For many years, innovation was the domain of the research and development department. It was a mystical activity that took place behind closed doors, only revealing itself when a new product or process appeared, which everyone was expected to get behind.
As an HR director, I wasn’t expected to have anything to do with the process of generating ideas, or improving the way things were done.
Today, things are different. Being seen as an innovative business is an essential differentiator, and people directors invariably tell me they desperately want to create and sustain an innovation culture that is no longer managed by the fortunate few but allows everyone, at all levels, to co-create ideas.
The credit for this shift should in large part go to the phenomenal work the HR community has done on employee engagement and its links to positive business outcomes, of which innovation is undoubtedly one – no one ever came up with a great idea when they were disengaged. And the more engaged people are, the more likely they are to care about their work and, when confronted with a challenge, to come up with an idea that will fix it rather than pass the buck.
The essence of an innovation culture is getting employees to find solutions to everyday challenges. That can mean breakthrough ideas of the kind you associate with Dyson or Apple, or iterative improvements to services and processes (think Virgin Atlantic’s re-engineering of the experience of flying, or the way Zara has rethought fashion supply chains).
I’ve worked with and studied some particularly innovative organisations – Google, Diageo and Cisco Systems among them – and they all have what I call an ‘ecosystem’ in place, which means innovation is encouraged, enabled, enforced, and therefore inevitable, throughout the organisation.
Who steers this ecosystem? The answer is often the HR department, which helps the business turn employees into innovators. It’s a process that starts with having a clear direction for your innovation efforts. HR may have helped create a compelling purpose or vision for the company from which the board has created a business and operational plan, but is it clear to your people when, where and how you are asking them to innovate? Have you articulated your innovation strategy and shared your four or five current ‘big bets’? If you don’t tell people what innovation looks like, it will be no surprise if they don’t do it.
You also need leaders who will cultivate the environment for innovation. Are they talking up the innovation imperative? Do they frequently reward, call out and speak about it? If innovation is only mentioned in the annual report, or at the occasional brainstorming day, that is where it will stay.
If your leaders are driving innovation, with your internal communications underlining this, you can then create the engine – the people processes that encourage collaboration, as well the breaking down of hierarchy. This sits alongside organisational structures such as innovation labs or work with external parties to bring in fresh thinking. In recent years, we have seen a significant rise in incubators and accelerators supported by large companies; the likes of Unilever, Aviva and Barclays have partnered with small start-ups to bring a pipeline of innovation and energy into their businesses.
But crucially, innovation is all about people – and so HR professionals are uniquely positioned to establish a sustainable innovation culture. That doesn’t mean journey maps or open-plan offices. It means clear direction that ignites employees’ passions and leads somewhere truly special.
Mok O'Keeffe is the founder of consultancy The Innovation Beehive