People are frustrated. Most of us are ready to give it our all when we start a job. We are usually full of ideas for ways to do things better. We eagerly offer our whole intellectual capacity only to be told that it’s not our job, that it’s been tried before, or that we shouldn’t rock the boat. Initiative is viewed with skepticism. Our suggestions are ignored. We are told to follow instructions. Our work is reduced to following a set of prescriptions. Our creativity and innovations go unappreciated. Eventually, we stop trying and just toe the line. With resignation, we get by. Too often that’s where the story of our work life ends.L. David Marquet
I was 31 when I retired from professional rugby. I began my transition into the workplace as an intern in an advertising agency. In the final two years of professional rugby, I was injured quite a lot so I had ample time to prepare for the workplace. I had a particular interest in emerging trends and innovation.
When I began in the role, I was busting with ideas and enthusiasm, ready to make an impact. I assumed that the workplace would resemble the sports ground and everyone was on the same team. I was wrong.
Responses to ideas were greeted with reasons why it wouldn’t work. In many cases when I carefully considered ideas and emailed them to others – including SWOT analyses for those ideas – I didn’t even get a response. Ok, I thought, I guess they are busy, I’ll try again. “Hey, just bumping this up your email queue. Blah blah blah…” Several attempts later, including mentioning it politely in the company kitchen, “Hey, did you happen to read my email?” Nothing, nada, nichts.
This happens in the majority of organisations, big and small. What happens? If they don’t “retire on the job” and resign themselves to do the bare minimum, a most common symptom is that “Good People Go Quiet.”
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of disruption is for good colleagues to say nothing.”
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” is attributed to Edmund Burke, but Burke didn’t say it. Its earliest form was by John Stuart Mill, who said in 1867: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Regardless who said it, the message is the same. Saying nothing or doing nothing is rarely a good thing for progress. In a world of incessant change, we need people to be sensors for both opportunities and threats.
I would like to extend the concept to innovation and organisational success to become “The only thing necessary for the triumph of disruption is for good colleagues to say nothing.”
Very few people speak up for a plethora of reasons ranging from fear of embarrassment to psychological safety to working for a narcissist who doesn’t want honest appraisal. The saddest part about organisations is that ideas and a lack of innovative people is rarely the problem. The real problem is that organisations lack the culture and systems for ideas to flourish. Ideas are the easy part. It’s bringing them to bear that’s hard.
In a recent conversation on the Innovation Show with Captain David Marquet,we discussed this phenomenon. David suggested we imagine the percentage of people who suggest ideas and find their ideas shot down. Then he suggests we think about the percentage of people who don’t say anything at all. It made me think of the Swiss Cheese model (see below).
The Swiss cheese model of accident causation is a model used in risk analysis and risk management, including aviation safety, engineering, healthcare, emergency service organisations, and as the principle behind layered security, as used in computer security and defence in depth. It likens human systems to multiple slices of Swiss cheese, stacked side by side, in which the risk of a threat becoming a reality is mitigated by the differing layers and types of defences which are “layered” behind each other. Therefore, in theory, lapses and weaknesses in one defence do not allow a risk to materialise, since other defences also exist, to prevent a single point of failure.
In the Swiss cheese model, defences against failure are modelled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of cheese, specifically Swiss cheese with holes known as “eyes”, such as Emmental cheese. The holes in the slices represent weaknesses in individual parts of the system and are continually varying in size and position across the slices. The system produces failures when a hole in each slice momentarily aligns, permitting a threat through the hole.
A prevalent example here is prevention of spreads of pandemics as you can see in the diagram below:
I have applied the Swiss Cheese model to ideas penetrating an organisation. For brevity, I have only used a few examples for why ideas are killed, there are many more reasons, you will know this from experience. I find it helpful to have a mental model to frame such phenomena.
Have you noticed a colleague who was once full of ideas, who has gone unusually quiet? Perhaps you may assume they are just disinterested? You may think they are having a bad day?
Perhaps instead, they have fallen prey to a corporate lobotomy? Perhaps they are worn down? Perhaps they just couldn’t be bothered any more. Did they fail the organisation or did the organisation fail them? It happens much too often and it is a great tragedy in a time when we need ideas more than ever.
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Our guest on The Innovation Show is author Turn the Ship Around! and his latest book Leadership is Language, Captain L. David Marquet.
When Captain David Marquet took charge of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance and had the worst retention in the fleet.
When he pushed for leadership at every level, the crew became fully engaged and the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet in just one year.