< 10 Hints 1
Creating an Innovative Organization:
Hints for Involving Frontline Workers
By Robert D. Behn
The following article was
originally published in the Fall 1995 issue of State and Local Government
Review (Vol. 27, No. 3). Reprinted here with the kind permission of
State and Local
Part 1 of 4
An innovative organization engages everyone
organization in the task of developing and implementing new ways to
reach the organization's goals. And everyone indeed includes everyone
from the chief executive to frontline workers.l
Getting the chief executive to be innovative ought not to be too
difficult. After all, the chief executive was not repeatedly promoted to
more and more sophisticated responsibilities without a few creative
ideas along the way. We expect that the chief executive of a business
division or a government agency will be innovative (though, all too
often, we are disappointed).2
Regardless of how difficult it is to get the chief executive to be
innovative it will certainly be more difficult to get middle managers to
be innovative, still more difficult to get frontline supervisors to be
innovative, and perhaps even more difficult to convince frontline
workers that part of their job includes being innovative. This raises
important questions: Is it possible to create an innovative
organization? Is it possible to persuade every individual in the
organization that an important part of his or her responsibility is to
develop and implement new ways of achieving the organization's purposes?
For most people, I suspect, the answer to these questions is yes. Most
of us have observed one or more innovative organizations.
Often these innovative organizations are found in small, suburban
communities with homogeneous populations such as Visalia, California
(Osborne and Gaebler 1992), or Dakota County, Minnesota (Light 1994).
The basic characteristics of these communities seem to foster the trust
that appears necessary for innovation to flourish (Behn 1991a). But
innovative organizations have also been created in more demanding
- at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, where a diversity of people
are frequently rotated in and out of intense encounters (Behn 1992);
- at the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare, where more than
50 field offices with histories of independence are dispersed around
the state (Behn 1991b); and
- at the Department of Sanitation in New York City, where labor
disputes and contentious politics are the norm (Behn 1993, 1996).
If innovative organizations can be found in such non-nurturing
environments, they can, perhaps, be created in a wide variety of
If innovative organizations exist, and if we assume that there is some
benefit to such organizations, other important questions are raised. How
can the leaders of a public agency somehow make it innovative?3
How can these leaders get everyone in the agency to pursue innovative
ways of achieving the organization's mission?4 How can they
get middle managers, frontline supervisors, and frontline workers all to
The last question may be the most important for four reasons. In the
first place, most organizations have more frontline workers than they
have middle managers or frontline supervisors. Also, frontline workers
know the most about the actual production of the organization's
services. In addition, frontline workers have daily contact with many of
the agency's clients and stakeholders, so they are well positioned to
figure out how the agency should respond to this key part of its
environment. Finally, if a leadership team has some ideas that do
inspire frontline workers to be innovative, they may be able to figure
out how to get everybody else in the organization to be innovative as
well.5 Indeed, the 10 hints for getting frontline workers to
be innovative can be applied (with a little adaptation) throughout the
rest of the organization.
Helping Frontline Workers Become Innovative
Innovative organizations do not miraculously come into existence.
Rather, they are created by leaders who establish the conditions
necessary to bring out the innovative ideas within everyone.
How can organizational leaders create these conditions? In particular,
how can they create conditions that will encourage frontline workers to
be innovative? This requires, I believe, that leaders fulfill two major
conditions. They must convince frontline workers that the leadership
supports the line; and, they must ensure that frontline workers
understand the big picture.
In every effective organization, there is some kind of implicit contract
between the leadership and the line. The line will produce what the
leadership wants; in turn, the leadership produces what the line wants.
The organization's leadership wants to make this message as explicit as
possible: "You produce for us, and we'll produce for you" (Behn
This implicit contract is needed by any organization that seeks to
become innovative. Frontline workers will not help an organization's
leadership do a better job at achieving its mission unless they believe
these leaders will help them. This is a simple quid pro quo. If leaders
want help from the front line, they had better help the front line.
Moreover, leadership has to make the first move. The agency's top
leadership needs to go out of its way to make sure that the frontline
workers realize that management is on the workers' side. The first two
hints are designed to achieve
Condition 1: Frontline workers know that leadership is on
But what should those frontline workers who have decided that being
innovative is good for the organization (and good for them) attempt to
accomplish? In what direction should they attempt to innovate? What are
the constraints? How will an innovation fit within other efforts being
made throughout the agency? What is the purpose of the agency and how
will any specific innovation help to achieve that purpose? To be
effective as innovators, frontline workers must understand what the
organization is trying to accomplish, why it is trying to accomplish
that, and how it might achieve that goal. "Broader perspectives,"
according to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "help stimulate innovation."
Innovation is more likely, she writes, "when jobs are defined broadly
rather than narrowly, when people have a range of skills to use and
tasks to perform to give them a view of the whole organization, and when
assignments focus on results to be achieved rather than rules or
procedures to be followed" (1988, 179). The last eight hints are
designed to achieve
Condition 2: Frontline workers understand the big picture.
Before frontline workers are going to become innovative, they have to
believe that the organization's leadership supports them, and they have
to understand the big picture.
Hint 1: Be immediately responsive to requests for improved
working conditions (or obtain a new photocopier quickly).
When an executive first asks frontline workers or middle managers what
should be done to improve the organization's effectiveness, the
responses will inevitably focus on working conditions. People will
complain about the lack of a soft drink machine, the broken toilet, or
the photocopier that barely reproduces the original. At the Bureau of
Motor Equipment in the New York City Department of Sanitation, the
mechanics' first concerns focused on heating in the winter, cooling in
the summer, and cages in which to secure their tools.6 All of
these are simple complaints; they focus primarily on the working
conditions of the workers, though all do relate, directly or indirectly,
to the achievement of the organization's mission. Obviously, workers
will be more productive if they have the right tool (be it a wrench or a
photocopier). The closer workers are to facilities, such as vending
machines or rest rooms, the less time lost from the job. Although such
requests appear to concern only the convenience of the workers, they
also improve organizational effectiveness.
Moreover, such requests are a test. The workers have asked for these
improvements many times before, yet management has never obtained a new
photocopier. In fact, as far as the workers can tell, no one in
management has even tried to order a new photocopier. In the workers'
logic, should not the top managers of the organization be able to pull
off the simple challenge of getting a new photocopier? (If top
management has remodeled its own offices, the workers will know that new
equipment can be acquired when management really wants to do so.) Thus,
the request for some simple and obvious improvement in working
conditions is a test of how serious management is about improving the
If these upper-echelon people wandering through our
production facilities are as sincere about improving the effectiveness
of the organization as their pious words suggest, they certainly ought
to be able to get our long-needed photocopier. If they don't, they don't
care. If they can't, they are incompetent. Either way, it's not worth
our time and effort to come up with clever ways to make the organization
better if management can't recognize and act on this simple, obvious
The quicker that top management produces the new copier, the better its
credibility will be.
In fact, before asking frontline workers what should be done to improve
the organization, its leaders ought to know the answer they will hear.
Before top management meets with the workers, leaders ought to find out
what kind of improvements the workers will request. Before the meeting,
they ought to check out exactly what they will have to do to produce the
improvement and how long it will take. Then, when confronted with the
request, they can commit to making the improvement and also state
clearly whether the improvement will be completed in a day, a week, a
month, or a year. To promise a new photocopier in a week and then
produce it in a month is certainly better than never producing it at
all; but the delay does bring into question how seriously management
takes its own deadlines.
To identify the needs of frontline workers, the agency's leadership
ought to ask the union. In fact, in a unionized agency, if the
organization's leaders go straight to their frontline workers, the union
will view this as a direct threat, an effort to undermine its role. At
the Bureau of Motor Equipment, the agency's management asked the leaders
of BME's different trade unions to help identify members to represent
frontline workers on a labor-management committee. Hint 1 1/2 might be:
Don't ignore (or try to go around) the union.
Hint 2: Support mistakes (or sit next to the first honest
innovator called before a legislative committee).
Innovative organizations make mistakes, lots of mistakes (Behn 1991a).
And how the organization treats these mistakes and those who make them
sends important signals throughout the organization. If the mistaken
innovators are punished in any way, even if they are just perceived to
be punished, frontline workers will relearn a basic lesson of
bureaucratic life: It does not pay to experiment with new ideas.
Unfortunately, a lot of people make their living catching mistaken
innovations. These mistake catchers (journalists, legislators, and now,
inspectors general) get their jollies and their professional recognition
from uncovering and exposing mistakes. The moral fervor with which they
take on this assignment combined with the well-known and easily
implemented strategy for publicizing any mistake creates the Ten
Commandments of Government: "Thou shalt not make a mistake. Thou shalt
not make a mistake. Thou shalt not make a mistake." After all, the
mistake catchers do not want to catch the mistake: They really want to
catch the mistake-maker.
If frontline workers learn that no mistake, even an honest mistake, goes
unpunished, they will certainly be reluctant to be innovative.
Consequently, leaders who wish to create an innovative organization have
to figure out ways to prevent those who make mistakes from being
Private sector organizations obviously have an advantage here. They can
make most of their mistakes without being publicly exposed. U.S.
attorneys and journalists will be concerned about illegalities, and
financial analysts (and journalists) will be concerned about very
expensive mistakes. But in business, small expenditures that merely
prove unproductive or inefficient are not cause for a moral crusade.
Mistake catchers have a hard time making a living off of the private
In contrast, the smallest public sector mistake can easily become
front-page news, with investigative reporters, legislators, and
inspectors general all competing to get the credit for exposing this
latest waste of the taxpayers' dollar. Can you imagine a public agency
copying the approach to failure taken by the Ore-Ida subsidiary of H. J.
Heinz? Every time it identifies a "perfect failure," it shoots off a
cannon in celebration. Peters and Waterman observe:
The perfect failure concept arises from [the] simple
recognition that all research and development is inherently risky, that
the only way to succeed at all is through lots of tries, that
management's primary objective should be to induce lots of tries, and
that a good try that results in some learning is to be celebrated even
when it fails. (1982, 69)
Shooting off the cannon serves another purpose: By formally calling an
end to a mistake in a positive way, it ensures that people do not
continue to pour more resources into a mistaken idea in a futile attempt
to prove that they were really right all along.
What is the public sector equivalent of Ore-Ida's cannon? How can the
leaders of a public agency convince their frontline workers that
mistakes are an acceptable and even a necessary part of improving agency
performance? In government, if a cannon is shot off to celebrate a
failure, most frontline workers will think that the cannon is aimed at
Unfortunately, the agency's leaders are not the only ones with cannons.
Journalists, legislators, and inspectors general all have cannons
too--and these do not fire mere ceremonial blanks. Their cannons can
easily take out a public employee--be that a frontline worker or an
Thus in the long run, it would be desirable to convince not just the
frontline workers but also the general public that mistakes are
acceptable--indeed, a necessary part of improving agency performance.
This is not an easy sell. Indeed, it may never be possible. But the
manager can at least publicly stand up for any frontline worker accused
of making an honest mistake.
What happens when the first frontline worker who has made a creative but
ultimately unsuccessful effort to improve performance is called to
testify before a legislative committee? This is, of course, the
nightmare of every government employee: to be publicly accused of
incompetence, stupidity, or theft in a forum designed to ensure both
that you are unable to offer a coherent defense and that all your
friends will learn of your presumed failures and vices. The usual
management strategy is to control the problem, and to limit the damage,
by making sure that the fewest people and the smallest part of the
organization are affected and that everyone and everything else is
isolated from the accused. For the good of the entire organization,
according to this strategy, one individual or one unit should accept all
In the short run, this strategy may indeed protect the rest of the
agency both from guilt by association and from any adverse legislative
action such as a budget cut. But over the long run, it only reinforces
the well-known message: Mistakes are not tolerated, and those who make
them do so at their personal peril.
Suppose however, that the agency director shows up at the legislative
hearing and sits right next to the accused frontline worker so that both
are automatically included in any journalist's picture. The frontline
worker is no longer the story; the agency head is. Legislators can
punish not merely a lowly worker or small unit; they can punish the
agency head and the entire organization. Although the leader will offer
a better-reasoned and more articulate defense, it will still appear to
be purely defensive. Even the well-established business sector
argument--that mistakes are required to make progress--may still produce
the headline: "Agency head defends worker's mistake. "
Yet, for internal purposes, that is precisely the headline the agency
head should be seeking. The objective is not to convince frontline
workers that honest mistakes are essential to improvement.
Intellectually, everyone understands that, and distributing a copy of
the director's testimony can reinforce this basic truth. The objective
is to convince people throughout the organization that people who make
honest mistakes will not be merely tolerated but will be vigorously
defended and that those in the organization who are willing to
experiment with innovative ways to improve performance will be
protected, even at personal cost to the agency director.
Clearly, the internal signals have to be consistent with this external
message. To help frontline workers understand that leadership is on
their side, it is important that people suffer no internal penalty for
trying. The agency's leaders have to value initiative. This means they
should not penalize people for doing something. They should only
penalize people for doing nothing.
This also means that the agency's leaders may have to accept what middle
managers or frontline workers do even if it does not meet the
leadership's definition of perfection. When the agency's frontline
workers take initiative and work hard, the leadership needs to recognize
All this helps establish the trust that is essential for innovation. To
become innovative, frontline workers must trust their leadership. They
have to believe that they will not be punished for the inevitable
mistakes that flow from any serious effort to develop innovative ways to
achieve the organization's purposes.
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