Editor’s Notebook: Crushing Barriers

by Joy Finnegan
Posted 8/16/2010

Recently I saw an interesting clip on YouTube. It is a short video produced by NASA astronaut Andrew Thomas. The video shows a young engineer attempting to bring her ideas about a redesign of part of a spacecraft to her superiors. The engineer is met with much resistance from every level. Her ideas are basically dismissed out of hand without the slightest consideration about their validity, applicability or relevance. Although everyone involved acts professionally, the young engineer is given platitude after platitude, basically patted on the head and told to behave. You can view the video at our website, www.aviationtoday.com/am.

These subtle messages are just the types of barriers to innovation and dissent that crush new thinking.

This video was produced as part of an attempt by NASA to encourage open-minded discussion and innovation among its employees. The video is a compilation of many people’s experiences there, but based on actual occurrences.

It reminded me of several places I have worked as well. And it also reminded me of one place that I worked where new ideas and innovation were welcomed.

I’m sure everyone has worked at a company that blocks innovation and ideas even under the guise of welcoming them. One of the most striking things about the video is the hypocritical nature of the responses. Even as they are telling the young engineer that they welcome new ideas and discussion about differing opinions, they are shutting down the creative process. As I said, I have worked in a place that did just that and worse.

I can remember bringing an unsafe situation to the attention of my superiors at one company. I was told that it would be taken care of and believed at that moment that I had made a difference and prevented a potential catastrophe. Later I learned that my concerns had been dismissed out of hand when I observed the same situation continuing after my report.

Fortunately, in that case, the unsafe situation didn’t continue much longer as a third party, outside of the company, also reported it. At that point, the company could no longer bury their heads in the sand.

Later, a leader of that company said to me, “I guess we owe you an apology.” But he never did apologize. Semantics? Yes. But these subtle messages are just the types of barriers to innovation and dissent that crush new thinking.

On the other hand, I also worked at a company that truly encouraged creative thinking. The entire time I worked at that OEM there was an openness and underlying sense of energy created by the free exchange of ideas between various departments. The company had some “old-school” systems and thinkers, to be sure. No company is perfect.

But, I knew from the first week of employment there, that things were different. The head of the department I worked in, a vice president of the company, was respected, revered, some would even say feared. She ran a very tight ship. But in my very first week, I attended a departmental meeting. I thought I would simply sit, observe and learn. I was the newest, youngest member of that team and had never done that type of work before. But in that meeting the vice president spoke to me and asked me for my observations of the department and said, “We welcome your ideas here. A fresh set of eyes is always good to have. If you see things that can be done differently or better, please let me know.”

A statement like that really sets the tone, not only for the employee being addressed but also for others there. If the leader of the department is asking for ideas from the youngest, most inexperienced team member, then it must be fine for the more experienced ones to bring their ideas to the table as well.

The NASA video concludes with the young engineer at her new place of employment, Google. She brings up an idea to her supervisor. He encourages her to pursue the idea with upper management. The clip also states, “Maybe it’s not surprising that the monthly income at Google is about the same as NASA’s annual budget.” I applaud NASA for having the courage to release this clip and encourage you to take a look at it. Perhaps there are lessons there that can help your company lower the barriers to innovation.

 

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