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Breaking with tradition: Inviting innovation

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6th Aug 2014
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James Brook has a few ideas up his sleeve to help employers harness the ideas, energy and creativity of their workforce, which he shares with you here.

Too many companies stifle the ideas and creativity of their employees. They straightjacket people with rigid policies, processes and competency frameworks from the moment they join the organisation, smothering the very strengths, ideas and skills they were hired for in the first place.

To compound the problem, people are hired for their strengths and ideas, but much of the feedback they receive during performance dialogues and appraisals is focused on what they are not doing well, instead of encouraging their strengths and potential. The results are predictable – motivation, teamwork and innovation plummet, followed shortly by declines in customer satisfaction, competitive advantage and financial results.

There is a radically different and much more effective way to manage your people to harness employees’ ideas and energy. Companies like Moonpig and Rackspace have very intentionally and systematically devised a way to escape the corporate straight jacket by putting the following principles at the heart of their HR strategies and practices.

Expect the very best

As Iain Martin, MD of Moonpig said: “We expect people to be brilliant and tell them this at interview…once they join, we expect them to deliver”. If you expect people to do their best, be excellent and reinforce this message at every stage of the employee life cycle; the vast majority will do their best not to let you down, provided you create a supportive and positive environment where they can flourish. Conversely, if you expect people to be lazy and below par then your staff are unlikely to flourish.

Build inclusive, strengths-based teams

At companies like Rackspace, Moonpig and Facebook, employees are encouraged to become more aware of and fully deploy their natural strengths – underlying qualities that energise you and you are good at or have potential to be good at – to achieve team goals. So, if they are passionate about building relationships, they might be tasked with the job of growing several major client accounts.

At Rackspace, employees even have their top strengths on their employee badge as a reminder to themselves and their co-workers. Employees are also not expected to be well-rounded. They are empowered to bring in co-workers in areas where they don’t have strengths. By building highly energised, complementary teams, these companies become ‘talent magnets’ and outperform their rivals by an impressive margin as employees want to go the extra mile, share their ideas and remain loyal to the company.

Treat employees like your close friends or family

Employees deserve trust, respect, and consideration. They should be treated in the same way you would expect to be treated by your close friends and family. For example, if people want some flexibility to work from home and there is no good rationale for them to be in a defined physical location, then try to accommodate these requests, perhaps initially on a pilot basis. Similarly, encourage them to input their ideas on how to improve the work environment to make it more engaging, fun and innovative. Try out the best ideas and experiment with different ways of creating a more positive, high-performing culture.

Cultivate a connected, fun, and celebratory environment

All clients we work with that have a great work environment spend a lot of time and effort recognising performance at individual, team and organisational levels. There are numerous low and no-cost ways to do this including birthday cakes for individual employees, hand-written ‘thank you’ notes, extended weekends or time off on your birthday, recognition awards, company parties and picnics. Add a bit of fun and variety to spice things up rather than simply giving out recognition awards at all-company meetings.

Innovative organisations also create lots of opportunities for people from different parts of the business to connect and spend time working and socialising together, both in physical and online environments. Enabling employees to spend time together in energising and interactive environments builds trust, open communication and collaborative working, providing more opportunities for employees to generate, evaluate, test and refine ideas, as well as a chance to share know-how, insights and better practices.

Don’t overcomplicate things

Many companies with persistently average or poor workplaces spend too much time talking about the latest HR fad but don’t do anything about it, or they keep changing things without giving their plans sufficient time to be adopted by employees to provide any tangible results. They get locked into a 'new is best' hamster-wheel that quickly results in scepticism and declining credibility for the HR team. As with a good business strategy, HR strategies take a while to bed in and can’t be rushed, especially not in a large company. Therefore, it is important to weigh up all the options and select the best one for the longer-run, rather than chopping and changing every couple of months.

Inspire a culture of experimentation

Many employers in the UK are cultivating risk averse and conservative cultures through centralising decision-making, over-reliance on traditional ways of working and punishing mistakes. We work with organisations in many parts of the world and our experience is that organisations in the USA, Scandinavia and parts of Asia are more innovative because they are risk tolerant and have a more ‘can-do’, entrepreneurial mindset.

In highly innovative organisations like Facebook, Innocent and 3M, employees are actively encouraged to explore, experiment and incorporate learning into improved processes and products/services. Leaders in these companies recognise that tolerating mistakes is required to accelerate progress and ensure breakthrough innovation. They therefore encourage, empower and reward employees for taking considered risks, experimenting and learning to adapt quickly to ensure the best ideas are progressed.

Straight-jacketing employees’ ideas and creativity leads to a sense of powerlessness and frustration amongst employees, as well as a desire to escape as quickly as possible in a Houdini-like manner; an option that is quickly grasped by the most talented employees. By implementing these straightforward principles companies can break from tradition and conservatism and build a strong, thriving and innovative workforce.

James Brook is joint founder and managing director at Strengths Partnership Ltd.

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