A RnD company in change

February 14, 2019

By Cat Halthur

BTA was an organisation conducting front-line RnD, and continuously monitored the scientific advanced in their field. During mandatory meetings all employees took turns in presenting new research findings (in-house and external), potential problems and new ideas.

These were laid-back Friday-evening meetings with crisps and beers. Intense brainstorming where everyone took an active part, including the management. Every idea was openly discussed, refined, and evaluated, until the employees was strengthened in how to proceed with their assignments.

The Friday-evening discussions also laid the foundation of BTA’s values, and which projects the board decided to invest in.

From a macro perspective, they had more or less a closed innovation process, guarding their intellectual property. But from a micro perspective the process, was at least internally open. All employees would take part in idea generation, refinement, assessment, execution, and to a large extent also the decision making.

After years of conducting solely RnD, focusing on smaller projects, the organisation launched a large-scale project requiring a manufacturing-like process. To succeed in this, a large number of workers were hired to perform routine labour. Some were former researchers, but most were recruited from production-line organisations.

The structure of the innovation process did not change. However, the conditions did:
Even though all employees were still welcome to the Friday-meetings, it was decided that they were not mandatory for the routine labourers.
The employees had traditionally taken turns on presenting findings during the meetings, but as the organisation grew, these opportunities were reserved for the researchers.
Even though most of the routine labourers did show up at the Friday-meetings, their degree of participation in the brainstorming was muffled.

The internal innovation process was no longer open, nor was the climate. As a consequence, there was a product related incident that costed the organisation huge amounts of money. It turned out that many of the routine labourers had foreseen this and unsuccessfully tried to get the management to listen.

In order to prevent similar incidents, the manager conveyed all employees to individual meetings. During these he asked open-ended questions, after which suggestions were compiled and presented to the board. It was decided that all departments would appoint one spokesperson to present ideas, problems and insights from their departments at a monthly closed meeting with the board.

In order to detect problems this could be a feasible model. However, there were no guidelines on how to identify and analyse opportunities, and generate ideas. And their front-end process had no elements that enabled a feed-back loop between management and employees, or between the departments. This was up to the individual spokespersons own initiative, and unfortunately that culture was lost. People no longer dared to voice their thoughts and the management did not dare to show vulnerability in front of the employees. Shame had set its claws in the organisation.

This reflects the biggest challenge facing society today – peoples shame, and their fear of disconnection.