Friday, August 6, 2010

Our Inner Giraffe

What, you may ask, is reference to a funny zoo animal doing in a series of articles consumed with organizational behavior?  It's simple.  Last evening, standing beside the row, after row, of heavy, dreary, buttery, oakey Chardonnay at my local market, there stood one wonderfully crisp, original, simple, yet bold and powerful stand-alone essence of a perfect grape.  This was Chardonnay free to be itself as Chardonnay yearns to be....freed from the shackles of traditional oak bondage...  dare I say, free-range Chardonnay?

Yet wineries cannot really be to blame for what has happened to Chardonnay over the years; it's the consumer who's insisted the original was just not good enough for their palates.  Not long afterward, the tradition of rejecting most anything original just took over and then never stopped; a tradition that oak must always be married by prearrangement; engineered, and even artificially, chemically injected into what was once a perfectly good gift from nature all by itself.  Improvement gone wrong - and someone finally took notice.

Against the tide of tradition, someone at St. Supery (among a very few other innovative wineries), at some point, must have decided that enough was enough - and stuck their neck out, producing a wine that was long overdue for its return: Oak-Free Chardonnay, as effectively enjoyable as it was meant to be all along: a lightly discernible essence of pear wafting up from the pour; the crisp, simple playfulness of green apple swirling up along the sides; a faint hint of sun-ripened melon cascading over the rim and dancing along your tongue.  Everything the grape wanted to be when it grew up. This is real Chardonnay, and bringing it back was real innovation.

The same event happens from time to time on private residential estates, although much too rare to give innovation and creativity the presence it so desperately needs in domestic service.  Once in a while, though, some brave staff member will notice something done the same way for years, yet done for no other reason than  no one has ever thought about how wonderful it would be to do it better, to do it simpler,  to really bring some original freshness back into the mix.

Once in a great while, that same staff member will actually change the process and do it better.  Yet, better-complicated is deceptively easy:  more process is simply piled on, more expense is always incurred, and usually even more product to break down sooner is now married into.  Better-simpler, in contrast, is not so easy:  a return to the reason the process or product appeared in the first place - what its true essence contains to provide for the estate operation, for the principals values, or for the staff's own development.  The staff member that goes for better-simpler is the creator, the risk-taker, and the hero.  This is the staff member that understands innovation; the staff member willing to stick their neck out.  This is the staff member that gets the giraffe award.

Adopted by many innovation-appreciative organizations, the giraffe award is highlighted by James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, who emphasize the importance of personalization for the award toward the recipient and their own unique character, a character, perhaps, partly responsible for the innovative idea itself.  No less important is the fact that the best giraffe awards are given by colleagues during a staff meeting, instead of being bestowed upon from management in some formal (and often awkward) employee-of-the-month type of format.  This is no corporate wooden plaque with little screw-in engraved flimsy bronze labels, hanging just as lonely in the staff break room as all of the ideas that never got out.  This is a real, touchable - even lovable - stuffed giraffe as personalized as required to make it the member's own.  This style of recognition builds not only community, teamwork, and appreciate inquiry, yet also a culture of innovation where it really matters: among the staff - not just to the staff.

The giraffe award is for groups who believe that too few of us in the workaday world are sticking our necks out; and too few are willing to take a closer inspection of any given product or process on our estates, retreating instead to the safety, familiarity, and comfort of only following the procedures manual, of keeping our heads buried inside the organizational charred oak barrels.  Too few are reaching out - just enough from time to time - to have a peek at what could really be....

But with support for innovation, maybe that will get just a little easier in time.  Our inner giraffe is patiently waiting to make our little workspace a little better, a little fresher, a little lighter, and perhaps - a lot more palatable.

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