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      Some organizations are plagued with an archaic management model invented more than a hundred years ago that produces disengaged employees, hamstrung innovation, and inflexible organizations. Engagement will flourish when coaching relationships honor talent, trust employees and support autonomy of individuals and teams. Innovation is successful when aligned to a business strategy with clear goals and metrics for success. Companies that support customer insight to designing innovation efforts have a higher level of success. Trust your workers by granting them the independence and time to innovate.

1. TowersPerrin, Winning Strategies for a Global Workplace, Executive Report, 2006.

2. Gary Hamel with Bill Breen, The Future of Management, Harvard Business School Press, 2007, pp 61.

3. Gary Hamel with Bill Breen, The Future of Management, Harvard Business School Press, 2007, pp 97.

4. Gary Hamel with Bill Breen, The Future of Management, Harvard Business School Press, 2007, pp 72.

5. What 8 Things Do Employees Really Want? (Hint: Money is not on the List), 2008. Strategies to Attract and Develop Engagement and Innovation

6. See: Booz Allen Hamilton Global
Innovation 1000

7. "Making Innovation Strategy Succeed," Strategy Business, Amy Bernstein, Jan 8, 2008.
Booz Allen Hamilton Global
Innovation 1000

8. See:

9. "Mastery," George Leonard, Plume Publications, 1991, 176pp.

About the Author

Caela Farren, Ph.D., is President of MasteryWorks, Inc. in Falls Church, VA. She has been a consultant, entrepreneur, and educator for over 30 years, Caela has worked with hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to get them on their mastery path. Caela’s practice and company builds strong links between changing trends in industries, changing strategies of organizations and the talents and aspirations of individuals. People who work with her company discover their passion, their mastery path, and bring renewed contribution and high performance to their organizations.

Caela is known internationally for her expertise in developing talent management products and services. Her solutions are user-friendly systems that serve the needs of both organizations and individuals. She is frequently quoted in the media regarding her thoughts and advice on changing careers and work patterns in the nation. Hundreds of organizations have implemented talent management solutions from MasteryWorks, Inc. — consulting, workshops, assessment instruments and web-based talent management portals.
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Learning from the Olympics

by Caela Farren, Ph.D., MasteryWorks, Inc.


     If you were like me, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, captured your heart and imagination. Over 10,500 athletes competed in 302 events in 28 sports. The Games saw 43 new world records and 132 new Olympic records set. A record 87 countries won a medal during the Games. Chinese athletes won 51 gold medals altogether, the second largest haul by a national team in a modern, non-boycotted Summer Games. Michael Phelps (pictured above on right) broke the record for most golds in one Olympics and for most career gold medals for an Olympian. Usain Bolt (pictured above on left) secured the traditional title "World's Fastest Man" by setting new world records in the 100m and 200m dashes.

We witnessed innovation and engagement that took our breath away – both in the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as in the Olympic athletes who were totally engaged in achieving their life-time goals. What can we learn from these record-breaking human achievements that can guide us to creating a more innovative and engaging culture?

A Difficult Road
     For years, experts have been searching for a blueprint to build a strong culture of innovation and engagement in the workplace. Two years ago, TowersPerrin conducted a definitive study of 86,000 employees working for large and medium-sized companies in sixteen countries to measure the extent that employees were engaged in their work. The survey consisted of a nine-item index that measured individual’s assessment of organizational pride, care, fit, accomplishment, empowerment, contribution, and levels of effort and motivation. The survey confirmed prior studies that only 14 percent of workers were highly engaged. The rest, a whopping 86% of employees around the world, show up for work, but apparently are sleepwalking on the job. The results reflect a growing organizational concern about how to manage employees to meet their potential.[1]

Professor Gary Hamel, a leading management expert, believes that employees are born with gifts of initiative, creativity and passion, but elect to use or squander their talents moment-by-moment and day-by-day. In a typical pyramid organization, he writes, “Hierarchies are very good at aggregating effort, at coordinating the activities of many people with widely varying roles. But they’re not very good at mobilizing effort, at inspiring people to go above and beyond. When it comes to mobilizing human capability, communities outperform bureaucracies.” Hamel believes that flatter, thinner management structures produce dedication and commitment in companies where employees share a common vision and goal. He writes that the “more meddlesome the managerial oversight, the more constricting the shackles of policy and process [and] the less passionate people are going to be about their work. You can’t expect automatons to be zealots.”[2]

As we reflect on the Olympics and other equally successful organizations, four practices permeate their culture: 1) Coaching; 2) Autonomy and trust; 3) Time for incubation and innovation and 4) Clear strategies, goals and metrics.

Coaching Relationships
     Most of the Olympians had coaches. These coaches knew the sport and knew the athlete. They worked with their athletes to develop the training schedules, practices, nutritional requirements, work-out schedules, series of competitions and game plans for making it to the Olympics and competing successfully. In the case of Michael Phelps (now the most decorated Olympian in history), Bob Bowman spotted him at eleven years old, saw his potential, talked to his mother and has been working with him rigorously since that time. He saw his talents, discipline and competitive spirit, as well as the body type conducive to expert swimming. (A great example of nature and nurture.) Watching them together and listening to their interviews, you can see the bond of friendship, trust and respect that exists between them. This has been forged over many years. They have experienced the kind of coach/protégé relationship we desperately need in large organizations. Many workers today have no coaches, mentors or managers that really know them, trust them, challenge them, and respect them. Engagement is hard to keep when individuals are frequently treated like commodities.

Old-fashioned pep talks and rah-rah exhortations may work occasionally at half time in a basketball game when strong coaching relationships and respect exists, but will not sustain a passion for work on a continuous day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month basis. Referring to first and second tier workers as “Associates” and “Team Members” and giving speeches about “Involvement,” “Empowerment” and “Self-Direction” only work when built on strong coaching relationships between managers and their teams. “Management innovation almost always delegates power downward and outward… [but] redistribution of power is one of the primary means for making organizations more adaptable, more innovating and more highly engaging,” according to Professor Hamel.[3]

Close coaching relationships with the hallmarks of trust, appreciation and respect allow protégés to learn quickly, experiment, get to know themselves and what makes them unique, and gives them a safe haven for learning and feedback. Trusting employees to do the right thing in their own way may be risky, but it produces commitment. Safe, policy-driven and superficial approaches are doomed to failure. Real engagement requires trust and coaches around you who appreciates your unique talents and helps you achieve your own goals.

Autonomy and Trust
     We witnessed autonomy and trust primarily in the team sports, where athletes adjusted strategies, played to the strengths of their teammates and the weaknesses of their competitors. The top rated women's beach volleyball team (pictured above in middle) of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor defeated the Chinese team of Wang Jie and Tian Jia for the gold medal on August 21, 2008. If you caught the games, you watched two people who trusted every move of the other and turned that into a first-time victory of back-to-back gold medals in the history of beach volleyball at the Olympics.

Nastia Lukin and Shawn Johnson, two members of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastic Team, adapted their individual floor and balance beam routines to assure top scores and medals in the Olympics. Their knowledge of their body and the new Olympic scoring system produced a self-confidence that spurred their team to great accomplishments in the 2008 Olympics. Effective coaches stand back and trust the skill and know-how of their protégés. Ultimately, every athlete stands alone and makes the second-by-second judgment calls that produce the highest athletic achievements. They are trusted to do so.

Whole Foods is considered a successful model of radical decentralization through shifting decisions from the top of the pyramid to a community. The model is designed to get people energized and engaged. Each store has a handful of departments that operate autonomously, as if separate profit centers, making management decisions that affect their own group, such as planning, staffing, promotions, pricing, and ordering. Monthly bonus incentives based on profits per labor-hour for each team instill competition between teams, a sense of community and common cause. Each autonomous department has its goals and is held accountable for meeting them. The model empowers employees to take control of their careers while producing highly competent leaders and mentors. Gary Hamel writes that “Freedom … matched by a high level of accountability ensures that associates use their discretionary decision-making power in ways that drive the business forward [providing] both the freedom to do the right thing for customers and the incentive to do the right thing for profits.”[4]

Monthly pay incentives, salary and bonuses may help, but business writer for the Christian Science Monitor, Marilyn Gardner says it’s not enough. “Beyond pay and benefits, [there are] 8 key factors that influence ‘happiness’ at work – factors that motivate workers and keep them [engaged] at your organization.” Appreciation, respect, and trust top her list. “Trust is the action side of respect,” she writes. “People need guidance, but they need to know that their boss trusts them to be able to get a job done on their own.” She thinks employees - especially GenYers - want to work with competent leaders and managers who they can respect and join co-employees who they enjoy. They want to be mentored and trained. They want new challenges and increased responsibility. She believes companies retain employees … “where workers feel that they are contributing to something that is worthwhile and where the workforce has a sense of purpose and pride of accomplishment.”[5]

Time for Incubation and Innovation
     The Olympics serve as a natural incubator for innovation. They occur on a regular basis, with differing events every four years. TV producers, photographers, athletic goods manufacturers, architects, and transportation experts have a minimum of four years to bring the next innovations to the Games and the public.

Those of us who viewed the Olympics were aware of a number of innovations that came from the designers of the Opening Ceremony, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou and Chinese choreographer Zhang Jigagn in their use of digital technology, real-time photography and coordination of 15,000 performers into an extraordinary performance. It appeared that every recent breakthrough in technology, fireworks, costuming, high wire stunts, and music were beautifully wrapped into that Ceremony. Seven years have gone into the planning and coordination of the Bejing Olympics. Teams worked together to assure that China came onto the world stage in a memorable way.

Google, the sovereign of cyberspace, is a successful model of a company that’s found a formula to continually innovate. Their September 2008 introduction of their new web browser, Chrome, is the latest in an ongoing series of web innovations. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google’s founders knew at the outset that any competitive advantage in technology that they achieved at a single point in time was far less important than an evolving advantage that would grow over time. Their driving goal was to develop technology as quickly as the Web itself evolved. They needed to change traditional management strategy to achieve their plan.

Operating with a paper-thin hierarchy and in a broad network of lateral electronic communication, Brin and Page filled the workplace with the best and the brightest talent in the world and then challenged them to break with traditional ideas to innovate on their own. Google splits workers into hundreds of groups on average of three or four people, allowing them as much as 30% of their working time for experimentation, innovation and an open line to corporate senior staff. Google found that trust and freedom allowed their employees to test-drive their ideas quickly and inexpensively to see how far they traveled. Dense lateral communication carefully followed the best ideas to their final destinations and success has been heavily rewarded at Google with significant cash prizes. At Google, nearly everything has been decentralized and the company continues to operate in small communities, where individuals control their own destinies.

What does this tell us? The number of engaged workers will skyrocket when everyone is given a voice and the tools of creativity are widely distributed. In such organizations where competency and ability are more important than positions and titles, power comes from below. Authority is dependent on skill and judgment. These companies create an evolving advantage over time and will stay ahead of the curve.


Clear Goals and Metrics

     Olympians have clear goals. They know the records they want to beat. They know exactly (within hundredths of a second) how fast they have to move or how high they have to jump. They know how they’re measured in diving and gymnastics. They know each element they have to perform and the subtleties included. They get immediate feedback. Deming said years ago, “You get what you measure.”

Myriads of manufacturers also know these metrics and continually refine their products (swimsuits, running shoes, workout clothes, cameras, measuring devices, nutritional products, etc.) to help assure higher jumps, faster speeds, safer equipment, more adequate measuring devices, technology to enhance judges maintaining the criteria, etc. There is a clear and continual connection between these organizations and the athletes and nations they serve – through design, development, usage and redesign.

With athletes, the strategy is to win, break records, and enhance the sport using all the aids possible. The manufacturers, employees, athletes and coaches have a similar perspective on winning. And having clear goals and strategies and ways to measure success are intrinsically motivating.

The more tightly aligned innovation strategy is with business strategy, the greater the level performance, income growth and shareholder returns, while the lower the level of alignment, the smaller the return. For example, companies that support customer insight in designing innovation efforts had a high level of financial success. Companies are the most innovative:
  • when they are committed to understanding their customers’ needs;
  • when they are first to bring a novel innovative product or service to the market;
  • when they follow their competitors’ moves, and;
  • when they focus on breakthrough technologies and swing for the fence more than taking on a piecemeal approach to innovation.

Reviewing the largest R&D expenditures of a thousand companies worldwide, Booz Allen Hamilton’s “Global Innovation 1 000” study revealed that innovation is not dependent on expending huge sums of money, but rather on organization, culture, and decision making. “Rather it’s the processes, the tools, and the choices.” Looking at successful innovators, firms like Apple, Christian Dior, Adidas, Google, Yahoo, Black and Decker, Hyundai Motors, Honda Motors, and others – there are some inherent characteristics to creating high-leverage innovation.[6] See Booz Allen Hamilton Global Innovation 1000

Barry Jaruzelski, a VP at Booz Allen believes that innovation “is all a matter of degree, but every company should have a robust portfolio management process and a process for gathering customer insight. They should also have a way to manage and provide visibility into the end-to-end product development process. The level of breadth and depth for each of these capabilities will vary according to the nature of the industry and the innovation strategy.”[7]

Other Engagement Strategies
     Here are some other important retention and engagement factors that appear on our Retention & Development Indicators.[8]

  • Work and Life Balance
  • A+ Great Managers
  • Challenging Work and Special Projects
  • Training and Development Options
  • Career Discussions
  • Career Advancement and Mobility Options
  • Strategic Vision
  • Mentoring
  • Recognition
  • Comparable Compensation

Other Keys to Engagement and Innovation
     It’s management that holds the keys to engagement and innovation. To resolve moribund processes in the workplace, start with examining the reasons that management, the programs or the systems failed to engage employees. Ask the employees about what’s ailing the organization. If you receive a consensus of opinions, you know you’re on the right track to make the necessary changes. While you may think it may be easier to build a new business than making changes, it is always easier to rebuild the existing structure to supplement it with new processes that are challenging and are more thoughtful.

If you’re looking to engage your employees with a sense of innovation and passion for their work, many of the same keys that open up the path to mastery will unlock the doors leading to engagement. George Leonard wrote that there are a number of keys to mastery, innovation, and passion:
  • Passion and innovation are contagious. Find the right teachers, leaders, and mentors to guide employees to develop a passion for their work.
  • Find the right job and career fit for each employee to allow each worker to surrender to his or her passion.
  • Employees respond to a strategic vision of the organization with a sense of participation and achievement. Trust your workers by granting them the independence and time to innovate.
  • There is a human striving for self-transcendence. Even with all of our human follies, there is a need to go a little bit further than we’ve gone before and maybe even further than anyone else has gone.[9]


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