Innovation vs. the Bottom Line: How Company Priorities Impact Engagement

Too often organizations bow to bureaucracy. After all, it is far easier to legislate a one-size-fits-all set of policies than to provide customization that might inspire individuals to do their best work. Why? Much like being in the sandwich generation (raising young kids while caring for elders), most corporate managers are sandwiched. They are juggling numerous demands and trying to manage others while delivering their own work. To be fair, they are over-extended and burnt out.

What this suggest, however, is that too many organizations are also off kilter, and only focused on the what they can “measure”: the bottom line. They are moving too fast and in too narrow a direction to take time out to really think about what matters to the people they rely upon for their success. In this whirlwind of activity, managers are also naturally fixated on what is achieved rather than how it is achieved. But, blaming managers is not necessarily the answer. In my work with managers, I consistently hear similar stories—they are told that when push comes to shove, only the what matters. Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that while the what can be measured, the how often remains elusive. The problem is that engagement is more often about the how than the what.

Moving from What to How

Shifting from measuring what got done to how something got done is no easy task. You can easily measure how many clients were served in a month but how do you measure the quality of the interactions? Likewise, while you might be able to measure how many projects a specific team completed, can you measure whether their work will have a lasting impact on the organization?

Consider the following scenario: two highly motivated teams of architects working on two different projects in an established architecture firm. Team one spends six months burning to the finish line on three major projects. They do this by turning out tried-and-true designs that have worked in the past for similar types of institutions. The design is decent but not innovative, and everyone on the team knows the game plan and everyone has an established role. The team members are content but not engaged at work. Simply put, they are going through the motions.

By contrast, team two spends their time working with stakeholders to design buildings that are new and innovative. Among the team’s mandate is a strong desire to design buildings that truly incorporate both the principles of universal design and green design. The team isn’t turning out work as quickly as their colleagues on team one, but they are troubleshooting how to build accessible and sustainable buildings that hold the potential to transform the future of architecture and put their firm on the map as innovators. The team members are engaged in purposeful struggle. They are pushing into new territory. They are excited and absorbed in their work. They are not necessarily respecting the immediate bottom line, but does this mean that their process isn’t also a huge asset to the organization’s future?

The Value of Switching Tracks

The point is simple: Engagement is closely linked to the how not the what. Measuring the how, however, may mean looking at long-term impacts rather than short-term gains. For organizations that feel pressured to stay focused on quarterly earnings, this can be difficult, but to tackle engagement, it is essential to switch tracks. In the end, true engagement, which breeds innovation, is far more valuable to the bottom line than anything else.