Factor 11: Use of Independent Work Groups

This factor deals with the use of independent work groups for special purposes.

Factor extremes as measured in survey:

Management encourages the systematic use of independent work groups for special purposes


Management discourages independent work groups for special purposes

Overview to restructuring initiatives

In larger organizations bureaucracy can often dull the ability to undertake new initiatives. Establishing smaller work groups, such as project and task groups, can reinstate the motivation that perhaps was present before the organization became large, successful but more cumbersome. Management needs to establish these groups and then get out of the way as the group gets itself organized, runs the show and delivers on the new idea.

A good example of the use of independent work groups

Factor #11 is one of the 8 most important building blocs to support corporate innovation.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper, makes use of work groups and innovative practices to complete a successful makeover of this major newspaper.

An article, published April 21, 2007, and written by Globe Editor-in-Chief, Edward Greenspon, describes The Globe and Mail’s innovative approach to the makeover of their paper. While newspapers, in general, were having a hard time and worldwide circulation was trending down, the Globe and Mail was, on the other hand, on a roll. The internet was viewed as being a significant threat but the Globe’s attitude toward the Web was interesting; it was not viewed as competition but rather as a new means of telling stories to its readers.

in spite of being a leader in their business segment (The Wall Street Journal noted their success as a paper) the significant stakeholders of The Globe and Mail took the initiative to launch a ‘reimagination’ process with a significant allocation of resources in terms of funding and peoples time. Risk that some or nothing might actually happen was present at the early stages.

The Globe and Mail did the following (abridged from the original article by Edward Greenspon):

  • commissioned a large piece of market research and brought in experts to talk to everyone in the company,
  • asked for volunteers from its staff to participate in the process and one-third of the staff stepped forward,
  • organized the staff volunteers into teams and assigned a specific area of opportunity,
  • provided an overall vision (guidelines) for the ‘reimagining’ process that were clear; to be smarter, more accessible, more Web-page integrated, and more visually oriented,
  • restated the culture that had historically won readership; i.e., strong reporting, great writing, seriousness of purpose.
  • used a ‘reimagination’ room for team members as a place to gather and work on the areas of interest in between their regular jobs,
  • asked one special group called the ‘design group’ to look at how people could work better in generating and presenting content. An important conclusion was that the process of people working together starts with the physical layout of the office. Communication amongst disciplines was to be encouraged. Openness and teamwork were to be encouraged,
  • initially isolated the group from the rest of the staff and kept the group so during the ‘incubation’ period and, significantly, later moved the group into the centre of the room with editors spread throughout, and
  • tested the concept as it developed. A ‘beta’ test was part of the ‘reimagination’ process.

Embracing the new technology (the Web) was a fundamental challenge in the redesign and was a part of the vision enunciated at the beginning of the ‘reimagination’ process.

Management (and shareholders) took a long view as the process started in the spring of 2005 and the newly thought-out paper was issued on April 22, 2007; a period of two years between initialization and realization.

The Globe and Mail made use of a number of innovative ideas and linked these together to achieve a major breakthrough.

Possible Initiatives to Modify and Improve the Culture for Innovation

Organizational initiatives; task groups and champions

Appoint individuals, full or part time, as champions to develop and promote the implementation of an idea. Companies usually good at innovation have networks of technical, business and executive champions that work effectively to innovate. Often these individuals volunteer to assume this role and some even work without official sanction and support. Another organizational initiative is to establish task or project groups in order to focus effort on the issue or idea in sight. Consider using both full and part-time appointees depending on the level of effort required and resources available. Generally, task groups should have a limited life—a sunset provision is advisable—and ideally be appointed from different functional levels in the organization. Reporting arrangements for the task group can influence its power and therefore its effectiveness.

Keep organizations for new innovative ideas as small as possible

Keeping the size small at the beginning is helpful to the process of incubating the new idea. Encourage the cross transfer of knowledge amongst all the people involved in the project and where possible, even involve current or potential customers in brain storming sessions.

Make use of skunk works

In most respects a skunk works is a highly isolated venture team; highly isolated because in this case it is deliberately kept away from the business main stream, and most often formed to deal with vexing problems, unproven technologies, or ideas that are in need of the most out-of-the-box thinking that exists in the corporation.

Keeping organizations small by proliferating strategic business units

As units grow to a certain size the larger unit can sometimes be subdivided to create smaller units that focus on specialized niches. As a consequence the parent, as such, becomes more of a holding company or portfolio manager, with less and less involvement in the day to day operations of the business units. Often this subdivision is a part of the basic philosophy of an innovative company.