The Extra Mile No One Will Go

The Extra Mile No One Will Go

By Orin Davis

By: Orin Davis

Almost by definition, innovation involves going beyond the boundaries, which means that firms need people who will go the proverbial “extra mile.” Companies want a cadre of enthusiastic, passionate employees who are loyal, dependable, honest, good people, which consistently go above and beyond the call of duty. Those same businesses also lament the scarcity of such employees, but why are they so rare?

Here’s an illustrative story:

Jane is an hourly employee who had an idea for how to automate one of the tedious processes that the company had to do on a frequent basis. She ran the idea by her boss, who said that he would consider it if she could pull it off. Jane spent the better part of an evening trying to code, document and scale her solution. With much excitement, Jane showed the boss her success only to be told that, while her solution certainly worked, he didn’t like it because it involved bringing in new software with which he wasn’t familiar. Insult was added to injury when Jane discovered that she was not going to be paid for the four hours she put in developing the software solution. With nothing but a half-hearted thanks as her reward for trying to save the company hundreds of hours per annum, Jane turned off her idea hose and left within six months.

Most companies have someone like Jane: a front-line employee who wants to make a difference and has a clever way to improve the company’s operations. But, the hard truth is that, like Jane, people are often punished for stepping a millimeter outside of their job description. There is irony to this because most people get fired for sticking only to their job description! Thus, most employees walk a tightrope of making sure their jobs get done, but not volunteering to do anything more. After all, there tends to be no reward for innovation, and going that extra mile is usually far more trouble than it’s worth.

Take a moment to give your business a long, hard look. If I went into your company and asked each of your employees to tell me about the last time they tried to go the extra mile, what percentage of those stories would have happy endings? How many times did your employees have a useful or innovative idea that they didn’t share or implement because they knew there was nothing for them to gain by doing it? (While you’re at it, take a moment to think about who quit recently…) Worse yet, no one is going to want to admit to holding back because that would show a lack of enthusiasm that could put a job in jeopardy. So, just how honest of a picture do you think you will get with that long, hard look?

The solution to this problem lies quietly in the mechanics of the issue. When people voluntarily do the unasked, they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position. They can only guess at what the results might be, and have taken a risk in the hopes that they have done some good. There is a chance that their efforts will go unnoticed, be misunderstood, rebuffed, or even punished, and they are braving all of that in the name of excellence, passion, dedication, and goodness.

As such, the first thing any recipient needs to do in the face of such brave volunteerism is to give some genuine validation. Recognize the effort, acknowledge the intended value, and show deep and humble gratitude for what someone has tried to accomplish. Doing so is not very expensive (in fact, it costs about two minutes of your time), and is a first step in making sure that going the distance is never in vain (bonus: builds loyalty). The second step is to make sure that the results and consequences are as positive as possible. That doesn’t preclude negative consequences when warranted, but it does mean trying to limit the negative to the bare minimum, and maximizing any positive consequences. Third, where possible, publicize the value of the endeavor so that everyone, including the volunteer, knows that it is important and well-appreciated to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Ensuring that employees are not just able, but encouraged, to take smart risks and make realities out of their ideas, is a critical part of making innovation happen. Though sometimes these endeavors may be costly failures, nothing is quite as expensive as discouraged talent heading for the door and a stagnant business trajectory. By contrast, the solution of validation, accentuating the positive and public appreciation may seem difficult, but in reality it just takes a small investment of time, space and smiles. After all, there really is a mile between each “s”!

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