Years ago, I was one of the youngest employees to be invited (to this day I still don't know who nominated me) to speak at Bechtel's Management Advisory Seminar - a yearly gathering of top managers and staff to discuss the topic of innovation.
While this was supposed to a great honor, it turned out to be a lot of work. It was a day-long affair, and I was to give two speeches. One on "Innovation in Marketing & Sales," and the other was something like "Innovation in Being Global." So there I was, the only one foolish enough to be suckered into making two presentations with about 400 people in the room.
As usual I talked too much, waved my hands around too much, and irritated the heck out of the head of our regional office. After the presentation was over, no one had any questions. Later, the head of the office actually asked me to explain everything in a written memo to him.
We never talked about innovation again, but he must have liked my writing style because I ended up doing some serious speech writing for him and a few other senior managers.
That was the extent of my encounter with innovation in the staid world of engineering and construction.
"At least they let you speak," said one of my supervisors when I asked why no one cared about my recommendations.
So why did no one pay attention in an official capacity? Why is it that everyone praised me in private, and patted me on the head in public, dismissing me as "that passionate fellow"?
Gary Hamel's blog post "Making Innovation Everyone's Job" helps me understand why years later.
Here's what Hamel says:
... it’s surprising that so few companies have made innovation everyone’s job. For the most part, innovation is still relegated to organizational ghettos—it is still the responsibility of dedicated units like new product development and R&D, where creative types are kept safely out of the way of those who have to “run the business.”
Today innovation is the buzzword du jour, but there’s still a yawning chasm between rhetoric and reality. If you doubt this, seek out a few entry-level employees and ask them the following questions:
1. How have you been equipped to be a business innovator? What training have you received? What tools have you been supplied with?
2. Do you have access to an innovation coach or mentor? Is there an innovation expert in your unit who will help you develop your breakout idea?
3. How easy is it for you to get access to experimental funding? How long would it take you to get a few thousand dollars in seed money? How many levels of bureaucracy would you have to go through?
4. Is innovation a formal part of your job description? Does your compensation depend in part on your innovation performance?
5. Do your company’s management processes—budgeting, planning, staffing, etc.—support your work as an innovator or hinder it?
Don’t be surprised if these questions provoke little more than furrowed brows and quizzical looks. Truth is, there are not more than a handful of companies on the planet that have, like Whirlpool, built an all-encompassing, corporatewide innovation system.
Ouch. Innovation wasn't supposed to happen from the ground up at Bechtel, it was top down. I had crossed the boundaries of the culture of the time. And that's the point at which I decided I had to leave.
I stuck around for a year or two more - helping build the Bechtel Intranet, working on a company-wide reengineering project, sending a few emails to Riley Bechtel, meeting Fred Gluck, making a few people mad. For some reason, I loved it all.
My seven year "career" at Bechtel ended when I left to teach high school math (that lasted for a year) and never returned to the engineering world again. So much for innovation.
I still look back at my days at Bechtel as a great experience which prepared me for the Internet and consulting in a way that I could not have experienced if I had been an outside-consultant. I saw what worked and why. I understood culture and its contribution to decision-making. I learned about fear and resistance to change. I made a lot of good friends, some of whom I still look up to this very day.
And, most of all, I learned the importance of working for myself.
Here's more from Hamel >>