Employee-Led Innovation Works but Beware the Pitfalls
by Tess Julian, CEO of Catalyst Exchange
After more than a decade working in the innovation business, it’s really wonderful to see innovation as organisational ambition, and in the headlines and as a national priority. Of course what innovation actually means depends on who is talking about it. Whether it’s a tech entrepreneur, a government department, a research institute, a corporate, an SME, a local council and so on. Nevertheless, it’s on the agenda and everyone is trying to do something that makes sense to them.
A lot of organisations have decided that the easiest way to go is through employee-led innovation, which usually means putting in some sort of ideas capture system and getting employees to submit their ideas. There’s definitely no shortage of ideas.
I’ve learnt a thing or two from working with various organisations over the last 15 years, which is summed up quite nicely in this research paper:
“Although challenging, we claim that EDI (employee-driven innovation) is an unexplored opportunity in many organisations as a means for improving overall capacity for innovation.” The authors identify three big benefits:
- More general interest in innovation
- Increased engagement in innovation processes
- Reduced opposition to change
These are the very cultural attributes that all organisations are looking for to help them become agile and responsive in order to be able to innovate.
However, the report goes on to note that their comprehensive research has highlighted that “moving workplace practices genuinely towards collaborative innovation might imply significant changes to the way people work and learn together, including management practices. This means that the full potential of EDI may not be realised overnight.”
So the simple introduction of an ideas system, brainstorming sessions, training and learning are not going to bring about the benefits without some additional effort.
This is absolutely what we’ve found at Catalyst Exchange. While employee-led innovation might seem simple and straightforward, there is a lot an organisation needs to do to avoid the pitfalls.
Working with some of Australia’s leading organisations such as Coca Cola Amatil and Roche, for example, has meant we’ve learnt a few things. If you want to make your employee-led innovation system really work, think about these:
- Ideas capture systems always start with a bang and often die out with a whimper. They attract too many ideas and not enough good ideas. They create a blockage so that you can’t implement or even give decent feedback about most of the ideas. You need to both improve the quality of input and manage the output, so that people will feel like submitting ideas a second time.
- Too often innovation is seen as a “fad” and is positioned in competition with other programs and initiatives that are working pretty well. You have to link the programs that are already working and build on what what you’re doing well to optimise all of the approaches, and at the same time, avoid the political backlash of introducing something new.
- Many employees (often those with the best insights) feel intimidated and/or skeptical about innovation. They need confidence and belief to engage. Confidence and belief come from having a good innovation process, quality feedback, a focus on implementation and a supportive culture.
- Innovation involves a certain amount of risk but it doesn’t have to expose you to failure. You need ways to manage the risk of innovation and learn from error.
- Too often an innovation initiative is a side issue. Your leaders need to model and support innovation and flag that it is important. Meaningful recognition, promotion and communication will help to make innovation visible and, in the long term, will help to maintain momentum.
- An employee-led innovation system should not only bring about shifts in practices but also create real value. For example, even 100 small ideas saving $1,000 each will result in $100,000 in savings. A good employee-led innovation system in a large department should produce at least 100 ideas in the first three months. But you have to be able to prove it. You need ways to capture the value.
So if your organisation is contemplating employee-led innovation, don’t just rush in. Give some real thought to how you are going to bring about the change in work and management practices so that you reap real benefits of employees-led innovation for the long term.
Come and talk to us at Catalyst Exchange.