Max Brooks' cult classic, The Zombie Survival Guide, a New York Times bestseller, chronicles a series of (hopefully) fictitious zombie outbreaks and attacks throughout human history, then shares best practices on how to survive them. The book is perhaps a leading indicator of increased cultural and academic interest in the topic. For instance, there's a newzombie-themed cable program about to launch and even mathematicians are building rigorous models (PDF) on the likelihood of a zombie outbreak leading to "the collapse of civilization."
In our own recent research, which includes dozens of interviews on innovation and intrapreneurship, we've noted how certain workplace practices can destroy employees' willingness to use their higher cognitive functions, like imagination and trust. Just as a virus Brooks calls "Solanum" turns people into zombies, the four contagions we describe below can create a zombie workplace — where creative people and good ideas disturbingly molder. But please don't panic if there appears to be an outbreak in your office, since we offer several survival tips as well.
First Contagion: Imbalance between idea generation and managerial attention. Consider a once-thriving global technology organization, that, when the economy turned, solicited employees' ideas to help set a new strategic direction. They called it "10 for 10: 10 big ideas for the next 10 years!" and set up idea drop boxes throughout the company. In four weeks, employees dropped in 1,200 ideas, six per employee.
Managers were overwhelmed by the response and unable to effectively evaluate ideas or provide feedback. By the time the company discovered that generating ideas is a lot easier than managing them, it was already too late. It had turned into a zombie workplace. The CEO called it an "absolute disaster...we ended up [angering] more staff than those we appeased, lost good employees who felt their ideas were not duly considered...We all lost, I will never do this again...we might never recover the trust and camaraderie that we had prior to this undertaking."
Survival tip: Dedicate enough managerial bandwidth to ensure transparency and idea advocacy. Managers must let employees know where to submit an idea, how long will it take for an idea advocate to review it, and when the idea will get feedback. Leading organizations also build idea advocacy maps. They track ideas like parcels, with tracking numbers. One large bank we studied takes this one step further, creating an online repository where ideas can be submitted, allowing peer-to-peer feedback to refine ideas, understand their business value, and ensure that the submitter can adequately communicate their ideas with executives.
Second Contagion: Leaving experimenters to their own devices. Zombie Survival Guide author Brooks writes, "Attempting to accomplish a task, failing, then by trial and error discovering a new solution, is a skill shared by many members of the animal kingdom but lost on the walking dead." In our own research, we sometimes hear about a related phenomenon: organizations fail to learn from earlier or other ongoing experiments. Rather than tapping an organization's collective intelligence, this freewheeling approach allows valuable funding to be spent on reinventing the wheel, or worse, encourages employees to make the same mistake ceaselessly like brain-dead zombies.
Survival tip: Capture Lessons Learned. Written case studies in the form of stories or reports can serve to capture the lessons learned during the experimentation process. Postmortems, even a simple review of checklists (what was accomplished, what was missing etc.) will help as well. A lessons learned document should not overvalue experiments that yielded successful or expected outcomes. Often the experiments that yield unexpected results have the greatest potential to generate new knowledge by offering the opportunity to learn and reflect. Google, for instance, has integrated the experimentation process and the potential for failure or abandonment into its corporate identity. The company launches its products in beta testing mode, acknowledging that no product is perfect, even though millions of customers might be using the product every day.
Third Contagion: Getting Too Far Ahead of the Curve. Many innovation specialists recognize the so-called "valley of death," characterized by underfunding and undermanaging the development of an idea. But later they fall victim to inattention to market conditions. In the early 1990s, Nagesh Challa invented the Media Stick, a 2-megabyte storage device for PCs and mobile phones, "but people did not know what to do with that much storage space." Challa found himself again fighting for survival when he founded Ecrio in 1998. Ahead of the curve, and thus vulnerable to a zombie workplace outbreak, he pitched his idea for a multimedia device to a number of mobile phone companies. He was repeatedly told, "We're looking for something simpler."
Survival tip: Active Waiting. In such cases, actively wait for a change in the market conditions before introducing an idea, and use your best data monitoring and analytical techniques to guide your timing. Consider the calculus of the movie industry regarding release dates. The major studios consult the National Research Group (NRG) Competitive Positioning report before they finalize the all-important opening date for a movie. The report lets them know "when one of [its] films is on a collision course with a competitor's film that appeals to the same herd...and the losing studio can reschedule its opening to a different weekend, even if it's a less advantageous time period (i.e., not the summer and not the holidays)."
Fourth Contagion: Colleagues hear your ideas as noise. In our recent survey, we found that 98 percent of employees have ideas they believe could be developed into at least one useful innovation within the next four years. Yet, our research also shows that most employees cannot decide which among their collection of ideas they want to pursue. Lacking the focus or guts to see any idea to completion, many end up being perceived as generating a lot of noise, like meaningless groans from a pack of zombies. Organizations that show a lack confidence and trust in creative people may be showing signs of a zombie workplace outbreak.
Survival tip: Perform analytical work on your ideas. For any idea that you have, take your initial estimate of the amount of time it might to take to develop, and then multiply it by five. This is about how much time will be really required, according to practitioners we've interviewed. Next, recall a fundamental law of economics: You are trying to satisfy unlimited wants (ideas) with limited resources (time and energy). So be conscientious about the ideas that you focus on in order to optimize these two valuable resources. For instance, we talked to successful innovators that not only maintain an idea portfolio, but also identify the various dimensions on which their ideas differ from one another. Some ideas may be concerned with local operations, while others might have global or organizational implications. Doing some of your own analytical work will win you credibility, or can begin to rebuild trust in your ideas.
We hope this survival guide can prevent your office from becoming a zombie workplace. If it's too late, we would love to hear the gory details. Have you ever witnessed a zombie workplace outbreak? And what have you done about it?
H. James Wilson is a senior researcher at Babson Executive Education. Kevin C. Desouza is an associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. His next book,Intrapreneurship: Managing Ideas within the Organization, will be released next year.