Aug 04, 2016

Innovation? That's Not My Job.

How to Motivate Employees to Think Creatively - Even When It's "Not Their Job"
By Susan Pennebaker and Paule Hewlett

Are we living in the most innovative age in history? Yes, according to the 2016 Reuters Innovation Report, which calls this “a point in human history where innovation is, above all else, the currency on which companies, universities, government agencies and entire nations thrive.”

Today’s work-a-day changes might not rival those of the Renaissance, or the Industrial Age, or even the dot-com 90’s. But more and more companies are stressing creativity at work – primarily to get people to help fix what’s broken, do more with less, and improve performance in an extremely competitive marketplace.

This by itself is not new. We saw a similar focus and momentum during the reengineering efforts of the 1990’s. Those were the days of Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing — structured initiatives designed to streamline business processes and institutionalize best practices.

Then, as now, the focus was on questioning old habits, experimenting with new approaches, even implementing radically different ideas, all across the company – even in groups where creativity has been frowned upon – until now.

Innovation for all. All for innovation.

Pennebaker was recently asked this question: Is innovation a reasonable goal for all parts of the company? Should companies or divisions outside of technology and product design even bother with creativity initiatives?

Our short answer was “Yes.” Pennebaker has been involved in multiple innovation programs for diverse types of companies. What we’ve seen is that innovation comes in many forms – among them, new ways of thinking, fresh approaches to old challenges, ideas for cost and time savings. But change won’t happen without an across-the-board, collaborative and concerted effort – in effect, a shift in culture. And as we all know, major corporate initiatives like these can only be effective when they are deliberate, sustained and well communicated.

A case in point

Recently, the Controllership group of a global technology company was facing this issue. The leaders wanted to launch an Innovation initiative, and they wanted Pennebaker to develop a communications strategy that would resonate specifically with financial types.

Remember, these are employees valued for left-brain thinking, and for good reason: nobody wants to be associated with “creative accounting.” These are people focused on managing risk, compliance and financial reporting – all areas where adherence to standards is critical.

But the group leaders had a vision: that Controllership could bring greater value to the company business units by generating new ideas to work smarter – identifying opportunities to save time and money, increase efficiencies and enhance cash flows.

They turned to Pennebaker for help in getting the creativity wheels turning.

As part of developing this unique program, we began with what works best: we investigated the status quo. Our qualitative and quantitative research started with a set of pertinent questions discussed with a diverse on-site focus group. We also conducted one-on-one interviews with multiple global employees.

Here’s what they told us:

  • Employees understood that the mandate to be more creative stemmed from marketplace pressure. They felt innovation was important for profit, growth, retention and recruitment.
  • Even though their focus was finance and accounting, they believed there were opportunities for them to contribute creatively.
  • Management was already supportive, but employees wanted the assurance of a structured process to develop and guide good ideas through to fruition. “How do I submit my idea? Will there be resources to develop my idea?”
  • Employees were energized by how improvements would make their work more interesting, and how it could bring value to all business units within the company. In fact, they had already identified numerous fixes / improvements and welcomed the chance to take them to the next level. 

So for Controllership, the employees were already on board and willing to get involved with an innovation program. They just wanted to be sure the program was real and had the support of their leaders, and that their ideas had somewhere to go.

Tips on making innovation work

There is plenty of research on what makes one innovation program actually produce marked improvements when another doesn’t. Here is what we learned about best practices in innovation programs, which we incorporated into our communications plan.

  1. Tie it back to business strategy.  Innovation programs have to align with the company’s goals and values. The relationship can’t simply be implied; communications must connect the dots between working more efficiently and better bottom line results.
  2. Provide the infrastructure.  It’s not enough to say, “Give us your best ideas!” There has to be a formal program to vet and nurture employee suggestions. It’s an iterative process that requires support and mentoring – and “Innovation Champions” who talk the talk and walk the walk.
  3. Demonstrate buy-in, encouragement and excitement.  Nobody is going to think it’s a real program unless they hear it - repeatedly - from the top. Management must communicate the vision and provide both time and resources for employees to generate and explore ideas, such as weekly “Einstein Hours."
  4. Ensure visibility and access across the company.  All communications must be distributed widely and frequently. Resources have to be easily accessible. Keep the innovation culture barrier-free.
  5. Supply tools to support the idea-nurturing process. Research has proven that creativity exercises and tools help stimulate thinking in new ways. A place to collaborate and share ideas online ensures that new ideas continue to flow in.
  6. Create / sustain the right environment. Employees must feel they are able to take the time to innovate, and that they have the freedom to fail. There are no bad ideas.
  7. Recognize success.  Employees want to know that their efforts are recognized through some type of rewards program. They also want to know about the accomplishments of others – “the Innovation Heroes.”
  8. It’s not just a one-and-done decree from the top down. This type of culture change  requires sustained communication efforts and specific training geared to the generation and refinement of new ideas.

Creativity begets creativity

One of the lessons we have learned from our own experience: A program stressing “outside the box” approaches and fresh thinking cannot be communicated in the same old way. Makes sense, yes?

Here are just a few of the ideas we came up with to help this Controllership group build excitement, roll out the program to global employees, and maintain momentum for their new innovation program.

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