Job Losses and the Effect on Innovation

As the Canadian Public Service navigates through the recent job cuts as part of the 2012 budget, I’ve written about different skills that will help any public servant through cutbacks including survival tips for those who survive the job losses and a call to truly think if the public service is the right career for you. Job losses are tough and sometimes in the struggle to get through the stages of grief associated with significant loss, we can lose track of our progress on the road to innovation and we can lose our desire to continually innovate.

Innovation works best in organizations that have a diverse workforce. The more varied the backgrounds of your employees, the more likely you are to have different points of views colliding and meshing. An organization benefits from having employees who bring different backgrounds, experiences and skills to the table. A more diverse workforce will have employees who disagree with or question policies and methodologies. The organization gains divergent viewpoints which can only aid in innovation and creative ideas being developed.

While it is true that innovation would take root and be supported much easier during times of surpluses and increasing budgets, a time of austerity does not mean it is impossible to innovate. As I described in my blog post about disruptive innovation, it is possible for a public servant to innovate even when the purse strings are tightened. Even through job cuts, if an organization has hired people of a diverse background the disruption to innovation should be minimal right. So why does innovation slow down or stop entirely during job cuts? What organizational factors change to stop innovation?

It is possible during job cuts that the people with good ideas are fewer which means less innovation is occurring throughout the organization. On the surface, the problem seems that simple. You let go of your innovators and less innovation happens. The problem is more complex than it appears on the surface. Downsizing will never get rid of all of your innovators. The people with the ideas may be less but they are still employed within your organization. Simply losing your innovators is only one small factor. Downsizing dismantles or interrupts the organizational infrastructure required to support innovation. The collaborative webs (meetings, working groups, resources, groups) from which innovation emerges from are sent into flux during a time of downsizing. As the organization navigates the waters of job loss, the usual collaborative linkages and strategic alignment of resources, people and time are lost. Employees are not connecting, resources are not being shifted to support innovative ideas and formal research and development grinds to a halt. As job losses occur, the network of informal relationships used by innovators to make strategic linkages and secure the necessary resources to turn ideas into reality are lost. In many cases, the people you routinely innovate with are simply not there or their primary focus is not on innovation but rather surviving the job cuts. Simply put, the organization cannot innovate as the necessary ingredients for innovation fall apart.

The whole process of innovation is dysfunctional in an attempt by the organization to re-align resources and achieve certainty through efficiency. Should the downsizing be too focused on efficiency savings, it is possible to eliminate all innovation within the organization or leave the innovation infrastructure permanently damaged. Efficiency exercises encourage reduced creativity in favour of efficiency. As a result, we see a shift from disruptive innovation to incremental innovation, a much safer and efficient (in the short term) way of innovation.

There is a need for conformity, control and internal harmony and hence the organization is unreceptive to employees’ ideas. Employees’ ultimately become discouraged and began to focus on surviving day to day rather than bring forward creative ideas. Even before job losses begin, information can become a key commodity as employees horde their knowledge in an effort of self preservation. Consequently, an environment that has fear develops with all employees fighting to protect their self-interests.

What can we do to counter the effect of job losses on innovation. Remember the core concepts of disruptive innovation. Don’t hoard information during job cuts. Find new ways of doing old business that don’t increase costs. Stay positive and remember that your ideas are an asset to both your own career and your organization. If your organization has truly allowed the collaborative web to fall apart, you can still push ideas in the collaborative web of your own office while you wait for the organization’s collaborative web to repair itself. Every public servant has a role to play in keeping innovation alive. If we give up, innovation can’t succeed.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca

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David Dejewski

How much innovation is being outsourced, do you think? I know from personal experience that tight times require all hands on deck with very little time to do the thinking necessary for innovation.

I’ve also been the guy-behind-the-guy (in this case, it was a guy – I’m not being sexist). I was the one with the time and space to think while the person filling the “in-sharge” chair ran from meeting to meeting and tried to keep his hair on his head. We’d meet once or more times per week and basically just chat. Our experience / background was on par, but he took the front man role, while I took the back man role. Either of us could have taken the other’s role without any difficulty. In fact, we had each done the other’s roles in previous jobs.

I found this division of roles to be both satisfying and value added. Even though I did it as a civil servant, I see no reason why it couldn’t be done by contractors – as long as there is trust in the relationship.