When asked what I thought the greatest obstacle to innovation was I really had to pause. For me, it’s not staff. I have an engaged staff that are change advocates and eat and sleep innovation. What is the biggest obstacle? I have worked retail for fifty years and know many great managers, so over the last year I have reached out to them for feedback and here is what they felt was the number one cause of lack of innovation.
The most often reply was compliance-focused middle management or in retail a District Manager. I have worked for some amazing District Managers and some that made you have nightmares and wrecked your physical and mental health. I guess the first one would be compliance based. I wrote about him in my article The Alamo Syndrome (see below) and while I completely understand the need for compliance to company policy, I must ask what happens when compliance becomes the obstacle to innovation.
You could actually fail your visit by missing a light bulb, one piece of merchandise slightly askew or your conversion down when your center had an event and an extra eight hundred people passed through your store to cool off.
The compliance–focused District Manager would spend several days in your store with checklist after checklist. It was his mission to find things wrong. You got points off for everything and having a light bulb out was just as bad as being down twenty percent on your sales plan. You could actually fail your visit by missing a light bulb, one piece of merchandise slightly askew or your conversion down when your center had an event and an extra eight hundred people passed through your store to cool off. Please keep in mind while this visit (I often wonder why it’s called a visit) is taking place, you have a store full of customers, freight that needs to get out, and recovery needs to be happening. Instead, we have this parade of managers following him around with notepads.
The sole mission seems to be about humiliation, tearing people down and making everyone wonder if they need to dust off their resume.
To summarize the visit it was disruptive, nonproductive, and no one learned anything. All the store employees felt demoralized, degraded and worthless. It was humiliating and demeaning without anything productive being accomplished. It was neither educational nor developmental. An opportunity to teach and coach was wasted to appease someone’s ego. It should come as no surprise that this company is in serious trouble. They are losing associates in a stampede of disillusion and disappointment. We had four District Managers in seven years with none of them coming from the company they were hired to run. Often the checklist was not a tool it was a hit list.
It was an approach that would change how we did business and created a ripple effect throughout the company. He turned us loose and told me to advocate for the changes and he would support me completely.
One of my favorite District Managers was one that worked his way up the ranks paying his dues listening to his teachers and mentors. When he would come into the store my staff would be excited knowing that they were going to learn something and that he would make time for them each visit sharing his insights and advising them on their careers. He trusted me to run the store as if I owned it. He listened to my experience and when my staff and I developed a new and innovative new approach or dynamic change for the store he was an advocate. It was an approach that would change how we did business and created a ripple effect throughout the company. He turned us loose and told me to advocate for the changes and he would support me completely. He never used a checklist and taught us to be advocates for change, to always ask questions and to push back when something didn’t make sense. He shared his knowledge with us yet got out of my way and allowed and trusted me to make change and be innovative. He always supported learning and several of my staff became great managers. It is amazing what you can do when someone supports you and gives you the tools you need then unleashes you to reach higher than you ever dreamed.
Point Of View
Compliance should be done in the spirit of the guidelines, not as an inflexible item that cannot change or be adjusted. If compliance cannot accommodate change it becomes an obstacle to innovation and will produce an environment of complacency where what could be great becomes mundane. Compliance is the fog that hides imagination.