Welcome to our interview with Tobias Theel. Tobias is the Founder of INNOVERSITY INSTITUTE where he helps make people and organizations more creative and agile. As a passionate forward thinker, he is dedicated to holistically designing, challenging, and implementing strategies for products, systems, and organizations.
Creating innovative results with the potential for sustainable change motivates Tobias to enable others to utilize their capabilities and encourage fruitful cooperation. He thirsts for new challenges and opportunities to learn.
Welcome Tobias, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0.
How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, eveyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Tobias Theel: I think that’s a question many companies talk about today among employees, managers, and companies of all sizes. The most important consideration is that you need to create spaces where innovation, discussion, and learning can happen.
There are bottom-up and top-down approaches that organizations might take at different points. Those two approaches will meet and connect with each other somewhere in the organization.
But what I have discovered through my work in innovation is that when we begin a bottom-up approach, we discover there are many ideas at the so-called bottom. If you have a hierarchical organization, then people often run into a border or wall, which hinders their progress. So they can’t connect with the top-down approach and the ideas are blocked.
There needs to be somebody at the top who can enable new spaces for the innovation to grow to the top of the company, so that the whole organization can benefit.
It’s natural for road blocks appear within an organization based on the way we organize most of our organizations today. A hierarchical pyramid makes it very difficult for ideas to grow. If you feed this model again and again and again, you make it harder for your ideas to grow. Organizations need to think about how they can transform themselves to a more circular way of thinking and working.
The best advice I have for organizations is to just start. If it works, then you can make it bigger and bigger and bigger. Or if you dare, take a big step and flip your organization from one day to the other⏤or in several days.
What does it take to get an employees’s full attention and best performance?
Tobias: I think an employee brings everything already to give their best performance, but what the organization can do is to help each individual use their strengths. Help them identify their strengths and include them in what they do.
Everybody has a job description or something to do that is included in a process or management structure. This can’t be avoided. Some things need to be done in the organization as they are. But if you identify all those strengths and people to include these strengths in their work or even help them find the right position that can maximize utilization of their strengths, then you get the most out of the organization for the organization. Then you get the most out of people but in a great sense. You don’t use people to do what you want to them to do, but you help them grow as a person first. Then as a result, you help your organization grow and be more successful.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Tobias: It depends a lot on the organization they are working in. If you think of the common classical hierarchical organization, what they’re lacking there is a feeling they have influence. Feeling that what you do matters and counts. What you do is seen and contributes to the product or the service you produce. It forces people in these types of organizations to fulfill a role or a position. They have to work in a process and follow it today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, again and again. While working they see what’s not going well. They see room for improvements. They have ideas. They’re creative. But they are limited in using their creativity or innovative spirit to make improvements.
It protects them in the sense that if something goes wrong; they are not punished. If they spend money and the investment just brought no results, they need to know that nothing will happen to their career or to their position.
As long as people don’t feel safe, people will not invest everything they could bring into the company for the benefit of the company and also to their own benefit. Positive people really want to do something.
This is what I think many organizations need to foster more intensely than they do today. They must help people utilize themselves more. I don’t know what the term is in English (“self efficacy”), but in German it would be “Selbstwirksamkeit”.
I recently attended a workshop where the presenter introduced a new concept for organizing companies in general. We discussed this new concept and talked about how we could transform a classic organization in using it.
We all liked the idea, but it didn’t seem feasible to many of us. We had a lot of discussion. What he said was when you talk to other people, you get an impression of the other person through communication, but this communication is just something that you can see from the outside. There’s also a real person behind the communication. As a result, it’s very important to generate empathy with the other person. Why are they saying this? What am I hearing? Is what I am hearing really what they mean?
For innovation to occur, we need tools and attitudes that help us improve communication to help ideas grow and then change organizations, change products, and change services.
What is the most important question leaders should be asking employees?
Tobias: The most important question is, what can I do to help you grow? What can I do to help you be you in our organization? What roadblocks do you see that prevent you from being who you want to be? You are yourself in the rest of your life, so why should you switch off at work?
Some leaders and managers in the organization are key players because we are hierarchically organized in most organizations. It’s up to those key players to open those spaces of security, freedom and opportunity. When we ask questions like this, this can help hammer away roadblocks, open spaces, and get one step further to what the organization and employees could be. It’s the same level. Meet people where they are.
What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?
Tobias: What they shouldn’t ask is, may I do this? Or, would you allow me if I did something like that? Don’t ask for permission.
The most important thing I want to say is don’t look for leadership too much. I would like to encourage people to look at themselves. Look inside themselves to find out what is it they want and need to do. If you think you need a manager to help you, then ask them for help. You can also ask them if they know how to get past any roadblocks.
Always know that you as an employee shouldn’t take a leaders opinion too quickly. Always try to find out what I want to do? What is it I really want to do and then do it! Don’t do things because somebody else says: “You have to do this because you’re my slave. Listen to me.” People should be strong. That’s the most important thing.
What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Tobias: I think the most important question is, do we really want to do this? Might read better as: “I think from time to time we get caught in organizational processes. And even in personal life we get caught in routines. Take your kids to school. Take them home from school. Make dinner. Go grocery shopping and so on and so on. Somehow we don’t do what we really want to do.
From time to time, we should come back to a place where you ask yourself, “Okay. Now, let me think. What did I want to do? Did I do this? How did I do this? Am I still on track? What do I need to change?”
When I teach people how to do innovation with design thinking or agile project management, we have circles or intervals we work in. We begin the interval with a planning for the next week or two. Then at the end of that period, we look back and ask, what have you done? Let’s look at the result. Let’s test the result and let’s decide what we will do over the next one or two weeks and so on.
This is how we can introduce new products, services and new ideas to help them grow. It’s like the 80/20 rule because we say in those two weeks we can only do this, and we have to leave aside the other 20% or more. I think we can transfer this thinking to personal life.
You should frequently take the time to sit down, breathe in, breathe out, and think about what have we done? Was it good? What can we improve? And what can we do better over the next interval period? I think that’s the most important tip for everybody who feels caught or who feels trapped in organizations. In personal life try to identify what works well to make it better. Then do it more intensively.
Who or what has had the biggest impact on you and the work that you do?
Tobias: I think there are two aspects. The first aspect is my personality and how did my personality grow? I very much think about my family, especially my parents, and where I grew up. My parents gave me opportunities in life. They always gave me the opportunity to explore, try something out, and to fail. They didn’t punish me if I failed. Instead, I could learn and grow as a person. This experience helped me gain stability and walk upright in life.
The other aspect is when I started my career. I went to a big corporation starting as a management trainee where I worked on many projects, worked in the CEO’s office, and also in process management. Then I moved on to the company’s innovation lab and felt my career somehow didn’t develop like I dreamt it could be. That’s when I asked myself, “What can I do really well?” What are my strengths?
Asking myself these questions led me to taking a strengths test I found on the Internet. The test told me my top five strengths, so I wrote a paragraph (see callout below) that included all my strengths and put it on my LinkedIn profile. Then I said I will look for a new job over the next year and use this sentence and my strengths to open new perspectives and opportunities. I no longer wanted a career path and titles. They became unimportant.
This turned out to be a very important exercise for me to do and that is why I’m talking so much about strengths in my responses to your questions. Now whenever somebody comes to me and says, I want to do something new, I encourage them to think what can you do really well. It’s not the skills or the things you learn. It’s something inside of you. Something personal, which may be, for example, as weird as “my strength is love”. How can you use love in your life and even in your professional life?
I encourage everybody to take a strength test. There are many strength tests available and it only takes 30 to 45 minutes to begin a new life.
Tobias: There are many very important insights I could share, but number one is don’t criticize too much. It is having empathy for everybody. Everybody has ideas and tries to bring those ideas out to the world. The first step is just saying them or drawing them out. If you share your ideas with others their immediate impulse is often to criticize them and say it won’t work.
This is not acceptable. We should help other people grow their ideas even if you think they won’t work. You can still encourage or support people by saying, “Okay. Let’s add this. If you do this, it gets better.” I think that’s very important advice for people, and it can help you in any aspect of your life including your children and your colleagues.
What is it about your approach to workplace innovation and transformation that makes it successful?
Tobias: There are two very important aspects. The first thing is that we create a space of safety and liberty where you can try out anything what you want to do. When we do workshops, we create a space where we invite people to take part. You can take into this space whatever you want to take without the fear of being criticized or of losing your job.
The second aspect has to do with methodology. What I found out is that methods and tools themselves are not enough. Two years ago I partnered with a colleague to combine our expertise and experience in innovation with positive psychology. As soon as we mixed those two domains together boosted their potential, and the results were just amazing. The first most important result was that we found that teams could form more quickly. We also found that the quality of the ideas got much better and people had greater energy to make their ideas a reality.
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