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“Knowledge workers are essential to innovation, and when nudged off-task their output wanes.”








Evade an Innovation Blackout

Jordan Cohen
Harvard Business Review
26 June 2012        


Innovation can be stifled — even snuffed out — by normal business processes. For example, once I was appointed to help a company brainstorm better ways to get work done, but had the unfortunate timing of working with them in the thick of their budgeting process.   

To start off the project, I asked senior managers to see some data and to speak to the employees getting the work done... No response. Five days later a second email with the words "gentle nudge" in the subject line... Nada. Three days later, a third email copying an SVP finally started getting the responses and data we needed to get thinking.

When we finally met three weeks later, I learned that the teams were preparing for budget plan meetings — a corporate requirement that results in budget approval for the following year. This all-out sprint lasted for weeks. Templates needed to be completed, customer and competitor profiling refreshed, current performance figures confirmed, markets segmented, etc. The numbers need to be checked (and rechecked). Circular discussions with management on how to increase forecasts ensued.

This was nothing short of an innovation blackout; it reminded me of the 2003 blackout that shut down business throughout the Northeast for a couple of days and then had everyone scrambling to make up for lost time. But contrary to an unexpected blackout, this corporate process happens every year. It is predictable. Yet for some reason, the amount of work that has to happen in the process still overwhelms teams and therefore eclipses the creative time knowledge workers need to innovate.

For too many companies, process gets in the way of productivity. I've seen whole departments at multinational organizations drop everything to meet demands from the leadership level — demands that often have little to do with the focus on innovation that actually moves them forward.

Innovation blackouts are especially common in a down market, as companies ask their most skilled employees to apply themselves to a wider and wider scope of work. The idea that good people can always do more good things is off the mark; on the contrary, people are at their best when allowed to hone a specific craft. Calling upon true specialists to provide support builds strength upon strength, allowing employees to contribute at higher speeds, better quality, and lower unit cost.

It's not easy to do in uncertain economic conditions, but to cultivate an innovative workforce — without cutting it — smart leaders need to recognize where their productivity engine lies: knowledge workers are essential to innovation, and when nudged off-task their output wanes. Companies must structure work so that peripheral parts of processes can be taken up by hyper specialists, who provide distinct skills that help knowledge workers stay on track.

Pairing hyper specialists with knowledge workers is a team approach to innovation that manifests in a spoke-and-wheel model. Knowledge workers are most productive when they can shape new directions based on accurate data, and with the right hyper specialists extending around them they can bring valuable ideas to market faster.

Consider the budget example above, or periodic business reviews: when executives schedule a visit to check in on progress, entire regions often come to a grinding halt to organize results and market position. Instead of continuing to perform in the marketplace, weeks are lost to the need to compile data.

In the end, the company's main concern should be the strategic dialogue inspired by the results. That is where the knowledge worker should be focused, while the hyper specialists calculate market indices, compare performance and track competitive movement. With hyper specialists formulating the results, knowledge workers can spend more time figuring out what caused them and determining next steps. The visiting executive then gets to digest the numbers, the insight and the direction that can make a difference to the company.

Using this approach, processes like these become less transactional. Strategic conversation becomes the core of the review and can be completed without interrupting the flow of business. The department can spend more time on innovation and less time chasing process.

Keep in mind that workers can only catalyse innovation if they are supported in difficult and prosperous times alike. The real challenge for companies is staying true to the spoke-and-wheel model when faced with bottom line pressure. By better understanding and fostering the skill sets and potential of their knowledge workers, companies can focus their workforce to achieve better results — instead of reducing headcount.


Jordan Cohen directs PA Consulting Group’s knowledge worker productivity practice. He is the recipient of the 2010 Grand Prize at the Management Innovation eXchange (The MIX) for his previous work as creator and Head of pfizerWorks at Pfizer Inc.

To read the article in full, click here.  

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