Unleash your organization's innovation potential

What would happen if you trusted your team members enough to give them the freedom to take risks and voice ideas openly?

Some of the ideas you receive will sound crazy. Some will flop. But others will be just what your organization needs to solve an important challenge.

One of the most remarkable examples of what can happen when group members are given autonomy and encouraged to voice their ideas occurred during WWII, as recounted by Stephen Ambrose in his book "Citizen Soldiers."

A thorny issue

In June of 1944, after American soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy on D‐Day and moved about 10 miles inland, they approached the Normandy countryside the French refer to as the Bocage. This part of France consisted of plots of land that farmers separated with hedgerows rather than fences. The hedgerows were made of two to three feet of packed soil at their base and topped off with several feet of brush and vines.

When the Sherman tanks attempted to go over the top of the hedgerows, the front of the tank popped up, exposing its thin underbelly to Nazi anti‐tank fire. As it turns out, Allied military planners had spent so much time planning for the D‐Day landings that they hadn’t fully considered the problems troops might encounter in hedgerow country. The Sherman tanks’ vulnerability caught everyone by surprise.

At first, the Americans tried blasting the hedgerows open so the Sherman tanks could then progress through the holes created by the explosions. Unfortunately, the explosions only served to give the Nazis advance warning of where the tanks were going. Nearly a month after D‐Day, the Allies were falling behind schedule primarily because of the problems created by the hedgerows and the Nazi defense.

Rhino tank from World War II, as seen in Belgium. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense) Rhino tank from World War II, as seen in Belgium. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense)

An unexpected solution

One day, in a discussion between officers and enlisted men, the idea arose of mounting saw teeth on the front of the Sherman tank. Many of those present laughed at the suggestion. One soldier, however, took the idea seriously. Sgt. Curtis G. Culin, a cab driver from Chicago, immediately designed and built a hedgerow-cutting device made from pieces of steel rail that the Nazis had strewn across the beaches to slow down an amphibious attack. When tested, the new device easily sliced through the hedgerows.

It wasn’t long before the Sherman tanks mounted with Culin’s device were branded “Rhinos” by the soldiers because they made a Sherman tank look like a rhinoceros. Within days of testing the Rhinos, the idea was presented to Gen. Omar Bradley, head of the First Army. In short order, he attended a demonstration of the Rhino tank and immediately ordered 500 of Culin’s devices. Within two weeks, 60% percent of the First Army’s Sherman tanks were modified into Rhinos. With the Rhinos, the First Army were able to proceed through the hedgerow country in time to crush the Nazi army.

Now it's up to you

Curtis Culin’s innovation might not have occurred had it not been for a chain of command consisting of Gens. Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall, each of whom gave soldiers under his command the freedom to share and test ideas.

As a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is demonstrate that you are willing to listen. Encourage your team to take the initiative to identify problems and give them the freedom to find solutions.

By doing so, you just might unleash the type of innovative thinking that allowed a Chicago cab driver to play a crucial role in one of history’s greatest moments.

Portions of this post were adapted from “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work,” by Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners. Stallard speaks, teaches and provides consulting serves on leadership and organizational health. Follow Stallard on his blogTwitterFacebookGoogle+ or on LinkedIn.

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