By Shannon McCowin Bowman, Director of Human Resources Strategy, Fluor Idaho LLC

Today more than ever, innovation is the lifeblood of many companies, and not just in the technology sector. Across industries, businesses that don’t innovate eventually die. Often the most important innovation won’t be acquired in a transaction or handed down from management, either. It’ll come directly from employees, those with the most intimate knowledge of the business’s strengths and shortcomings, its challenges and opportunities.

I’ve seen this firsthand during more than 30 years as an HR professional. Encouraging grassroots innovation–and the initiative that it requires–can be tricky, though, as it may unleash powerful forces for internal change and threaten the status quo. After all, change (for the better) is the whole idea behind innovation. But to be successful, you need to encourage innovation rather than mandating it. And then manage the resulting change. EmpowerPoints asked me to share my thoughts on doing just that.

Are You Ready for a Truly Empowered Workforce?

Managers of companies and their boards of directors want employees to tap into that discretionary effort that makes them own innovation. But before they go down the path of trying to motivate people to do that, they need to ask themselves if they really want it. Because a lot of times–and it’s the reason I believe a whole lot of employee engagement initiatives fail–there’s no clear objective about how much involvement they want from employees. Management really needs to ask itself: Do I want a truly empowered woworkforce

Beyond that, do I want my workforce empowered from bottom up, or do I only want certain segments of it to be empowered? Often managers will say: “Oh, I want an empowered workforce. I want them to be fully engaged. I want people to bring good ideas forward, and it doesn’t matter if it’s their job or not. And I’m going to reward them for doing that.” I’m paraphrasing, but former GE CEO Jack Welch once said, “Be careful if you decide you’re going to teach a bear to dance because once the bear knows how to dance, you’ve got to keep dancing until the bear wants to stop.”

I’ve seen this work in some companies, and I’ve seen it not work in other companies. Let’s say you work as a government contractor, and you have a master who is going to tell you, “No, we’re not going to go do that.” The entire management structure has to really want it. They can’t just say they want it.

In a truly empowered organizational culture, you’d say: “Shame on you if you don’t bring up a good idea, even if it’s not in your area of operation. If you see something that you don’t think is working right, and you have an idea how to do it better, talk to somebody. Bring it up. There is no such thing as a stupid idea.” There must be a constant openness to new thought, no matter how it’s presented. You must be prepared to realign the thinking of the paranoid, because there will be people who feel threatened by that type of an open-door, open-minded, open-thought approach.

Getting Buy-in From All Levels of Management

Senior leadership has to have a passion for managing how they themselves like to be managed. You’ve got to cherry pick and hire people who truly have the right mindset, although I think you can make converts out of some people. Speaking for myself, my natural inclination is to think: “I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’m pretty bright. I have a sense, equal parts intuition and logic, of where I want something to go.” My natural style is, “I’ll listen to everything you have to say, and then I’ll make up my mind.” But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “It’s got to be a pretty compelling argument to change my mind, because I think I know where I want to go.”

So, that’s my natural inclination. But over time, I have come to realize that you really, truly can have a better product if you engage a team that cares to work on it from a fresh perspective. You might actually end up with something–in fact, most often you do end up with something–that was better than what you originally thought. Sometimes you were on the right track, but then the team comes up with something that takes it to the next level. At other times, somebody comes up with a totally different idea, and you’re like, “Wow, that came fast.”

You’ve got to trust your people. You’ve got to trust that you hired good folks, and they know what they’re doing, assuming you’ve trained them to do what the job is, what your business is. You’ve provided them with the tools to do what they need to do. They know what their responsibilities are. You’ve got to get them to the point of, when you go talk to them–which you should do all the time–they’re not thinking you’re spying on them; you’re just engaging in conversation and helping to remove roadblocks.

Dealing with Managers You Don’t Trust Enough to “Buy-in”

I would have payroll cut checks for every one of them for two or three week’s severance. With a check in my pocket, I’d meet with each one and say: “This is where I’ve taken the company. This is what I want to do. I understand this might not be your cup of tea, and if you don’t think you can support this direction, no harm, no foul. But I have your severance check right here. And if you’re going to stay, you have to help make it work.

That may seem drastic, and some organizations are so large and complex that it would be hard to do that in. It’s harder toturn around the Titanic than a speedboat. You have to pick and choose your battles. I’ve studied the Japanese philosophy of management, especially quality circles and modified versions of quality circles. If you really, really want the ideas, and you’re prepared to reward people for them, traditional philosophy doesn’t work as well. You almost have to turn the organizational pyramid on its head and focus on the bottom instead of rewarding the top. The managers need to become servants to the organization. Your best ideas are going to come from the people doing the work.

In most organizations, you’ve got your CEO at the top, then it filters down to two or three: COO, CFO, etc. Then you’ve got another level of managers, then you’ve got middle management, then you’ve got fthe ront line, and then you’ve got the worker bees. The cynicism creeps in at the middle management level. That’s the toughest nut to crack. But you have to get rid of secrets in the organization so everybody knows what’s going on. Certainly, there might be some information that it would be irresponsible to share, but generally speaking, honesty’s the best policy. You must tell people what it is you’re trying to achieve. For example, “We’re going to get a new contract if we get x done by date y.”

The 4×10 Example

In my workplace, the idea of working four 10-hour shifts instead of five eight-hour shifts has become the norm, but it actually came out of a process-improvement team made up of maintenance technicians, janitors, and laborers. They were looking for a new way to get preventive maintenance done that didn’t impede production. And the site was working the standard 5-day, 8-hours-per-day shifts. So, this maintenance team led by one of the middle managers came up with the idea that if the production facilities worked Monday through Thursday, and the maintenance team worked Tuesday through Friday, they could schedule all the preventive maintenance on Friday because the production facilities wouldn’t be running. It would be cost-effective for many reasons. Number one, the people who worked on Fridays would have to bring their lunch; we wouldn’t run the cafeteria. Obviously, there would be fewer buses running on Friday because there wouldn’t be as many people, so you’d also cut transportation costs. You’d cut energy costs because you wouldn’t have as many facilities lit up.

Then again, what’s the safety implication of having people only work four days a week but longer days? It would also affect people’s family life, their daycare arrangements…they went through everything. And it came down a group of about 10 maintenance technicians who said, “We could save time and money and ultimately improve the production if we make this shift.” Talk about empowerment. You had maintenance technicians coming in wearing suits and ties to present to senior management.

There were a lot of naysayers. But it worked. We had a handful of people who found another job somewhere so they could continue to work five days a week. But my point is that the people who were on the front lines of the organization doing the maintenance work, who really cared, thought, “How could we do this cheaper and better and make it work?” And they came up with a solution that was classically simple. But brilliant. And they were recognized for it.

Ensuring That You’re Managing as a Thermostat Versus a Thermometer

A thermometer is always just checking the temperature. A thermostat controls it. You’re being passive if all you say is, “Well, this is how warm it is.” But if you’re going to turn the heat up or down, you must actually engage with people to help the pot simmer, so to speak. It’s about employee engagement. And you have to stay on top of it. There are times when you want to turn the thermostat up and times you want to turn it down. In doing so, you have to be honest and authentic. You have to care about the people who work for you, because if they believe that you care for them, they’ll go through hell for you.

People who have never worked with a workforce that is empowered and very willing to bring forward ideas can come into a situation like that and confuse empowerment with entitlement. There’s nothing more wrong than that mindset. Taking a sense of pride and feeling like there’s a better way to do this is a good thing. Thinking only certain people could do certain things, and only certain people could go to the president’s office, is elitism. That’s not an open door. And I think that you have to have that open door. If something’s bugging somebody, they need to feel free to walk through it, and not feel like they’re going to be retaliated against.

Communication has to go both ways. It can’t just go top down. It has to come bottom up. If you get into a situation where the communication is only going top down, it’s never going to work. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything less ethical than saying you’re empowering your employees when in fact you’re not. I’m okay if you don’t do it. Just don’t say you’re going to do it and then not do it. If your management style is very regimented, and this is the way you operate, fine, as long as everybody knows the rules. It’s the damn hidden rules that bite everybody in the butt.

Managing the Chain of Command

I’ve also seen situations where senior management wants to go meet with everybody in the company, but then they do it and without any thought to what their down-line managers are already on top of. Sometimes senior leaders build themselves a trap, because they think they’re being magnanimous at solving the problems. But employees can start thinking: “Well, I’m not going to talk to my manager. I’m going straight to the top. The only way I get anything done is if I can do this.” Then you get the backlash.

The chain of command becomes difficult if the trust isn’t there all the way through the organization. If your managers feel like you’re going directly to their folks and cutting them out of the communication list, you create a different problem.

Thinking Beyond Performance Appraisals

You probably do semiannual or annual performance reviews, but if the manager’s really doing their job, and the employees are really in touch with what they’re doing, there shouldn’t be any surprises. But a lot of times, there are. These managers get so busy doing what they’re doing that they don’t have necessary conversations with people. In some ways, today’s integration of technology makes work easier. In other ways, it makes work life harder, because you spend so much time dealing with the electronics and the electronic communications and just keeping ahead of the stuff that happens so quickly that person-to-person contact almost feels like an intrusion. That’s why I make sure I have a staff meeting every week. It’s the time to ask: “Okay, what are you doing? What are you working on? Do you need some help? What’s driving you crazy? What’s going well?” It’s a time to be together and laugh. No matter how much technology we have in the workplace, people are still people.

At the end of the day, people just want to come to work and do their job, do it well, and feel like the people that are around them value their contribution.

Shannon McCowin Bowman directs Human Resources strategy for Fluor Idaho LLC, one of the larger contractors at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory site. She also serves as president of the non-profit, Gem State Diversity Initiatives. Shannon is an Idaho native who attended Idaho State University and did advanced studies at Uthe niversity of North Texas in Denton. Shannon is a certified HR professional (SHRM and HRCI) and a certified mediator.  She describes herself as passionate about organizational development, diversity and inclusion. She has received national accolades as the recipient of the Community Contributor  to Inclusion Award from the U.S. Department of Energy and was the Project Manager of the Idaho Hispanic Youth Symposium when it was honored by the National Latino Children’s Institute with their prestigious award “La Promesa de un Futuro Brilliante.”