The Treacherous Effect of Low I

ideasBy Peter Burchard

The treacherous effect of Low I continues to spread across many countries and workplaces.

Business and government leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity, indicate that efficiency and effectiveness gains have been wiped out by on-going increases in year-over-year operating costs. “No matter what we try our costs just keep going up” stated one city manager from Illinois.

Although additional research is needed, the leadership condition known as Low I is also suspected as a primary cause behind a series of Gallup polls showing that 70% of employees are disengaged at work.

Research implies that employees are bored, unappreciated and don’t care for their supervisor. Gallup research shows that most supervisors are also disengaged.

Just what is Low I? How is Low I causing such peril? What can we do?

Low I is Low Innovation.

Low Innovation has many indicators but one primary diagnosis – the false belief that one (or ones organization) is innovative – often based on a diluted definition of true innovation.

As the authors of one scholarly article wrote, “The assessment of what constitutes an innovation is inherently subjective.” (Innovation Management in Local Government, Nelson, Wood and Gabris.)

Sufferers should look for these symptoms:

  • Uncertainty over what constitutes an innovation
  • Unable to see the ill effects on one’s career or workplace
  • The presence of a big-tent theory of innovation (anything can be innovative)
  • Use of the word “innovative” to describe a new design on a patrol car, costly software, the name of a local nail salon or a public relations video
  • The word “innovation” has as much panache as asking “Who wants more coffee?”

The leading concern is rarely discussed openly – or mentioned as a possibility. Low Innovation could be innovation used to protect, not change, the status quo. That is, an innovation was paraded out but actually preserved most of the underlying program or service; nothing substantively, especially costs, changed.

Recently, a disgruntled public works maintenance worker was heard referencing a once popular saying. “Our bosses think they’re innovative. But all they do is move chairs around on the Titanic.”

What can be done to reverse the ill effects of Low I? What can be done to bring back High I?

  1. Set a high bar for what is innovative. Every change isn’t an example of innovation. Don’t let the urge for success with low hanging fruit cause you to lower your standard for what true innovation could be. Yes, innovation comes in many forms. Don’t settle for easy.
  2. Work on your and your team’s mental preparation. Study great books such as Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley. Redefine innovation be elevating your belief in your team and yourself. Push your brain.
  3. Never do what I once did – ask department directors to come up with three new ideas. Ugh! Embarrassing. There are so many ways to elevate this conversation. Instead, talk with others about how to speak to the challenge of innovation.
  4. Create an innovation process or lab. In a world where there are many excellent ways to shepherd innovation, tossing employees together and expecting them to innovate is not a good plan. You might start by asking a group of employees to research how to be more effective innovators. Look, for example, at the Stanford on-line class. Allow skunk works (Peters and Waterman, 1982) to thrive. Let employees define problems and solution – with a framework and a plan for how to innovate.
  5. Seek deeper and sustained innovation. While I concede that efficiency and effectiveness gains are potential innovations, there are more serious tests for deeper and sustained innovation. For example, let’s say a municipal site-plan review process is reduced from 50 to 20 steps and the resulting cycle time is reduced by 50%. On many levels, this is an innovative improvement. As part of the process improvement, you may have introduced a new technology, on-line processes, new training and a new department structure.

A higher level of innovation urges the following questions: What permanent costs were taken out of the process? How was the savings passed on to the customer? How was the over-all operating budget permanently reduced? What regulations and requirements were eliminated? What steps are now easier for the customer? These questions beg for deeper, measurable and sustained change.

  1. Improve your skills. Teach systems learning. Spread the good news of process mapping and realignment. Promote project management, Six Thinking Hats, analytics, design thinking, empathy, scorecards and on and on. Get better at your core skills.
  2. Study and pursue disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation necessitates small steps. Experiment with new/disruptive service ideas. Ask “What’s good enough?” Discuss possible tradeoffs between service levels and serious cost reduction. Compromise on service levels. Forget best practices. Instead, fix (experiment first) a problem with a simple approach nobody has ever tried. Study what Deloitte and the Ash Institute have written on disruptive innovation.

Creating your cure for Low I will not be easy. I wish you well. Keep me posted.

Peter Burchard is a multi-sector coach, trainer, speaker and healthcare strategist. Website:

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