Understanding Innovation the W L Gore Way
Once in a while you have to stop and reflect. Why do I keep banging away at innovation, along with countless others? Often I feel we are preaching to the converted, or the ones forced to listen just in case they miss something and are suddenly banished to hell, a non-innovating organization. A place where no one will ever listen to them and this would have been the message to free the shackles and bring them back to innovation salvation.
So here I am standing in the innovation pulpit giving the weekly sermon on innovation beliefs and principles, offering this weekly reading on the (next) ten steps to avoid in that particular sin which we all know you are certainly committing! Sometimes at the end of the sermon (or article), someone comes up and leaves an offering (comment) that sustains us a little more during the week, as we go about our business, in my case consulting, advising and researching on innovation. What a hard life we seemingly lead!
So it is one of those rare occasions you recall something truly inspirational and this is what happened to me in going back to one of the best examples of true innovation practiced and preached, the “W L Gore way”
Who are W L Gore
For many, Gore needs no introduction but for the few: W.L. Gore is the maker of Gore-Tex water- and windproof fabrics, and a multitude of unique medical, electronic and industrial materials a host of other pioneering materials and products as diverse as synthetic vascular grafts, Elixir guitar strings, and Glide dental floss. Gore is a privately held global company, with $2.5 billion in revenue and 9,000 staff worldwide
It is often lauded as “the world’s most innovative company” time and time again, one that unleashed and inspired every person working there in the “the Gore way.”
What reminded me.
What I was reminded off again was a YouTube talk by Terri Kelly, the President and CEO of W. L. Gore, made in December 2008. It is really worth watching what you have some time; it is 55-odd minutes well spent from MIT Sloan School of Management with the link here.
Gore encourages belief in the individual, organization around small teams, recognition that people are in the same boat, and that all must “take the long view.” In their practices among other things, employees are equals (associates), who decide what projects to work on based on “their passion,” The company discourages plants with more than 250 associates, to promote intimate communication and team work, and though others “look at this as an unbelievable expense, we see this as a catalyst of growth,” says Kelly.
Terri Kelly is one of the few individuals at Gore with an actual title; leaders emerge by expressing a vision in clear enough terms to inspire others to follow. Leaders must also do a lot of explaining about decisions and actions.
Nurturing your culture for innovation- the W L Gore way.
As we work within innovation it is well worth stopping and thinking where would it be good to end up and I think W L Gore has some catching up by the rest of us. Let me offer some ‘messages’ that form the culture of this company and make it such an interesting one to study for where innovation seems to be truly integrated within the (excuse the pun) fabric of the company.
Firstly a brief summary
- Gore carefully introduce processes needed for growth without losing their innovative edge.
- They have a radical and always evolving management model
- They practice a “lattice” network structure connecting every individual in the organization to every other.
- Information flows freely in all directions, and personal communications would be the norm.
- Individuals and self-managed teams would go directly to anyone in the organization to get what they needed to be successful.
The outcome of this is where everyone is free to talk with everyone else!
Key enablers to make this work
- Information sharing and peer review are the norm.
- A strong focus on getting the environment right and the business stuff gets easy
- More coaches than bosses, lots of peer reviews.
- Belief that giving the right people the tools and knowledge will bring out the best in everyone.
- Trust individuals to do the right thing.
- The culture creates opportunity for everyone to make a contribution.
- High investment in team building.
- Divide and multiply concept. Never grow too much to limit bureaucracy.
- You’re only a leader if people want to follow you.
- Ability is gained through respect of your peers and this attracts followers.
- Hierarchy, on demand- who really has the knowledge or if it is situational is the norm.
- Listening constantly to the voice of the organization and their markets.
- Ambiguity never clarity to keep it constantly in ‘flux’
The real power lies in the way they practice innovation
- If you have a great idea you have to convince other people that it’s great, then you get to join and then your job is to keep them motivated for results.
- There are low barriers to experimentation that drives innovative thinking.
- Innovation- kept within boundaries- but leverage is mostly on the core
- Focus on best in class concepts- that offer unique benefits that will be valued b) are a ongoing source of sustainable advantage.
- Discretion to explore is earned over time
- Rigorous, transparent peer reviews
- Ever-evolving portfolio of tools and best practices
- Fitness for use- doing what it says it will do
- Relentless protection of IP
- Investments, not expenses
- Each associate has a sponsor
- The power of small teams
- Compensation based on contribution judged by peers
- Powerful sense of ownership
- Leaders provide a balance of challenge and support
- Don’t need lots of rules and hierarchy
- The power of influence is the key to unlock and make a contribution
- Valuing not a few but looking for unique contributions of many.
Gore’s beliefs and guiding principles
What I also like is Gore’s clear beliefs and guiding principles. These are made up of belief in the individual, in small teams, all in the same boat and holding a longer term view as the payoff but not sacrificing the short-term gain.
In principles they encourage freedom by associates can achieve their own goals best by directing their efforts towards the success of the corporation, action is prized, ideas encouraged and mistakes viewed as part of the creative process. They sincerely try to be fair to each other and to anyone they do business with. Associates are not assigned tasks, they each make their own commitments and keep them and lastly, everyone consults with each other before taking actions that might damage or actions that might be ‘below the waterline.’
Finally their original founder, Bill Gore, stated “the objective of the enterprise is to make money and fun doing so” and they still seemingly work towards this, 50 years later.
The constant challenge of scale
Their challenge has been to scale Gore’s model as it grows; in size, geographies and cultures and into new products and segments. By constantly pushing authority out to small teams, respecting and encouraging diversity and talent from different backgrounds and styles all signing on to the “Gore” way seems to be evolving well but according to them “it is still being figured out as it happens”
Here endeth the (innovation) lesson.
Just recalling this, watching the video again, referring back to some notes I have been building up on this, is as an inspirational story. It does gives me and hopefully you, a real sense that innovation has to be treated holistically, embedded in all that you do to get to achieve such a position as W L Gore in its recognition and praise by many.
What a shame it stands out as such a shining example that few seem capable to follow or could they, if they really wanted too embrace innovation as we preach?
Image Credit: divinecrash.com
Paul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.
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