McKinsey Quarterly

Dispatches from the front lines of management innovation

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The Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) is a Web-based open-innovation project dedicated to catalyzing the creativity of thinkers and practitioners interested in reinventing management. That’s not an undertaking for any one individual or organization—it’s everybody’s problem, which is why the MIX is designed as a collaborative platform both to surface bold ideas and make progress on a set of make-or-break challenges.

Earlier this year, the MIX introduced the first-ever management-innovation contest, the M-Prize, around three such challenges: redefining the work of leadership, increasing trust, and taking the work out of work. MIXers from all over the world contributed hundreds of entries. Few of the submissions are world changing, some are half baked, and a couple are truly off the wall. But so many of them are bold and original, sometimes even audaciously imaginative, that they confirm our deeply held belief that everyone wins when everyone shares.

Judges for the M-Prize included CEOs and thought leaders such as Bill George, Terri Kelly, John Mackey, Tom Malone, and Leighton Reid. McKinsey is a knowledge partner of the MIX but was not involved with the judging. Here are three of the winning stories, which offer insights for management innovators everywhere. Five other management innovations also were honored and are summarized in the sidebar, “Five more innovative ideas.” Readers interested in learning more about any of the eight winning entries should visit the M-Prize home page.

Redefining leadership in public housing

Portsmouth is one of England’s largest and most densely populated urban areas—once home to Charles Dickens and Arnold Schwarzenegger and now to “17,000 blocked toilets and 100,000 dripping taps,” says John Seddon, an occupational psychologist and management thinker. Several years ago, he began working closely with Owen Buckwell, who as head of housing for the Portsmouth City Council manages those toilets and taps, as well as all of the upkeep for some 50,000 people living in government-built council homes.

In late 2006, Buckwell and Seddon began pursuing a single compelling purpose: “to carry out the right repair at the right time” for tenants. The lever of change was a new management system designed to respond quickly to demand, measure value created for tenants (rather than costs or government-mandated targets), and reflect actual work flows (rather than fitting work to rigid standards and protocols). Within just a few months, Buckwell and his team built a process in which tenants could call up for service, get a real human being on the first ring, and schedule service at exactly the time they desired (not a half-day window, a two-hour window, or even a 15-minute window). The tradesperson providing the service would show up equipped with all the correct parts required to do the job—and ask if anything else needed fixing.

Buckwell and his team accomplished this feat by shifting away from a paper-based daily printout of jobs for plumbers, glaziers, carpenters, and other craftsmen. A sophisticated visual system now matches the demands of customers (which ones want what jobs at what times) with the supply of tradespeople by highlighting when each is likely to come free from his or her current job. Large screens at headquarters provide transparency, and “the system works as a single piece flow, with each tradesman getting one job at a time” to avoid bottlenecks and delays.

The result: astonished customers, intense gratitude, hand-delivered flowers and chocolates, and a growing sense of trust between tenants and council. The story by the numbers is equally impressive: days to complete a repair dropped from 60 to 7, while the proportion of problems fixed on the first visit rose to 99 percent, from 45 percent. The proportion of calls from tenants complaining of failure shrunk to 13 percent, from 60 percent, and the tenant satisfaction rate rose dramatically to 9.93 out of 10—all while the cost per repair was slashed by more than half.

Finally, the housing council’s culture has shifted from one of “learned helplessness and cheating to meet targets” to one that encourages employees to show up with their initiative and imagination fully engaged; a new ethos that emphasizes action has taken hold. “Owen always had a sneaking suspicion that people go to work to do a good job,” says Seddon. “It turns out he was right.”

Increasing trust at Microsoft

Four years ago, Ross Smith, then director of Microsoft’s 85-person Windows Security Test team, conducted a series of one-on-one meetings with his people. He came away deeply impressed by the talent and enthusiasm within the team but deeply distressed that his workplace didn’t come close to offering the freedom and support required for everyone to bring all of their creativity, imagination, and energy to work.

Then Smith and some colleagues stumbled upon a trove of research around the role of trust in innovative organizations. It hit them like a thunderbolt. Every quality and behavior they sought to cultivate—freedom to try new things, permission to question, the ability to see old things in a new light, support for risk taking, and a tolerance for failure—was rooted in trust. But how to create something as elusive, emotion laden, and fragile as trust?

Smith asked his group to come up with a list of behaviors that influenced trust in day-to-day work. The list reached 150 items but failed to energize the group. So Smith and his colleagues devised a simple Web-based game that walked players through a series of forced choices between trust-inducing behaviors and then compiled the collective responses to create a rank ordering of the behaviors.

With the prioritized list as a starting point, Smith encouraged the group to collaborate on a “trust playbook” wiki. The wiki included examples and scripts for specific trust-influencing behaviors, such as “praise publicly, correct privately,” that had been highlighted as important. As simple as this process seemed, it opened up crucial awareness around the importance of feeding trust every day—and gave the team a vocabulary to “call out things we wouldn’t normally have talked about,” recalls Smith.

The playbook was just a start. Smith and his team also introduced Web-based tools for sharing information, bidding out problems, and pitching new ideas. They experimented with collaborative productivity games as a way to inject a sense of fun, improve management processes, and instill new behaviors. And they regularly reinforced the spirit of idea sharing and experimentation without fear through weekly pizza meetings, a separate forum for employees with less than two years on the job, and a book club.

What have been the results? Smith reports that the group’s retention numbers saw a 20 to 50 percent rise against historic norms and peer organizations. Productivity also spiked 10 to 60 percent. Morale, as measured by “laughter in the hallways,” soared. And the initiative has yielded a number of innovative offshoots. For example, an idea-sharing forum connected one team member who had built a prototype customer feedback game with another who was trying to use native language speakers to enhance the quality of international versions of Windows. The two collaborated to build a game in which people check and correct the phrasing and cultural nuances of translations. Across Microsoft, the Windows Language Quality Game attracted 4,600 players, who completed half a million tasks in just four months.

Although Smith has moved on to another part of Microsoft (as test director for Lync, a unified communications server product), his initiative continues to attract people from all around the company. From the outset, this humble, deliberately nebulous trust-building effort had a name—42Projects, in honor of Jackie Robinson’s uniform number, among other things—that transcended organizational boundaries.1 Regardless of the department or role of participants, they find in 42Projects a source of identity and collaborative energy that’s rare inside large corporations.

Taking the work out of filmmaking

James DeJulio, a former Hollywood filmmaker and producer, launched Tongal in May 2009. It’s a disruptive start-up aimed at revolutionizing the development of filmed content (from 30-second advertisements to feature films) by creating a platform for talented individuals to share their ideas, work together to create something that gets seen by the world, and get paid for it.

Clients offer up a deadline-driven challenge to the Tongal community—create a “future of insurance” sci-fi video for Allstate, film a favorite movie scene spoof for the makers of Bianca (a breath spray), tell an inspiring story and evangelize the cause of microlending pioneer Then each project is broken down into stages. In the first (idea) phase, users submit short concepts for the project. The best five ideas advance to the next phase and the authors get a cash prize; they also earn a percentage of the prize money their submission generates in subsequent rounds.

In the second (pitch) phase, members submit more fleshed-out narratives for any of the winning ideas, and, again, the best five get a cash prize and advance. In the third phase, members create polished videos based on any of the winning pitches, and a jury of judges hand-picked for each project selects the top five for a cash award. At the same time, members can view the submissions and predict winners. The most accurate forecast gets a prize. Finally, in the exhibition phase, members compete to distribute the videos. The most viral one gets a prize—and creator, client, and community “marketer” all win.

In the first year of operation, Tongal has attracted 5,000 registered members from 40 countries around the world and so far has run 24 contests, with prize purses as large as $15,000. Clients like both the product (not nearly as polished as that of agencies, but full of unexpected ideas and edge) and the economics ($5,000 for five videos and their distribution on the Web versus $630,000 for airing a 30-second prime-time spot).

Tongal isn’t just a disruptive business model; it’s also an instructive design for work in an age when architecting participation is every leader’s job. Tongal distinguishes itself from most crowd-sourcing platforms by the fact that you can’t win without building on the ideas and contributions that came before (or after) you. Tongal’s designers strive to create connection and transparency wherever possible on the site, from its leaderboard to vibrant forums for each project. What’s more, you don’t have to win to win. Whether you submit an idea in the first round, create a video, or just jump in to promote a winner in the exhibition phase, you still reap rewards, connect with the creative community, and stretch some creative muscles.

As inspiring and instructive as stories like these are, they are just a start. At the MIX, we dream of organizations that can spontaneously renew themselves—where the drama of change is not accompanied by the wrenching drama of a turnaround, where innovation pulses through every activity, where every individual feels inspired by noble goals, and where collaborative cultures breed intense involvement. But of course, these aren’t just dreams: they are do-or-die challenges for every organization that hopes to thrive in the future.

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