Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Tamara J Erickson on Managing Troubled Times

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Tamara J Erickson on Managing Troubled Times
March 2009 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


Tamara J Erickson
Tamara J Erickson, President nGenera Innovation Network


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  • You have observed (in “GiveMe the Ball!” Is the Wrong Call, HBR, December 2008) that, “Downturns are no time to tighten control. They’re opportunities to inspire your people to become more spontaneous and innovative. Pass the ball”, and suggested that, when times are tough, leaders should: ask great questions; build trust across the organization, and challenge the status quo. Can you please elaborate on these three tasks of the CEO?
    During a downturn, a leader’s role is to do three things:

  1. Ask great questions. Challenge the organization to meet goals that are intriguing, complex and important. Don’t narrow the focus to the mundane or over-specify the way teams should approach their challenges. Articulate a compelling intent – something that, in the language of complexity theory, will serve as a “strange attractor” to rally.
  2. Build relationships and trust deep in the organization. Don’t cut out meetings, intensify the competition among internal teams, or reduce investments in learning. Increase your firm’s “collaborative capacity” by building relationships and encouraging knowledge exchange.
  3. Challenge the status quo. Insure that your team has regular on-going exposure to disruptive insights through diversity and external forays. Don’t cut travel or fall back on the old “tried and true” team. Bring in new people and new ideas – and take them seriously. Get outside your business sphere. Encourage brainstorming and the use of scenario analysis. Don’t cut training – invest in your people.
    In a downturn, rather than trying to tighten control and hunker down, find ways to help your organization become more spontaneous, innovative and reflexive.
  • What are some of the key insights from your research and consulting work in building collaborative and innovative organizations?
    Think about innovations you’ve benefited from in the past. Did you know that ‘Post It Notes’ were developed when one colleague’s research failure – glue that didn’t work well – solved another colleague’s frustration with keeping his page markers secure in his choir book? Or that Nike running shoes were developed jointly by a coach with an in-depth understanding of runners’ feet and a boot maker with the skill to craft a new type of shoe? In these examples, and many others that I’ve studied over the years, innovation occurred when two areas of knowledge or insight came together. The hallmark of effective teamwork – and the heart of any great leap forward – is, in some way, the combination of two previously unrelated ideas or capabilities. These might be:

  1. An insight about a business need and a new way to solve it
  2. Two technologies that have never before been combined
  3. The skills of one colleague sparking the creativity of another, or
  4. Any other merger of two approaches or perspectives.

    Occasionally disparate ideas come together within an individual’s mind. Butmore often these creative leaps are sparked by two or more people working together. If you think about it, it’s easy to understand why that is: each person on a team offers their own unique competency, perspectives, and experiences. When these come together, the results can be phenomenal.

    Now, here’s the paradox: diversity stimulates innovation – but it also makes operating as a team more challenging. Having people on a team who are “different” from one another means the team’s more likely to come up with new ideas, but it also means the team will have a harder time working collaboratively.

    Our research shows that teamwork is highly dependent on the existence of trust-based relationships. Therefore, the second step in working successfully within a multigenerational teamis to invest the time and effort required to get to know your fellow team members as individuals.

1. Troubled Times Case Study
2. ICMR Case Collection
3. Case Study Volumes

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