Countless books, podcasts and articles tackle this fundamental question: how do you boost an organisation’s performance and do it quickly and effectively.
Google gives 7,430,000 results for “how to boost organisational performance”.
We often look for different metrics across organisations, and make decisions how to run things more effectively in the hope of increasing performance.
We hire and fire staff, put in processes and procedures, cut down costs where we can.
But fundamentally it seems that many are still forgetting the core message what organisational performance is built on: the structures and people.
Structures to support innovation
There is a well-known story of Professor Richard Feynman when he was trying to make a decision to leave his current university. He had grown restless and felt the current institution did not provide him with the right context to do his work.
Feynman had received another offer from another university, and made his decision to leave. This was in the pre-email time so he had to walk across campus to the telephone office to phone the new university about his decision.
While walking across campus back to his office, he ran into a colleague who had just made a new discovery in another scientific field; a discovery that inspired Feynman.
There and then he realised that he could not leave because he needed to be around such cross-disciplinary innovation. He turned back, and called the new university to let them know he had changed his mind.
Although Feynman was perceived as an eccentric academic to say the least, he however stumbled upon something fundamental:
the need for a working environment that is inspirational and supports innovation.
In a recent Harvard Business Review podcast episode, Safi Bahcall notes the difference between innovative companies and those that have grown stale:
“If you walk the hallways and you hear people talking about careers and promotion that’s a bad sign. If you walk the hallways and you hear people pounding the table excited about the next wild or crazy idea, you’ve done the right thing”
In other words, if your staff is more concerned about getting promoted and is mainly focused on working the system to get ahead, you have a problem.
If, however, you see people excited about finding the next big idea, and having deep conversations as to how these ideas can be worked on, you have managed to create a system that does support innovation.
This is because innovation resides in structures; the way we organise our organisations, the incentives and the support that we give our staff.
If we are supporting innovation and are real about building capacity and looking after the well-being of our staff, we will see results.
So, how can we do this better at our organisations?
Innovating across scales
One way to start boosting performance is to be thinking ahead. In organisations like universities this means pursuing true transdisciplinary innovations. In scientific fields, it is extremely easy to get siloed, get used to working with the same disciplines, ideas and methods.
But especially when you have high performing academics/staff who are making great innovations in their specific fields, their collective expertise and insights should be harnessed at much broader scales.
One way fo doing so would be to introduce Innovation Labs that focus on offering a shared space and opportunity to breakdown silos, to get new insights, and to learn from other disciplines, methods, and departments.
They should foster joint excitement by asking big questions such as:
What are the most challenging global and national science challenges?
What new insights could we bring as an organisation by using our in-house research excellence while connecting with world-class thought leaders to deliver real change?
Where are the emerging niches of science and education where we could be first movers?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that this is by no means easy.
But providing support and space for these kinds of shared conversations is crucial if we expect our company or organisation to truly make a difference.
I was talking to a colleague recently from another university who said that he would rather invest his time and resources in these kinds of meetings/workshops where you get the best minds together to create something amazing versus attending a conference.
Innovation and creativity can be fostered but the right structures and incentives need to be in place for individuals and organisations to do so.
Hierarchies of needs
While running innovation labs is more of a method for innovation, understanding staff needs, challenges and opportunities is as important for organisational performance.
Many universities have been for example cutting down on administrative support for lecturers as a cost-saving measure, re-defined teaching allocations to introduce uniformity across disciplines even if teaching methods and loads differ significantly between e.g. chemistry and social sciences, while also raising the bar of expectations for high-level research outputs such as attracting grants and publishing papers.
To some, this is already causing high levels of stress, which then leads to suboptimal performance, and creates a spiral that is not easily stopped.
Yet, years of research in psychology show that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is fundamental in understanding people’s perceptions and feelings of well-being, and how understanding those levels opens up opportunities to understand organisational performance.
As the quote from Safi Bahcall illustrates, your staff should not be worried just about promotions and getting ahead.
If they feel supported, their “hierarchy of needs” looks very different from ones where individuals feel they must focus on their own career success in order to survive in the organisation.
This hierarchy could be coupled with team work as well as Patrick Lencioni demonstrates in his epic team building book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team where he demonstrates how for example absence of trust spirals into other problems within organisations.
(Figure from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).
High organisational performance is based on understanding both hierarchies, that of how teams are functioning or not, and whether the individual needs are met or not (Someone needs to run with these ideas and do a survey using both to map out how both relate to performance).
Improving climate change adaptation innovation
Many of these principles apply also to fields of science and for example when it comes to solving such global challenges as climate change adaptation.
How do we continue asking the big novel questions that make the most difference on adaptation?
How do we provide spaces for global and national innovation especially at a time when resources are becoming scarce and our environment is changing in unprecedented ways?
Whose ideas are being listened to and how can we ensure that we are truly being transdisciplinary in our approach?
Providing empowering structures also for this global scientific community is crucial where we can have deep innovative discussions and this also means changing the way we gather and meet, but also who gets to invited.
We need to reach out from scientific silos and look at best practice in such different fields as sales, marketing, branding, start ups, organisational behaviour and many other fields that are currently not being necessarily engaged in the discussion how to adapt to climate change.
Getting the best minds into the same room and having big idea discussions is a start.
My wish list at the moment would include Dorie Clark, Seth Godin, Morten Hansen, Adam Grant, Patrick Lencioni, Dave Stachowiak, Samantha Power and companies like Eat Big Fish, to name a few.
By understanding how ideas and innovation can spread, and how behavioural change occurs, are keys in both advancing climate adaptation as a global agenda but also function as good yardsticks for organisational performance.