by Beth Comstock - from Harvard Blogs
That’s a favorite phrase of Angela Blanchard, the CEO of Neighborhood Centers, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides services for 340,000 people along the Gulf Coast. Every week her organization faces new problems for which road maps to a solution don’t yet exist and resources are never ample. Blanchard needs her people to be inventive, capable, and enterprising. Above all, they must be able to improvise—to take whatever they have to work with and make the most of it.
Sometimes when candidates who want to join Neighborhood Centers learn of Blanchard’s expectations, they start to worry that they lack the training to take on such complex challenges. Blanchard’s standard reply is tough but empowering: No one has the training. Figure it out.
The notion of the “FIO” job description resonates with us at GE because it describes what’s behind some of our most exciting innovations, especially in emerging markets. As a huge company with a long history, we’ve mastered the traditional approaches: maximizing efficiency and quality by relying on highly specialized and expert professionals and well-designed processes. But as we venture into new territory—say, a hospital or health center in rural China—we need radically different ways to solve problems. So we’ve established customer innovation centers close to where new solutions are needed, and we help our employees there abandon their assumptions about what customers need. Instead, they observe how people actually live and work. They create relevant offerings and improve on them iteratively, in real time. They figure it out.
This is how a resourceful GE team in India was able to build medical equipment that can function despite intermittent electricity. A hospital newborn unit was the first setting they focused on. Waiting for reliable power was simply not an option.
With GE’s future success dependent on creative innovation, we are now continually making such demands of our people. We expect employees to thrive in uncertainty, take initiative, and respond resiliently when their ideas fall short.
I don’t think that’s too tall an order. Today, new disruptions hit and capabilities change at a dizzying pace; figure-it-out jobs are the building blocks for what will have to be figure-it-out careers. “Forget your old job descriptions,” I tell the people on my marketing team. “You should be as central a part of the process of innovation as product managers and engineers.”
Top managers at a large enterprise like GE need to honor their side of the bargain with this new imperative. Smart employees should be able to figure it out, but they also must be enabled to do so. The organizational culture around them should celebrate ingenuity. Systems must not lock people into narrow roles.
Angela Blanchard’s management challenge is similar to the reality facing all organizations. As leaders and managers, we have to motivate our people to come up with workable solutions to problems that weren’t even on the radar screen when they were hired. There’s no operator’s manual for most of what we’ll ask people to work on. But somehow, together, we’ll figure it out.