Advice for Innovation Leaders from J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr.

by Scott Bowden

Advice for Innovation Leaders from J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr.It is likely that many reading this article has, at some point in his or her life, stayed at a Marriott hotel. Although those of us in the consulting and innovation professions may hesitate to speak fondly on hotels in general (in the spirit of too much of a good thing being a bad thing for the seasoned traveler), my experience has been that Marriott hotels prove to be a consistent product throughout the world, delivering quality and value that is the result of a consistent dedication to operational excellence and ongoing innovation.

With this in mind, I read an article in The Salt Lake Tribune highlighting the key leadership principles espoused by the current Executive Chairman and former CEO of the Marriott Corporation, J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. Reviewing this list of leadership principles with an eye towards how these principles can foster improved innovation performance provides interesting insight for practitioners of innovation seeking ideas for implementing such a culture of new thinking for their internal and external clients.

Principle 1 “Listening – When you open your ears, open your mind, too. Listening is foremost an opportunity to learn.”

The concept of listening may seem intuitive for an innovation practitioner skilled in the art of facilitating workshop sessions designed to identify new ideas from a group of participants, but the notion is worth re-iterating because it is so crucial to the success of an innovation effort. In many cases, we launch into a session with an idea of where we think the discussions will go, and subconsciously we may end up steering the workshop towards a predetermined outcome that doesn’t truly reflect the consensus of the attendees. In other words, if the guy whose name is on the building can sit back and listen for a while in a meeting about how to run a hotel, then the innovation practitioner should be able to do so as well.

Principle 2 “Training – We can’t expect our [employees] to do their jobs well if we haven’t shown them how.”

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about the topic of how to get participants ready for an innovation session. Too often we send a calendar invite with a subject line about innovation then expect participants to show up and generate great and novel thoughts without much preparation. This is one reason why a company’s overall culture is so important in fostering innovation, as employees who are accustomed to thinking of new ways of doing things on a daily basis are more likely to come up with new ideas during innovation sessions focused on solving a particular problem.

Principle 3 “Rewards – We [risk] fracturing the team by setting up a reward structure that distinguishes a few disproportionately.”

This can be a paradox for an innovation leader. On the one hand, we want to highlight those employees whose new thinking leads to improvements in how we operate our business, and we certainly want to reward them in terms of compensation for their efforts. However, as Marriott points out, putting too much emphasis on rewarding the success of a few can fracture a team and discourage those who are not receiving acclamation from investing their time in innovation work. An incentive model that rewards both small and large innovation contributions can foster the innovation culture and mindset that is needed across the board at a company, and an innovation that today may seem small could lead to something larger in the future, so both should be encouraged.

Principle 4 “Meetings – The less [the boss says], the less [he or she] sways the discussion. People [should] feel comfortable about raising red flags.”

This is similar to Principle 1 in terms of the importance of listening, but it serves notice to an innovation workshop facilitator running a session where the manager of a group of employees is in the room. In this environment, the employees may be hesitant to point out anomalies in the group’s performance or process gaps that they have identified previously to their management (and that the management likely rejected in the past). The participation of a manager in a brainstorming session may also corrupt the free flow of ideas as it brings into play competition among the participants (vying to see who can impress the boss the most) and hesitation to bring up topics that could upset the boss. If a manager insists on participating, then Marriott’s advice should be heeded to the extent that the boss should say as little as possible at the beginning to foster the right mindset for the session.

Principle 5 “Visits – If I see smiling faces and well-scrubbed surfaces behind the scenes, I know the rest of the hotel more than likely is doing just fine.”

This principle works for innovation in the inverse form of what Marriott intends for leadership. Just as an attention to detail in terms of cleanliness and satisfied employees point towards a well-managed operation, so, too, does the inverse apply that unhappy employees and a sense of disorder indicate that there are larger problems involved in an operation. For the innovation practitioner, these areas of dissatisfaction and disorder represent logical starting points for investigations into areas of opportunity for applying innovation to improve performance. For instance, a dissatisfied employee could be someone whose work process requires numerous unnecessary steps that bog down the process and deliver little value, and in having to repeat that process day after day the employee loses trust in the organization overall. This reminds me of a consultant who said that when he visits a large manufacturing plant, he judges the relative efficiency of the operation by looking at the number of bikes used by parts expediters who have to hustle parts across the plant to meet the manufacturing schedule. Like a hotel with dirty hallways or an unkempt appearance, a factory with lots of bikes may be a sign of a need for innovation to address a lack of performance.

Principle 6 “Managers – Does she radiate energy and enthusiasm? Does he know every inch of the hotel and grounds? How does the staff react to her?”

This is good advice for the innovation workshop leader in the sense that there is a value to radiating energy and enthusiasm, similar to how a hotel manager sets the tone for his or her property through his or her interactions with employees or guests. While I’m not advocating excessive ebullience on the part of the workshop leader in the form of cheering and shouting, a positive attitude can go a long way in inspiring the participants to have a free-flowing, engaging dialog on the topic at hand. In terms of knowing every inch of the property, an innovation workshop leader needs to know the subject matter of the session with a surprising amount of detail. Although there are limits to how quickly an innovation practitioner can absorb information when dealing with a new client or new business unit within a company, this research is critically important to the success of the session. One yardstick should be the goal of finding an idea or making an observation that the people in the room have not previously identified. This can be an anomaly, a different way of looking at a process, or a counter-intuitive fact about a topic. The counter-intuitive element is important, as it will inspire the workshop participants to start thinking in new and open ways right at the outset. A final aspect of this principle is ensuring that the innovation workshop leader has a good rapport with the participants and should be constantly on alert for non-verbal indicators of how well the participants are reacting to the performance of the workshop leader.

Principle 7 “Decisions – Make a decision and get on with it. If significant new information comes in, be willing to listen and adjust accordingly.”

This principle is important for innovation practitioners in the sense that a workshop needs to maintain a certain, relatively quick pace in order to be able to cover a number of topics and to keep the participants engaged in the dialog. All of us have been in meetings where a single participant throttles the conversation to focus on a topic that is of interest to that individual but not to others in the session. This slowdown can also be attributed to the concept of “analysis paralysis,” in which a group of individuals becomes bogged down analyzing the details of a particular topic to the point where they prove unable to make a decision to proceed to the next logical topic of discussion or make a decision to proceed with a certain action. The innovation workshop leader must strive constantly to see a balance between diving into enough details on a discussion topic to develop innovative ideas without spending too much time on a single topic at the expense of others.

Principle 8 “Employees – When [they] are willing to give a guest the clothes off their backs, doesn’t taking good care of [them] make good sense?”

Just as Marriott tries to take good care of his employees so they will take good care of hotel guests, so, too should the innovation workshop leader take good care of workshop participants to improve their performance during the session. In an era of corporate spending constraints, it’s not always easy to take care of workshop participants with food and beverages, but simple things like that can go a long way towards engendering goodwill on the part of the participants. The presence of food and drinks allows participants to focus on the workshop discussion instead of hunger, thirst, or other needs. It also triggers that basic human instinct of gratefulness for the generosity of others, as is the case when a traveler in a distant land reaches an inhabited area and breaks bread with strangers. In the category of other needs, of course, a workshop leader should also consider fixed breaks that are called out upfront so the participants have some certainty about their schedules. Although the advice varies from one expert to another, my general rule is that 90 minutes is the maximum time a group should go before taking a break that gets people out of the room and refreshed to continue the discussion.

Principle 9 “CEOs – Companies that get into trouble are the ones where the CEO never budges from the executive suite and makes decisions without knowing [what’s] going on.”

There are two ways to view this principle from an innovation standpoint. The first way, in which the value of direct CEO or senior executive participation in a workshop is good as a means of helping that executive have a deeper understand of how the company is operating, runs counter to Principle 4, which states that the discussions may flow more smoothly if the boss is not in the room. The significance of this can depend on the attitude of the executive and that executive’s previous ubiquity around the company. An executive who is frequently engaging with employees at all levels, and whose participation in a session would not be a stunning development, could be a great asset to the innovation session. Likewise, an executive who is never seen outside of the executive suite of offices who suddenly appears in a session could set the wrong tone for participants. A second way to consider this principle is to consider the value that a CEO could obtain from reviewing the results of innovation sessions across the company, preferably in a way where the actual, raw discussions and ideas are presented rather than filtered through multiple layers of management as they move up the reporting chain. While time constraints may prevent the CEO from reviewing every minute of every session, there is something to be said for the importance of exposing the CEO to direct insights and observations from lower level members of the team, as it may help the CEO develop a solution to a problem he or she is trying to solve, perhaps even in an entirely different area from the topic of the workshop.

Perhaps the most important principle espoused by Bill Marriott that resonates for innovation practitioners is the inherent value of those around you, whether they are hotel employees, workshop participants, or fellow innovation consultants. In the Salt Lake Tribune interview, Marriott cites an anecdote from a visit by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 to the Marriott family home in Virginia. The group of dignitaries was trying to decide whether to go outside in bitter cold temperatures to go hunting or to stay indoors by the fireplace, and rather than making an executive decision for something that was obvious to everyone in the room (stay by the warm fireplace), President Eisenhower turned to the young Bill Marriott, who at that time was a Navy ensign, and sought his advice on what to do. Marriott learned that day the importance of seeking the engagement of others in decisions large and small, and that guided him throughout his career. The innovation practitioner, whose success is in the hands of the participants in his or her workshop, should follow a similar strategy.

Source: Dawn House, “A Life with No Reservations,” The Salt Lake Tribune (February 24, 2013), p, E1.

image credit: hospitalitynet.org

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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