5 ways to find, empower the 'Rudolphs' who can save your firm

The Age of Innovation is here. Slowly but surely it has dawned on leaders in all industries that our global economy has changed the game forever. Oh, sure, products and processes still matter, but what really keeps a company competitive is its people – more specifically, the ability of said people to innovate. Without a culture of innovation, you will not stay on top for long. And when you throw the stalled economy into the mix, say Cyndi Laurin and Craig Morningstar, the bright ideas of your employees may be all that stands between your company and disaster.


"It's long been a cliché that people are a company's best asset," says Laurin, co-author along with Morningstar of The Rudolph Factor: Finding the Bright Lights that Drive Innovation in Your Business (Wiley, July 2009, ISBN: 978-04704510-3-8, $21.95). "The recession has underscored it in bold double lines, and added a string of exclamation marks for good measure. Bright, empowered, innovative people –  the people we're calling 'Rudolphs' – have always been important. Now they're imperative."


"An innovative culture is the antithesis of the 'we pay you to work, not think' mentality that defines many companies and causes employees to mentally check out," adds Morningstar. "Unless all employees are fully engaged and empowered to solve problems, you'll never be able to think your way out of a financial morass."


So here's the real issue: How do you infuse this magic ingredient into your culture? The Rudolph Factor answers that question. Along the way it tells the story of The Boeing Company, one of America's oldest and best aircraft manufacturers, zeroing in on its C-17 Progam's spectacular turnaround at the edge of collapse.


The authors use the holiday character Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer as an analogy to delve inside a corporate culture that reinvented itself in record-breaking time. In the process, they share lessons Boeing learned about innovation – lessons that can be applied and replicated in any business.


Rudolphs, explain the authors, are the 10 percent of any organization's people who are the true agents of innovation – people who can shine the light exactly where a company needs to go. Basically, Rudolphs connect the dots that others don't see. Since they tend to identify causes of problems (rather than symptoms), they generate sustainable solutions more quickly and efficiently than their counterparts.


In finding these crucial individuals, nurturing them, and putting their ideas to work, you achieve consistently higher levels of innovation – and thrive in every economy.


Here are just a few of the book's insights on creating a culture of (Rudolph-friendly) innovation at your company:

Lead in ways that don't force people to check their red noses at the door. The old (yet still prevalent) command-and-control style of management is antithetical to environments that nurture Rudolphs. To elicit and nurture innovative thinking requires as much from leaders as it does from employees. Leaders must continually be more participative than autocratic, treat all employees as business partners regardless of their titles, and focus on removing barriers and providing resources for people to be successful. Once you give up your illusion of control, more ideas will percolate from the ground up.

"Don't worry that by shifting responsibility and control to employees you're opening the door to a free-for-all," says Laurin. "You're not saying everyone can do whatever they please. Rather, you're giving employees a voice and an avenue to implement ideas, which naturally compels them to voluntarily take on innovative and creative thinking above and beyond their current responsibilities."

Embrace the AVTAR approach to creating a Rudolph culture. When you're seeking to change your culture, think "participative," not "imposed from above." Laurin and Morningstar describe their "psychology of change" model Boeing managers used (albeit inadvertently; they didn't call it AVTAR but recognized the steps when Laurin and Morningstar shared their model with them):

1.      Awareness: Generate awareness of a proposed change.

2.      Value: Share information that inspires employees to find value in a proposed change. Until employees recognize for themselves the value in the proposed change, you can't go on to the next step (otherwise, you'd be imposing change, which is the antithesis of creating a Rudolph culture).

3.      Thinking: Here, employees begin to bear the burden of responsibility for the proposed change. This "shift in thinking" requires managers to let go of their own agendas and employees to ask questions reflecting their new awareness.

4.      Actions: In this stage, responsibility has mostly shifted to employees. New actions and behaviors begin to appear based upon new ways of thinking.

5.      Results: Here, results flow organically, a natural outcome of the shift in thinking and new actions and behaviors (not enforced by rewards and punishment).

Learn to recognize Rudolphs. Here's a clue: They're often labeled square pegs, radicals, misfits, loose cannons, zealots, or innovators. And while their "Rudolphness" may differ based on context, circumstance, and environment, one constant for all Rudolphs is that they cannot help but spend time 1) involuntarily thinking about the things they are most passionate about, 2) acquiring the capabilities to manifest their thoughts into reality, and 3) taking action. (NOTE: See tipsheet below)

"To share an important distinction, Rudolphs are not synonymous with entrepreneurs," notes Morningstar. "They generally don't want to start their own companies because they want to keep doing what they do –  and not have to worry about raising capital, finding business, and hiring workers. It's their passion for improvement that makes them fantastic employees or business partners."

Identify (and meet) your Rudolphs' unmet needs. The fact is, Rudolphs are not like other employees. They really do have unique needs. Laurin and Morningstar offer a few examples of needs Boeing Rudolphs shared with them:

·        an outlet to share ideas on a regular basis

·        protection from their direct manager as well as ill-willed peers (because Rudolphs are commonly seen as a threat)

·        permission to take risks and share unconventional ideas

·        access to collaborative teams that also include non-Rudolphs

·        the ability to execute their ideas ... but not in a haphazard fashion

"Your Rudolphs are not always aggressive enough to fight for their ideas, or savvy enough to navigate the maze of office politics," says Laurin. "Unless you already have a Rudolph-friendly culture that embraces risk, do everything you can to shield and nurture them. If you don't, they'll stay in hiding, with their noses dimmed. And everyone will lose."

Put systems in place to encourage innovative thinking. (Hint: Money talks!) Rudolph cultures draw creativity and innovation from employees, and that requires more than the old-fashioned "suggestion box" program. Boeing's Creative Edge Program, designed to make the C-17 cargo aircraft more affordable, paid employees for their cost-saving ideas. In return, employees have generated over $90 million with their ideas over the past decade and continue to impact the bottom line in very significant ways. Every year, hundreds of employees contribute their innovative ideas and are awarded from $50 to $250 per employee plus 1 to 2 percent of the first year net savings. One employee actually earned $32,000 this way!

"Programs like this one illustrate the principle of drawing innovation out of people rather than trying to impose it on them," says Morningstar. "The prospect of earning some extra money tends to sharpen and refine the creative process, which results in better conceived, more workable ideas. Just implementing these kinds of systems is enough to draw previously unsuspected Rudolphs out of the shadows."

That brings us to the real appeal of The Rudolph Factor. The book presupposes that Rudolphs are already lurking somewhere on the sidelines, waiting for you to find the "on switch" that illuminates their guiding beacon. That's great news for cash-strapped companies that can ill-afford to hire expensive superstars.

"For too many years, too many companies have unwittingly stifled their employees," says Laurin. "The recession is forcing them to take a hard look at what's working and what's not. And what they're realizing is that any policy or system that represses innovation has to go. Smart companies know it's time to clean the mud off the noses of their Rudolphs and let their creative and profitable ideas shine. And they know the time is now."

About the authors:
Cyndi Laurin, PhD, is an author, international keynote speaker, and founder of Guide to Greatness, LLC. She specializes in process improvement and performance management. She is also the bestselling author of Catch! Craig Morningstar is an experienced senior-level executive whose background includes positions at Southwest Airlines and Charles Schwab. He is also an entrepreneur who has founded, operated, and sold several companies.

About the book:
The Rudolph Factor: Finding the Bright Lights that Drive Innovation in Your Business (Wiley, July 2009, ISBN: 978-04704510-3-8, $21.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797.


Sixteen ways to recognize a Rudolph

Excerpted from The Rudolph Factor: Finding the Bright Lights that Drive Innovation in Your Business (Wiley, July 2009, ISBN: 978-04704510-3-8, $21.95), by Cyndi Laurin, PhD, and Craig Morningstar


1.      First and foremost, Rudolphs are naturally creative and innovative thinkers. Some Rudolphs may appear a bit eccentric to the people around them.

2.      Rudolphs generally share unconventional ways to solve problems and have an easier time than most at identifying the root cause of a problem. They will express frustration at putting band-aids on symptoms of problems. They like to get their hands (or hooves) dirty when it comes to problem solving.

3.      Rudolphs involuntarily spend an average of four to six hours per day (outside their normal workday) thinking about new ways of doing things, or simply making things better for their organizations.

4.      Rudolphs are passionate about their work and light up when talking about their role or a particular project they are working on. You can tell they are excited when the pace of their speech increases, they use quite a bit more gesturing, and their eyes are bright (almost twinkling).

5.      They often ask "Why?" even when it is not the most popular question to be asking, which can make people around them feel uncomfortable.

6.      They tend to challenge the status quo because they believe questioning it is of value and benefit to the organization. Challenging the status quo is also how they discover what they need in order to solve a problem. It may appear as if they are trying to rock the boat just for the sake of rocking the boat, but that generally is not the case with Rudolphs.

7.      Rudolphs see their world through a lens of possibility, opportunity, and potential. This is the driving motivation behind their involuntary, creative, and innovative thinking. Often times, the opportunities presented are nontraditional or unconventional in nature.

8.      Rudolphs do not have the intention of self-promotion—in other words, their actions are not based on climbing corporate ladders. They certainly appreciate being recognized—even promoted—for their work, but it is not the primary motivation for their actions.

9.      They also tend to easily connect the dots that others do not see. In other words, they have the ability to quickly synthesize many variables to solve problems or make improvements. It may appear to non-Rudolphs as if their ideas come out of the blue or that there is no rhyme or reason behind their thinking. When this occurs, question Rudolphs to clarify or further explain their thought process.

10.    Rudolphs have a greater awareness of dynamic systems than non-Rudolphs. They tend to be natural systems thinkers and see the whole forest rather than a single tree...or just the bark on the tree. They may express frustration if people around them are having conversations about the bark, rather than the forest.

11.    They do not want to be an entrepreneur or run their own business; however, they think like one. In some cases, for their own mental and emotional well-being, some Rudolphs will leave their organization and start their own business because the organizational work environment can take its toll on their enthusiasm and natural creative thinking.

12.    Rudolphs prefer to leverage the name, reputation, resources, etc. of an organization, rather than starting and managing their own businesses, which would take time away from being creative and innovative.

13.    Rudolphs prefer collaborating with others versus going it alone – although, many may appear as loners to non-Rudolphs because they have chosen to not play the game.

14.    They have the ability – and at the very minimum, the confidence – to turn their ideas into action. If they feel they do not have the appropriate skills, they will do whatever is necessary to gain the abilities to transform their innovative ideas/solutions into reality.

15.    They act on their ideas, sometimes without knowing how they will accomplish them. You might hear a Rudolph say, "It can be done – I don't know how – but I can see it." The how is always revealed in time.

16.    Rudolphs rarely rely on convention to put their ideas into action. They tend to appear like trailblazers, troublemakers, or loose cannons to non-Rudolphs.

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