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Gossip Can Help Your Company Innovate Better

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Yes, you read the title of this article correctly. Gossip – or rather informal communication networks in organisations – can help organisations like yours innovate better. In particular, gossip can help you in three ways: firstly to test new ideas prior to implementation in order to identify potential problems; secondly to identify the cause of bottlenecks after implementation; and thirdly as a propaganda tool.

Let's look at the experience of the managing director of a Sydney Australia based recruitment agency. Owing to economic slow down, he only had sufficient budget to provide raises to a few particularly high performing employees. But he also knew that this would likely cause bad feelings among employees who did not receive a pay rise. So, he tried an experiment. He told a trusted subordinate that he was planning to offer pay rises only to a few key staff who, in exchange, would also have to take on added responsibilities.

Not surprisingly, this rumour spread like wildfire through his organisation. Surprisingly, employees were positive about the rumoured plan. So the Managing Director could comfortably implement it. (Story from “Psst! Heard what they're doing with the office gossip?” from Financial Times, 5 January 2009)

Testing New Ideas in the Gossip Mill

While criteria based evaluations, SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analyses, business cases and other tools can help determine the potential success of an idea in the market place, they often cannot predict how employees in an organisation will accept new ideas. Nevertheless, implementing innovative new ideas almost inevitably results in change. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, the more potentially innovative an idea is, the greater the amount of organisational change it will require to implement.

By the same token, many people do not like change in their work routines. Change creates uncertainty. It takes people out of their comfort zones. Change often means that employees have to stop performing tasks they understand well and start learning all new tasks. Change may make some jobs obsolete. It may change internal power structures. It may simply be too different and that alone sometimes causes stress.

By putting information about an innovative new idea into the office gossip mill, managers can: get warning of staff concerns about the idea; learn in advance where there are likely to be problems; and determine who may intentionally or unintentionally disrupt an idea's implementation. This information can be used in designing an implementation plan and, in particular, helping minimise the disruption that the introduction of a new idea often brings.

Sales and Customer Support

Likewise, salespeople and customer support staff may have insights into how customers will react to new product and service ideas. It is particularly important to bear in mind that, if salespeople have concerns that customers might react negatively to an idea, salespeople may actually encourage customers to see the idea negatively. For example, if a salesperson believes a new product's price is too high, she may be reluctant to share price information quickly with customers or may be apologetic about the high price (I have seen this happen). This communicates to the customer, who might not actually have had price concerns, that the product is too expensive which, in turn, could easily result a lost sale or a demand for substantial discounting!

Finding Bottlenecks After Implementation

In the same way, once an idea has been implemented, tuning into the rumour network in your firm can help you identify bottlenecks and other issues hindering the implementation of your new idea. For example, if people are finding a new software application less than intuitive to use, you can be sure that they will be complaining among themselves, at the coffee machine or in the canteen, about how bloody difficult the software is and wondering aloud why management had to put in the new system when the old system was so much easier. Such gossip indicates a need for improved communication, about why a new process is better, and better with training with the software.

Propaganda Tool

Before implementing and introducing an innovation that will cause significant change to your organisation, you could mention to a key person or two that you are deeply concerned about how employees will accept the innovation and the change it will bring. You only hope that employees will recognise the value of the innovation to the survival and growth of the company and so accept the necessary change. You believe they will. You have a great team.

You can be sure this gossip will spread around the company in no time. But, because it is gossip and not a formal announcement, people are more likely to accept the gossip as being more authentic than an official announcement. As a result, it is also more likely that people will buy into the value of the innovation and so be accepting of the necessary change.

Alternatively, if people start moaning, management you have information you can use to change the way you introduce the innovation. You may even need to rethink how you implement the innovation.

Appreciate the Company Gossip

The main thing to learn here is simple. Gossip may seem a hindrance to productive work. But, it can also be used to test new ideas prior to implementation, identify bottlenecks after implementation and ease concerns about implementation. So, do not bemoan the company gossips. Make use of them!


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium