How long does it take to turn an aircraft carrier?  I often use that question rhetorically to illustrate how hard it is for large organizations to respond and adapt to changing conditions.  The response to the oil spill in the Gulf is a good example.  There are several massive organizations trying to find a way to cap the well and control the damage of all that oil.  Each of these organizations has a culture that has developed over time to ensure smooth operations.  However, when faced with a crisis it is that very culture that prevents the organization from responding quickly or appropriately.

Can a large organization develop a culture that is able to respond quickly to a crisis or opportunity?  The easiest and best examples of these types of organizations are found in the technology sector.  Steve Jobs says Apple “is organized like a startup.”  There are “no committees, just people in charge of specific areas.”  Flattening formal hierarchies and distributing responsibility is one way to improve your organization’s responsiveness.  They key to this approach is trust.  Authority over decisions is a fundamental need.  However, distributed decision making is a key to rapid response and improved productivity.

Google is another tech company that has a highly responsive culture.  According to a 2006 Washington Post article, “all engineers are allotted 20 percent of their time to work on their own ideas.”  Talk about trust!  The result is a highly innovative company that is branching out beyond its core business.  Even though Microsoft dominates the operating system market with an estimated 90% of computers running some version of Windows, it is struggling to achieve the same level of success in small devices.  Meanwhile, Google is gaining a greater foothold on the Web and in consumer electronics.

A short time ago I attended a speech by Brad Anderson, the former CEO of Best Buy.  He shared some examples of success stories from local Best Buy stores.  One example was of a manager in Alaska.  She recognized significant sales from remote locations in Alaska.  She began exploring ways to better serve people living in these locations.  The result was a dramatic increase in sales.  Mr. Anderson noted that this opportunity would never have been identified at the corporate office.  It was the awareness and actions of a local manager that made success possible.

Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”  What is not included in that quote is the lessons Mr. Edison learned.  He was committed to learning.  Are you?  The key to being innovative and responsive to changes around you is to always look for lessons in things did not work as expected.

It takes effort to learn.  Either from successes or mistakes.  We are busy.  We have deadlines.  There are endless demands on our time.  I encourage you to look at the work you are doing.

What is succeeding?  What isn’t?  Why?  What lessons can you learn?

What do you have to offer that can open new opportunities?  What can you do to empower people to perform better?  Who in your organization has innovative ideas waiting to be developed?  What can you do to foster a culture of innovation that builds off the skills, experience, and perspective of your co-workers and employees?

UPDATE: I read a news article on the ABC news website last night that illustrates my point about the gulf oil spill beautifully.  It appears the governor of Louisiana had authorized the use of barges to collect oil near the coast.  He learned yesterday that the Coast Guard had prevented the barges to continue the work because they “needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.”  I understand the governor’s frustration.  All I will say is, can’t we do better than this?

Do you have examples of this?  Have you ever been frustrated by seemingly senseless delays?  Have you ever felt like you missed an opportunity because the policies or structure of your organization limited your ability to act?

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