Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Game that Destroys Innovation -- Part I: We Do Not Talk About The Game

It's called The Game.  There are no formal rules, what rules there are may contradict the "official" rules, and no one will openly admit to the rules or tell you what they are. Management rarely admits to the existence of the Game, and HR tends to deny it, as well.  As an employee, you must play the Game with minimal errors or face severe repercussions up to, and including, termination. 

The vast majority of organizations that I have encountered, from schools, to businesses, to consulting firms, to governments, has some version of the Game, and the only difference between these places is how viciously people play it.  In some places, the Game is just minor office politics, while in other places it is so ubiquitous that it coats nearly every false smile and overeager handshake one encounters.

Here's an example:

Over the course of my many years as a freelance data analyst, I have gotten multiple requests in which I am supposed to analyze the data objectively so that I can arrive at the client's prearranged conclusion.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As an outside consultant, I am expected to be honest and objective and to report whatever is in the numbers.  Yet, the client expects me to massage the numbers, obscure certain limitations, and twist the report so that their unsubstantiated conclusion can appear to be "evidence-based."  My wallet hates me for turning those jobs down, especially since some of them paid decently, and that is the cost of refusing to play the Game.  I know that at least one of those firms got someone else to crunch the numbers, and the biased conclusions did indeed get published.  Some argued with me that since there's always someone willing to take the money and do the job, why shouldn't I?  Can't I just play the Game?

Let me ask you this: If you were using the products/services of the companies who asked me to run data, would you want me to play the Game?  It's a funny paradox, because some of the very people who chided me for not playing the Game admitted, when pressed, that it wouldn't be right for me to do so.  Yet, so many companies expect their data analysts, scientists, and others to be dishonest so that the company can look good, and then wonder why these very same people are not also innovating.  It's pretty hard to innovate when playing the Game forces people to choose between their integrity and their job, and those "little white lies" add up.  Employees end up immersed in fear, and unwilling to venture an unwanted opinion, lest they violate some rule of the Game and lose their job.  But, it is precisely that dissension that is so badly needed in order to identify problems, solve them, and make things work.

Of course, any kind of dissension, even when appropriate, can be risky.  Consider the Game of [in]subordination:

Courtesy of the Peter Principle, too many managers end up in a position of power when they are not trained to handle it (this holds double when the person has to manage experts [here's how to do it]).  In such situations, a highly-competent subordinate eventually comes across a situation where doing what (s)he's told will ruin a project and/or cause a deadline to be missed.  The common "solution" is to do what the manager said, and then to add on enough bonus features to fix it, but there may not be enough time to do both, and a missed deadline can mean consequences for the employee.  Another "solution" is to give the manager the result (s)he requested, and then suggest a fix when the manager sees the problem, but some managers will see the initial screwed-up result, and then tell the employee that (s)he is incompetent (for following the manager's orders!).  This can also result in a missed deadline.  Yet a third "solution" is to ignore the manager's orders and just get the project done properly, but that falls quickly if the manager doesn't like the process and calls the employee "insubordinate."  And, of course, telling the manager what's wrong with his/her orders can be construed as a form of backtalk that will lead to problems, even if the manager supposedly welcomes disagreement.

Some will say that it's all in how the orders are questioned, but there are plenty of managers who want to give their orders and get a "yes, boss" -- any other response is a problem.  I once heard someone counter even that with, "just ask questions instead of making statements."  That can work, but only if the boss understands the reasons for the questions and has the time to answer them.  Otherwise, the boss perceives the employee as stupid, incompetent, and/or wasting the manager's time.  The Game is to figure out which "solution" actually works, and praying to whatever one holds sacred that they guess correctly and don't end up with a manager where none of those "solutions" work.  When employees cannot speak up, and can even be fired for doing their job, there is no innovation.

And then there's the workload Game:

During one consultation, a potential client asked me how to develop an innovative culture in one of her company's departments.  She felt that the people in that department were not doing enough to innovate, and not putting in any effort over and above their basic job descriptions.  I asked about what they were expected to do, and, after highlighting the time-consuming nature of the group's many tasks, I reviewed several initial options.  The first was to make a few strategic hires, the second was to create some incentive for her staff to put in more hours to do the innovation, and the third was to do a full review of the job tasks in the department to restructure the staff's responsibilities to make more room for innovation.  The senior manager stated flatly that there is no money for any of those suggestions, and all of the tasks assigned were essential and could not be removed.  But, if I wanted her as a client, I was going to have to come up with a cost-free suggestion for how to get the staff to innovate.  At this point, most objective people have come to the obvious conclusion that this manager wants something for nothing, but it took me the better part of 20 minutes to explain that.  I did not ask, but I can only surmise at the amount of pressure her staff faces on a daily basis dealing with a manager who expects them to go beyond an overly-full job description.  Even at Google, the famous 20% time has become part of the workload Game.  If employees are not explicitly given time to innovate, and are not directly rewarded intrinsically or extrinsically for doing so, there will be minimal innovation.

Ultimately, an innovating company has two choices: kill off the Game, or go down in flame.

(Stay tuned for Part II: Killing Off the Game, and Part III: A Better Game: Calm Voice)


Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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