• Heidi Thompson
  • 14 June 2012

Let’s get innovative

‘We must be innovative’, say the Board, ‘we must be creative’.  ‘Yes’, say the workers, ‘but can we look at that next week, we don’t have time for that right now?’ Perhaps I am being unfair but that general conversation is certainly something I have come across many times in different organisations – so who is right?

Ultimately innovation is essential to the growth of any business, it is critical for future success and for many employees essential to their own job satisfaction. Whilst some companies seem to ‘get it right’, why in many organisations do managers get so frustrated that employees can’t seem to think beyond their to do list and why do employees so often roll their eyes at the latest innovation drive?

Of course, as is often the way, the Board have to take the lion share of the blame. Innovation can only happen when they are receptive to new ideas and when they have removed any barriers preventing employees from bringing new ideas to the table. Likewise, even when the Board are willing to listen, employees are often reluctant to bring forward ideas as they simply fear the additional work this may bring them. How often have we been ‘rewarded’ by thinking of a great idea by being given a huge extra chunk of work? How often have we been guilty as a result of this thinking ‘maybe I will bring this idea up next month when my diary is clearer’?

For companies, those more ambitious and entrepreneurial amongst your workforce are likely to be focused on innovative thinking and may embrace the challenge of the additional work but what about the majority of employees, often left doing the ‘day job’ when entrepreneurs are being innovative on new projects. Its important not to forget them or write them off as having no ambition or creativity – it is often those steady workers who will have the greatest ideas – after all innovation isn’t always about changing the world. Simple ideas, and small changes, often have the greatest impact.

So how can employers encourage employees to be innovative and what role should HR play in this? 

Firstly, employees must understand the business (this goes for HR too) and the ultimate goals and aims, they must be given encouragement and time and space to think and they must also be reassured that it's ok to fail – not all ideas will work, but they will take us one step closer. For many employees they will be happy with the way things are right now – so why fix it? Again they must be encouraged and educated on the importance of change and growth – yes we could stay the same, but where will that leave us in five years’ time? Many employees may have great ideas but no idea or clear direction on how it could be implemented. Working groups involving teams from across the business with different skill sets can address this. 

Employees should also be reassured regarding the word ‘innovate’ – for many they will consider that is not something they can do, as such it's about cutting through management speak and highlighting that it's simply good ideas and then bringing them to life. 

HR can help organisations by looking at the culture and ensuring an open environment, one free of blame (remembering we want to reward creativity not punishment for failure). HR needs to demonstrate to the business that in this economic climate it is more vital than ever to be innovative and that this can only be achieved by allowing people the time, resource and encouragement to succeed. HR can also help with this process; after all it may not be exciting to discuss process when we are being innovative but good ideas mean nothing unless they are actually put into place.

It is this final step of putting the ideas into action which is often the major blockage. Leaders, if they want innovation, must address this; with the best will in the world they cannot simply add more and more to the workload of their employees. They must consider the resource issue and how it can be achieved – never easy and goes back to that boring process – but as a leader if they want to be the best they must act quickly with creative and innovative ideas of their own. After all, if they don’t do it you can bet their competitor will.