The most important contribution a star employee can make to your business is to improve it. However, over-zealous implementations of quality-paradigms valuing consistency and compliance over innovation can inhibit management from identifying, let alone reaping the benefits of, the richness of diversity in their labour force and the variety of employees’ passions and imaginations.
Too often by the time a pet project’s contribution to the bottom-line is appreciated the project designer has grown disaffected by a lack of recognition, and/or has moved on to pastures which are more geared to encourage innovation.
My latest study of high performing professionals revealed six strategies for protecting transformational initiatives from dissolving into the bureaucratic wilderness and ensuring their normalisation across an operation. These are described within the acronym STAIRR and address six thematic areas: Structure, Transition, Authority, Inspiration, Reporting, and Reward.
The first step in my STAIRR model is Structure. This explains how innovations manifest and within the study were exclusively either from a driven individual, thematically identified as a “Gunslinger” or “Knight”, or a duo of teammates where one is more senior: the “Mentor-Apprentice” model. As may be inferred from the names, the former passionate soles are driven to innovate at the front-line and make use of the limited resources that they find at origin of the problem.
These solutions are generally hacked together and, initially at least, are held together as much by the energy of the driven soul as by the resources employed. The “Mentor-Apprentice” model was observed where a charismatic leader and a dedicated junior would collaborate to organise larger and more complex projects. The senior would have some authority within the organisation and could command greater activation of corporate assets.
The second step is to provide a framework for the Transition of initiatives. Even the most dedicated member of staff is an employee by choice, and all must eventually move to new adventures, or even to retire. After identifying innovations, a fertile environment must be prepared for others to eventually take them over. This includes policy to help ideas transition across borders – including those virtual boundaries within every company, and/or passed down through generations upon the departure of a key employee.
Due to the timing of my study which followed the Covid-19 pandemic, I was also able to identify a need for a strong technology infrastructure. Crises do happen in all businesses, and technology has been identified as a safety net. Companies that have strong IT teams will therefore be able to capture innovations before they suffer irreversible damage. Somehow related is the topic of maternity or paternity leave, as when an innovator reaches this period, they must handover not only their business-as-usual tasks, but must also find a caring owner for their personal projects if they are not to decline during their absence.
Access to persons with Authority is the third step. Certainly in the case of Mentor-Apprentice pairs, some level of authority generally already exists. However, proximity and even casual contact with senior managers is advantageous. This is especially for Gunslingers or Knights who address urgent needs with minimal resources and require rapid reinforcement. This is more important in companies with strict hierarchical processes or single decision-makers. The patronage of a project by a senior decision-maker logically appears to have a significant impact on both the impact and longevity of an initiative.
As befitting any management theory reporting is also a key factor. However, given that many initiatives are launched informally and around the fringes of corporate procedure, reporting can generally be expected to be performative at best. Companies who encourage sharing of initiatives, including their weaknesses at brown bag lunches for example, can help the innovator reflect and improve upon their design and help initiatives become normalised across departments. Managers may also wish to consider how they may make use of other corporate assets, especially digital tools such as intranets and social media. A public post thanking a successful individual can have wide-ranging benefits not only for the member of staff concerned, but in motivating others.
Finally, there must eventually be a reward for the project initiator. And this does not always have to be a formal promotion or monetary benefit from the company. In some cases appreciation and a formal acknowledgement can meet the requirements. Some innovators develop new ways of doing things for their own personal development and satisfaction. But whatever the situation, the management team should find a way to acknowledge the additional effort if only to ensure that others may be encouraged to emulate the innovator.
In conclusion, the STAIRR model presents six steps for identifying and anchoring innovations within your business and HR managers should be looking for those high-performing individuals and duos who continuously break the norms. Focus should also be made on external engagement with stakeholders, as well as training and development.
Decision-makers should be encouraged to walk around and be available, and there should be systems in place to encourage innovators to share their wisdom and to be rewarded for it. Needless to say, strong IT infrastructure and policies for maternity and paternity leave should also be in place for when the need arises.