation

employee innovation

At a recent client meeting, they asked whether employee innovation include everyone.  They wondered whether involving everyone—the ones who never really participate or come up with anything “good”—should be invited into the process.  The reasons for limiting participation were sound.  They had limited resources and couldn’t afford to chase down every suggestion, these people had never really added to their innovation in the past, so they’d be wasting resources on training, not to mention the individuals would be working on non-work related projects, and finally, their “main” innovators had lots of domain expertise and contributed most of the innovation to the organization.

All of the points were valid.

For a white paper with more details on this topic, click Dramatically Improve Employee Engagement.

However, I suggested that perhaps these others weren’t participating due to unseen obstacles.  Would a junior engineer really speak up in a meeting when the senior “expert” had already rendered the most logical opinion—probably not, they’d see no need to stick their neck out.   While there are surely some who don’t mind starting a fight, most already have enough on their plate.  The last thing they want to do is raise the ire of senior management or expose themselves to ridicule for suggesting something outlandish.

The other thing to consider is the real depth of their expertise.  Just because an employee has only been with the company for a short time, it does not mean that they haven’t solved a similar problem in the past.  They may have expertise in a domain that is so new that your senior engineers might not have any real knowledge about a new approach.   They might have experience from volunteer work they’ve done, or knowledge of a similar issue in a spouse’s work environment.

Lastly, the problem of limited resources is real.  However, consider focusing the scope of your innovation, rather than limiting the participation.  For example, ask your participants to solve a particularly vexing organization challenge, such as how to reduce the cost of a current product.  By focusing, you’ll receive more ideas related to what you want and conserve your resources.

For successful innovation, you need the participation of everyone along with the expertise (seemingly relevant or not) of everyone.

Employee Engagement and Creativity

In research published in the Psychological Bulletin from the American Psychological Association, the question of whether employee engagement leads to success was addressed. The authors examined over 200 previous studies looking specifically for this correlation. In their research, success was defined across a variety of areas, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. They defined happiness and/or employee engagement as “the frequent experience of positive emotions.”

Shawn Achor suggests several ways to boost or enhance employee engagement in the business environment, and he tested it by asking tax preparers (during one of the most stressful times of the year–tax season) to perform these activities. The bottom line is that it worked, not only in the short-term, but also months after these activities were stopped.

    Jot down three things they were grateful for.
    Write a positive message to someone in their social support network.
    Meditate at their desk for two minutes.
    Exercise for 10 minutes.
    Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.

The researchers also tested whether positive employee engagement was linked with creativity, and found many positive correlations. While they acknowledged that creativity at times requires deliberate negativity or a single-minded focus, there were still benefits to working to make sure that your organization is at least supporting “positive emotions.”

Failure is Important

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, titled, “Better Ideas Through Failure“, highlights the concept of embracing failure to attain success. While there have been similar articles and books written on this concept, all point to brilliant creations realized through a failure such as 3M’s Post-it notes or the discovery of Teflon. However, failure does not typically present itself in this ‘spectacularly brilliant’ way. Instead it usually just follows as this typical joke about project management:

  1. Euphoria and Excitement
  2. Disenchantment
  3. Search for the Guilty
  4. Punishment of the Innocent
  5. Reward for the Uninvolved

Sadly, these steps are fairly common, and as a result, it teaches people to not take risks.

What you really want is a balance between craziness and apathy. You want to encourage behavior that includes trying something that’s worth it–to the organization, and then rewarding/praising the result–even if it resulted in a disappointment. What makes great individuals great is their lack of concern about being judged by other people based on their failures. If you can get everyone in your organization to believe that strongly in themselves, then you’ll create an innovative environment.