Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Isaac Getz, Organizational Innovation Thinker

Isaac Getz is an author, public speaker, senior advisor and currently holds the post of Professor at ESCP Business School. He specializes in the areas of leadership and breakthrough organizational transformation. Getz is the co-author of the award-winning international best-seller Freedom, Inc. (2009) with Brian Carney, which has been translated into fifteen languages. He is also author of the award-winning Liberated Company (2017), co-author of Leadership without Ego (2019) with Bob Davids and Brian Carney and  co-author of The Altruistic Enterprise (2019) with Laurent Marbacher. He is a columnist in Harvard Business Review France and Le Monde. Getz’s work has been instrumental in the rise of the corporate liberation movement in Europe and Canada. Since 2012, hundreds of companies and institutions have transformed their command-and-control organizations into freedom- and responsibility-based ones. Major adoptees include Michelin, Airbus, Decathlon, EDF, the French Social Security, and several Belgian ministries and French municipalities. A study by the French National Foundation for Management Education on the world’s most influential living management authors ranked Getz at N°4 and LinkedIn ranked Isaac in their Top 25 Influencers in France. Getz recently spoke to The Innovator about how to build a radically different organization that allows employee freedom of initiative and unleashes unparalleled creativity and innovation.

Q: How do you create a company culture that allows everyone to take initiative ?

IG:. Every company has a culture, even cultures that are toxic. The definition of culture is a set of norms shared by the majority. If it is doing your minimum or sabotaging others’ work that is your culture. If your employees have fun and while there do their best for the company, this too is a culture. Unfortunately, since the Industrial Revolution, the first culture—stemming from the command-and-control organization—settles in by default at almost companies. I studied a U.S. technology company VERTEX that had a different culture, that of freedom of initiative. One of the executives said that in his former command-and-control company, he would come every evening, not say hello to his family go to the basement and spend two hours reading comic strips because he needed to get rid of the anger he felt at work every day. When he interviewed at VERTEX, he told me that when he walked through the premises, he felt serenity and quietness , a feeling that was so shockingly different from his former workplace which was filled with tension and conflict. .Some companies say they care about people because they offer them perks and other incentives. But you can only dupe people for a time with organic food and yoga.  

Company culture is  essentially the nature of relations you have with others. Are they based on distrust and control or on trust, freedom, and self-control? Signing checks for bonuses and perks doesn’t alter the nature of relations at work.  You need to transform your organizational environment so that a different culture emerges at your workplace, one that embraces radical and innovative and creative ways of doing business, with the only constraint being realizing the company’s purpose.

Q: Why do so many companies make their employees miserable and stifle innovation?

IG: They inherited this command-and-control organizational environment based on what I call hierarchical bureaucracy from the Industrial Revolution.  It was great for the end of 18th century cotton mill with 2000 employees and 250 different types of job to perform because it enabled economy of scale and productivity, generating unheard of degrees of national wealth for the first time in history. Yet, despite all its advantages, hierarchical bureaucracy became outdated by around 2005 because it is not natural  for human beings to deny their fundamental and universal human needs. The consequence is endemic employee disengagement (on average 10% of employees are engaged according to Gallup) and the stifling of energy, initiative, and creativity at work. It creates Charlie Chaplins of Modern Times out of the front-line employees: they check their brain when they pass the company’s gates because thinking is viewed as dangerous there. For example, two decades ago, one of the largest consulting companies in the world hired a former U.S. Air Force pilot with a Harvard MBA as a junior consultant. He had a breakthrough idea for toll collection on highways that would revolutionize the way Americans drove to work and save millions of hours they collectively waste in the slowdowns before the toll machines. His manager listened and then told him: ‘You were hired to chop wood, later you will tell us where the wood is.’  If a consulting company that sells pitches innovation as their major service tells that to its people imagine what other companies say to their employees. Employee brains—and hearts—are like safes with treasures inside. Companies have lost the key. It shouldn’t be that way. Take the case of a company that installs and maintains pipes under the ground. All throughout the city there were heavy metal lids that allowed workers access underground. They were all locked and somehow several master keys were lost or broken with time. The cost of changing the lids was €750 per lid. The company spent a fortune on changing some of them. Then one employee found a drawing of the original key and replicated it by using a 3D printer  for a cost of €37 euros per key, saving the company lots of money. When asked why he didn’t point out the 3D printing idea earlier the employee responded  ‘No one asked me. Now, with all the transformation going on, allowing everyone to take initiatives, I decided to put it in place. This and many other great initiatives at this company were consequences of the organizational transformation they are currently conducting.

Q: How can a company successfully transform?

IG: The only way to unlock the employee initiative or performance and innovation inside a company is to radically transform the organizational environment. The CEO is the only one who has the mandate for such a transformation, not managers, nor employees or trade unions. But having a mandate doesn’t mean a CEO will launch this transformation. Many CEOs understand there is a lukewarm performance and lack of innovation inside their company but they don’t transform it. Instead,they buy licenses or startups which provide some innovation to their customers. It’s not just traditional companies in the car industry , Tell me something Google invented in-house in the last five years that made you say Wow!. They have become like Microsoft. Google exploits its legacy products to earn money to buy new cool stuff: Waze, etc. But not everyone’s pocket is as deep as Google’s and can use this “buying innovation” approach. Research shows that spending billions in R &D and on producing patents doesn’t work either. There is no correlation between the volume spent on R&D or the number of patents on innovation results. The only thing that really moves the needle on innovation is building the organizational environment which allows everyone to take initiative. It starts with the CEO and his letting go of his ego. Inflated CEO ego is natural. If you  climbed the ladder and are the CEO  you are supposed to be the most intelligent person in  the company. If the CEO wants to build an environment which trusts people intelligence and ideas, he can’t be the one that has the best ideas. I haven’t seen a successful organizational transformation which hasn’t started with the CEO’s transformation—with letting go off his ego.

Q: Can you cite some examples of companies that have managed to successfully liberate their organization and tap into the intelligence and innovation of their employees?

IG: Toyota Motor Manufacturing has been a forerunner. Every operator is encouraged to implement the ideas they have, whether it is a small improvement or a big innovation. At Toyota, even a complex idea will be implemented right away. One case I observed at a Toyota UK plant with mounting headlights on vehicles. A electrician discovered that the system could work with just two wires instead of four. In the car industry if you can shave assembly time for only a few seconds it leads to huge savings. At other companies a suggestion like this might be passed up the ladder but would not be acted upon right away. At Toyota  within one hour the idea was approved and  managers immediately boughtthe operator a ticket to go see the headlight supplier in Scotland. The supplier’s representative—a  top engineer, not some technician— met him at the railway station and aworked with him until his idea was put in place. The new headlights started  to be supplied the next week. But you need to go further than the local ideas of the front-line employees. If you want to become aliberated company, which means a company based around freedom of initiative and responsibility, every, employee—not only on the front-lines must be able to take any action that she decides is best for the company’s purpose. In such  companies, successful leaders—from CEO to supervisors—are those who make themselves redundant in running the company. Their role is to create and maintain the environments in which their teams can act on their own. There are probably only about 300-400 companies like this in the world. IDEO in Palo Alto, California is one. Since 1978, it built an organizational environment that allows everyone, including the lady at the reception desk and the people that clean the offices, to take initiatives for the good of the company’s purpose. Other companies that have adopted this approach in the 2010s include Michelin, some Airbus plants and Decathlon.

Q: What advice do you have for companies?

IG: Unlock initiative by transforming your workplace from one based on subordination and control to one based on trust and responsibility.  Employees share ideas for how to improve or innovate at a company with friends over beer after work or with family but not with their boss or colleagues. Why? Because unlike their company, their friends and family trust their intelligence. They are never asked at their company what they think so they conclude that the company thinks they are dumb—and they behave correspondingly. Instead of infantilizing employees, liberate them, turning them into responsible adults willing to contribute to and innovate in your company.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.