The one ingredient essential for a company to become an innovation driven firm is communications. Consider the old parable:
One day while wondering, I came across three bricklayers. I asked the first bricklayer what he was doing.
“laying bricks,” he told me.
I asked the second what he was doing.
“Making a brick wall,” he told me.
I asked the third.
“Building a cathedral,” he explained.
In spite of an explosion of communication tools over the past decade, there are still many firms that communicate to their employees like the cathedral makers communicated to the first bricklayer. Employees are told to lay bricks and lay them well. But, without knowing why they are laying bricks, bricklayers like the first are unable to make much of a creative contribution to the firm. How can they suggest ideas when they hardly know what the firm is doing?
Today, far too many firms treat their employees like the cathedral makers treated the second bricklayer. Employees know their place within their department. They know they are part of a team building a wall. But they are unclear as to why they are building a wall or where that wall fits in the big picture. Although bricklayers like these can contribute creative ideas, their ideas are largely limited to making better walls. While such suggestions are useful, it is worth bearing in mind that cathedral walls are different to house walls.
A precious few firms communicate to their entire workforce the way the cathedral makers communicated to the third bricklayer. But, those insightful cathedral makers who do fully communicate their plans and strategy will be richly rewarded as long as they open their ears to the bricklayers, concrete pourers, diggers, scaffolding makers and others involved in building the cathedral.
That’s because bricklayers are so much more than bricklayers. They are multifaceted human beings with experience, knowledge, compassion and pride.
One bricklayer may have travelled Europe and seen many different styles of cathedrals. He can contribute all kinds of ideas based on what he learned during his travels. Another may be a keen experimenter, who has ideas about making the tall, thin walls of the cathedral more stable until the vaulting can be completed. Another may know a thing or two, about stained glass windows, which he can share with the window makers.
Why do firms not communicate completely with their people? There are many reasons. Sometimes it is the result of not developing lines of communication from the top down. Sometimes issues of strategy and vision are considered confidential and so not entrusted to anyone beyond top management. Sometimes, top management is kept informed, but no method is established for top management to communicate to people under them.
No matter what the reason, those firms that do not communicate to their employees; those firms that do not ensure their employees know they are working together to build a cathedral, will never build such good cathedrals as those firms which do communicate in full.
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of jpb.com, makers of Jenni innovation process management software. He also edits Report 103, a popular eJournal on business innovation. Contact Jeffrey at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.jpb.com/