I’ve yet to meet a leader who is not thinking and talking about innovation, change, disruption or transformation. These are the elements of company strategy and the agenda of the typical leadership retreat.
Yet, how can the intent to change and transform be translated so that everyone in an organization is ready to make a contribution? That's the hard part. For many leaders, this is where the breakdown occurs.
Leaders can’t possibly know the answers to everything. It’s just not possible. And the status quo is powerful the further away one gets from the executive team meeting.
Thus, leaders need wave makers throughout a business -- not at just the most senior levels -- who are in the game rather than just being spectators. They are the ones, regardless of title or experience, asking, “What can I do?” Or they might inquire, “How can I help?” or consider “what if?”
During the past two years I studied the habits and impact of wave makers who started changes in their markets, communities and organizations. In my book Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life, I shared the fact that changes need not start with the CEO.
Think of a "wave" as any change that begins with a person's decision to act and ripples outward like those patterns in the ocean. Or consider it as a transfer of energy that creates momentum and ultimately a positive impact. This may be a small decision or action at first but it gathers force like the wave in a ballpark that starts with just one person's deciding to act and that spreads. Some waves happen inside organizations, while others sweep over a larger community or marketplace. They start with one person's spotting a need or opportunity and deciding to initiate a change.
Wave makers bring value by achieving results in doing the following:
1. Sparking innovation. Leaders can give inspiring presentations about the need to innovate for an organization’s future success. The hard part is passing along that philosophy to everyone who works there, not just the head of strategy or the chief innovation officer.
One such wave maker is Lois Melbourne, co-creator and former CEO of Aquire, in Irving, Texas, a company now owned by PeopleFluent. She created an environment that encouraged people at all levels to contribute and not have fear for doing so. She knew she couldn’t accomplish her goals alone.
“You’ve got to respect people for taking the risk," she said in describing the connection between risk and innovation and creating a culture that encourages waves. "You have to give them the ability to fail and not take a hit. If an organization respects outside thought, then anyone can say, ‘Let’s try this.’ Encourage skunkworks, risk-taking, and exploration. Fear is anti-innovation.”
2. Driving up performance. It's amazing what two or three wave makers can do to raise the performance of a group or team. For small entrepreneurs, these measures are very real and have a very personal impact on them, affecting how much they earn or whether they have the funds to invest in basic items. Performance is improved when everyone involved asks, “Is there a better way”
A few years ago, I saw the impact of a recent college graduate on a team of a professional-services company, one of my clients and a firm that had conducted business much the same way for years. She didn’t judge or criticize but she did instigate a change in that team without a big campaign to do so. She started using technology to streamline and improve access to meaningful data, made suggestions on work processes once she had a full understanding of the goals and developed new techniques for packaging information. Her actions started to change the way the group worked, while raising the bar for the entire team’s performance.
3. Accelerating professional development. Hands down, one of the best ways to accelerate personal and professional development is by working on a "wave." Employees develop the most when involved in a stretching assignment or something that takes them out of their comfort zone.
When a person works on a "wave" or an initiative never undertaken previously, he or she learns and grows at an accelerated pace because the individual can’t rely on how things have been done in the past or what's most comfortable to do.
4. Shaking up the status quo. If leaders feel that their organization has become too stale or needs an influx of new ideas, then a wave maker can help. Is the status quo ready to be shaken up? Entrepreneurs, by definition, shake up the status quo by redefining the market through a new and better product or service. Intrapreneurs can, too. Encourage new ideas and use them.
Any new change requires an influx of new ideas for exploration and discussion. Yet, the status quo is the only option that is usually not debated. It’s the choice that becomes the “best” option without a decision ever having being made. Wave makers diminish the power of the status quo and that’s why you need them.
Who are the wave makers in your organization? Do you have enough? Are they encouraged and recognized? The answer may determine if your strategy ever leaves the leadership meeting.