Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Bad Gatekeepers

Rob Cross, Andrew Hardagon, Salvatore Parise, and Robert Thomas have written a good column for the Wall Street Journal on the barriers to innovation at large companies.  Among other things, they argue that bad gatekeepers stifle innovation at many firms.  According to these scholars,

"A second problem arises when a handful of experts dominate a company's information and decision-making networks. Simply put, these are people to whom employees must turn to find the information they need to do their job properly or to get approval for projects.Very often, these gatekeepers hold their esteemed position for good reason -- they have technical expertise or other skills that have served the company well. But they may not be the best judges of new ideas, and their expertise in one area may in fact blind them to innovations in other areas."

How do you avoid this problem?  In my research, I have argued that senior executives need to occasionally circumvent the gatekeepers so as to access unfiltered information about key issues, threats, and opportunities facing the company.  Gatekeepers often serve a useful purpose, but they also impede information flow.  They do not have to have bad intentions to stifle innovation.  It simply may be the case that their own biases and predispositions may cloud their view on new ideas.  Moreover, it may be that they sense a different set of priorities among senior executives, and therefore, choose not to champion particular ideas that have bubbled up from below.   How do you circumvent the gatekeepers?   I would argue that you have to be quite intentional as well as transparent.  You need to find ways to open a direct line of communication with front-line employees, customers, and suppliers... while being transparent so that middle managers do not feel that you are "cutting them out of the loop."

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