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Harnessing Your Company’s “Rudolphs” to Drive Innovation

The Age of Innovation is here. Slowly but surely it has dawned on leaders in all industries that our global economy has changed the game forever. Oh, sure, products and processes still matter, but what really keeps a company competitive is its people—more specifically, the people who know how to innovate.

We’ve found that in most organizations 10% of the employees are true agents of innovation—people who can shine the light exactly where a company needs to go. We call these folks “Rudolphs,” after the holiday character with the “shiny nose.”  Basically, Rudolphs connect the dots that others don't see. Since they tend to identify causes of problems (rather than symptoms), they generate sustainable solutions more quickly and efficiently than their counterparts.

If an organization takes the time to identify, nurture and listen to these key individuals, they will achieve consistently higher levels of innovation and success.  These Rudolphs have always been important but in today’s challenging business world they're indispensable.

Here are some strategies for creating a Rudolph-friendly culture:

  • Lead in ways that don't force people to check their red noses at the door. The old (yet still prevalent) command-and-control style of management is antithetical to environments that nurture Rudolphs. To elicit and nurture innovative thinking requires as much from leaders as it does from employees. Leaders must continually be more participative than autocratic, treat all employees as business partners regardless of their titles, and focus on removing barriers and providing resources for people to be successful. Once you give up your illusion of control, more ideas will percolate from the ground up.  By giving employees a voice and an avenue to implement ideas, you naturally compel them to voluntarily take on innovative and creative thinking above and beyond their current responsibilities.

  • Learn to recognize Rudolphs. Here's a clue: They're often labeled square pegs, radicals, misfits, loose cannons, zealots, or innovators. And while their "Rudolphness" may differ based on context, circumstance, and environment, one constant for all Rudolphs is that they cannot help but spend time: (1)  involuntarily thinking about the things they are most passionate about, (2)  acquiring the capabilities to manifest their thoughts into reality, and (3) taking action.

  • Identify (and meet) your Rudolphs' unmet needs.  Rudolphs are not always aggressive enough to fight for their ideas, or savvy enough to navigate the maze of office politics.  Unless you already have a Rudolph-friendly culture that embraces risk, do everything you can to shield and nurture them. If you don't, they'll stay in hiding, with their noses dimmed. And everyone will lose.
    —They need an outlet to share ideas on a regular basis
    —Protect them from their direct managers as well as ill-willed peers (because Rudolphs are commonly seen as a threat)
    —Give them permission to take risks and share unconventional ideas
    —Allow them access to collaborative teams that also include non-Rudolphs
    —Make sure they have the ability to execute their ideas, but not in a haphazard fashion

  • Put systems in place to encourage innovative thinking. (Hint: Money talks!) Rudolph cultures draw creativity and innovation from employees, and that requires more than the old-fashioned "suggestion box" program. Boeing's Creative Edge Program, for example, designed to make the C-17 cargo aircraft more affordable, paid employees for their cost-saving ideas. In return, employees have generated over $90 million with their ideas over the past decade and continue to impact the bottom line in very significant ways. Every year, hundreds of employees contribute their innovative ideas and are awarded from $50 to $250 per employee plus 1 to 2% of the first year net savings. One employee actually earned $32,000 this way!

  • Embrace the “AVTAR approach":
    1. Awareness: Generate awareness of a proposed change.
    2. Value: Share information that inspires employees to find value in a proposed change. Until employees recognize the value in the proposed change, you can't go on to the next step (otherwise, you'd be imposing change, which is the antithesis of creating a Rudolph culture).
    3. Thinking: Employees begin to bear the burden of responsibility for the proposed change. This shift in thinking requires managers to let go of their own agendas and employees to ask questions reflecting their new awareness.
    4. Actions: Responsibility has mostly shifted to employees. New actions and behaviors begin to appear based upon new ways of thinking.
    5. Results: Results flow organically, a natural outcome of the shift in thinking and new actions and behaviors (not enforced by rewards and punishment).

Your Rudolphs are probably lurking somewhere on the sidelines, waiting for you to find the "on switch" that illuminates their guiding beacon. That's great news for cash-strapped companies that can ill-afford to hire expensive superstars.  Smart companies know it's time to clean the mud off the noses of their Rudolphs and let their creative and profitable ideas shine.

About the Author(s)

Cyndi Laurin, Ph.D., and Craig Morningstar Cyndi Laurin, Ph.D., and Craig Morningstar are coauthors of The Rudolph Factor: Finding the Bright Lights that Drive Innovation in Your Business (Wiley, 2009).