How to create a culture of innovation in your workplace

Peter Totterdill
Workplace Innovation Europe

We’ve seen a real change in recent years as managers come to understand that unleashing the accumulated knowledge, experience and creativity of workers at every level can play an important role in improving business performance and giving companies the competitive edge. Yet this recognition is so often tinged with frustration that those same employees are not responding fully to the opportunities placed in front of them.

Suggestion schemes, ideation platforms and kaizen groups are increasingly present in all types of organisation from manufacturing, financial services and IT companies to the police and government agencies. And yet many continue to wrestle with the knowledge that “our people aren’t really engaged with the improvement and innovation agenda”, or worse, that “they just want to go to work to do their jobs and that’s it”.

So what is to be done?

The EUWIN Knowledge Bank contains a wealth of case studies, films and articles that can help build a culture of innovation in your workplace. Fresh, exciting companies such as Innocent and Red Gate Software were created around the proposition that everyone should come to work to improve the business as much as to deliver their functional tasks. For more established businesses, creating a comparable culture of innovation often means overturning established ways of doing things and, not least, giving people the confidence to speak out, to challenge and to share the ideas and insights previously confined to private conversations with their peers.

To help DS Smith achieve this change of culture in its Lockerbie plant, we facilitated created a day-long session for a cross-section of production staff to identify opportunities for improving production flow, and these have now become regular events. In Devon and Cornwall Police innovation forums have generated great ideas for improving the service at a time of financial stringency. Electric bicycles, for example, are a great way of improving visibility while ensuring that officers can cover enough territory in remote rural areas.

Ideas for improving the business should also be part of the day job. The Met Office argues strongly that new ideas can come from anyone and has rejected the idea of setting up a separate innovation team. A network of volunteer “guerrillas” recruited from every level of the organisation is gradually establishing a culture of innovation in ways that break down silos and release new waves of creativity.

The striking thing about truly innovative companies is the systematic way in which their organisational structures, systems, processes and working practices are all aligned to recognising and encouraging the creativity of individual employees and teams. The lesson for more established businesses is that they need to look beyond the occasional invitations to contribute ideas and examine how employees’ experience of the workplace as a whole encourages – or discourages – their engagement in improvement and innovation:

  • Does performance measurement and appraisal incentivise or restrict involvement in improvement and innovation?
  • Do line managers coach employees to think critically and creatively – or do they discourage difficult questions?
  • Is employee-led improvement and innovation a clear corporate value, continually reinforced by the senior team behaviour?

As in Polpharma it must be driven from the top and reinforced by consistent messages from leaders, aligned with organisational structures and procedures, and underpinned by empowerment and discretion in day-to-day working life. Line management culture and performance measurement invariably play a critical role in enabling, or inhibiting, employee-driven improvement and innovation.

Of course, there are many more factors to consider and The Essential  Fifth Element Diagnostic is a great starting point. It measures employee experience against evidence-based working practices associated with enhanced capacity for innovation as well as improved productivity, health and engagement, and provides a clear and very practical starting point for effective change.

Above all, learning from others must become a vital part of the journey. Case studies and films are a valuable resource, but nothing beats face-to-face dialogue with the people leading successful change in other organisations. That’s why we’ve created Fresh Thinking Labs, an online platform but one which offers In Person opportunities for sharing knowledge and experience of what works.

On 22nd-23rd March 2018, an event hosted by SAAB Aerospace and the HELIX Institute at the University of Linköping will bring together some very innovative companies and leading Scandinavian researchers to explore theory and practice relating to employee-driven innovation.

In May 2018, the programme moves to the UK for an event at the headquarters of MBDA in Stevenage near London where delegates will have the chance to become a ‘critical friend’ to the company which has made long-term investments in the development of innovation competencies and creativity amongst a wide cross-section of its workforce.

Find out more and get in touch