What is workplace innovation?
Innovation in the workplace is about forming, incubating and implementing new ideas. It can relate to a company’s products or services. But it’s equally important in business strategy, processes and methods. Types of innovation might involve technology, business modelling, HR and marketing, as well as direct customer-facing activities.
While many businesses focus on delivering customer and employee expectations, innovation is undoubtedly the key to true success. A business that fails to innovate will eventually stall. But this doesn’t mean dramatic change has to tear through management and the workforce on a regular basis. Innovation can be bold and comprehensive. Or it can be a series of small, incremental changes driving development consistently and continuously.
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Workplace innovation can be broadly divided into 2 categories:
External innovation – including changes to marketing strategy, company culture, brand and product or service development.
Internal innovation – this encompasses changes in the way organizations work, including job, team and management structures and hierarchies, mentoring and coaching strategies and employee-driven initiatives.
Internally, workplace innovation is most effective when it flows throughout the company’s culture – where employees at all levels are encouraged to get involved in contributing, having brainstorming sessions and developing new insights and ways of working.
Why is innovation at work important?
The evidence shows that innovation is vital for economic growth and to improve productivity, as well as boosting recruitment and employee satisfaction. According to UK government surveys, firms that innovate grow at around twice the rate of those that don’t. And adopting innovative practices can give productivity, employee health, engagement and wellbeing a 20%-60% boost.
Some of the most significant benefits of an innovation-led workplace culture relate to employees themselves. Recent research by Forbes shows that employee engagement positively correlates with innovation. Engaged workers are more flexible and emotionally connected with their work, ready to pursue challenges and to innovate. With innovative thinking, comes the opportunity to develop and learn, from both success and failure. Research by Deloitte shows organizations with a strong learning culture are 92% more likely to develop novel products and processes as well as being 52% more productive.
Examples of innovation in the workplace
There’s no one way to be creative in the workplace – innovation can take many forms.
Sustained or incremental innovation: This type of innovation is ongoing. It may not be dramatic, but can form the backbone of an innovation-led culture, involving workforce-wide strands of activity. Through this type of innovation, all departments and individuals get involved in innovative thinking as a matter of course, finding opportunities to contribute, experiment and develop ideas.
Breakthrough or spontaneous innovation can be generated intentionally through one-off initiatives or brainstorming, or through problems or issues arising in the workplace. Or it may be motivated by customer demand, new business leads, or changes in the wider market.
Disruptive innovation can happen when unexpected circumstances demand immediate action, or where a company is open and positive enough to try something new, even without a prompt. This type of innovation, especially when it leads to success, is often seen as serendipity, or a lucky break. But in reality, it requires a strategic framework as well as confidence, and the benefits are maximized by companies which are well prepared to adapt quickly.
Innovation is driven by a variety of other factors too. These can include investment and advances in tech, deliberate or accidental internal collaboration, customer involvement, or new ideas and experiences that come out of research. Innovative business cultures are open to all of them. In these cultures, everyone can work towards improving efficiency, performance, enjoyment and productivity, usually at little or no additional cost to the business.
12 ideas for innovation in the workplace
The Engage for Success Survey, also known as the MacLeod report, looked at organizations across the UK to establish the links between high employee engagement and high performance. It stresses the importance of having the right conditions to unlock the potential of innovative workplace culture. Establishing integrity, building trust and two-way commitment and communication are key to maximizing the benefits of a truly innovation-led culture.
To become more innovative, there are a few things to consider.
1. Prepare to innovate
Before developing innovative strategies, make sure any issues or barriers are addressed. Recognize limitations to innovative thinking, like lack of confidence, lack of time and over-reliance on traditional ways of doing things. And encourage disruptive and new ways of thinking. Only when the whole organization is operating from a point of optimism, and has the freedom to challenge the status quo, will progress be truly innovative.
2. Bring everyone on board
An innovative company culture involves everyone. Consider using regular surveys, suggestion boxes, and feedback sessions to show openness to new ideas and create ways to feedback on progress and change as it happens. Companies genuinely practicing true diversity and inclusion will benefit from a range of different experiences and views when everyone is encouraged to take part.
3. Make sure everyone is truly engaged
Engagement is based on trust and is a two-way commitment between an organization and its employees. Gallup research shows higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation.
4. Recognize and reward innovative thinking
Employee recognition is key to sustaining a culture of innovation. Research has shown that some 88% of employees who reported that they had been recognized for strong performance, suggested it was because they had been encouraged to innovate proactively.
5. Dissolve traditional hierarchies
When it comes to innovative thinking and practice, everyone has an equal part to play, whatever their level of experience or position in the business. In a recent survey, 45% of employees agreed that overcoming barriers between levels of management is one of the biggest challenges to innovative thinking within companies.
6. Hire diverse teams
Truly innovative companies will try to recruit people who are genuinely open to innovation, but more importantly, who represent true diversity of background and experience. This can bring a wider, valuable perspective to discussion and processes.
7. Make sure innovative thinking stays in line with fairness
When testing innovative ideas, don’t lose sight of safety, inclusivity, diversity and sustainability.
8. Encourage collaboration
Mix teams and individuals from different management levels and departments to challenge and test ideas from a variety of perspectives. This can extend to past and current customers, who may all have valuable insight into innovation.
9. Get and give feedback
Employees are increasingly prioritizing formal and informal feedback as an opportunity to learn. Millennials and Gen Z are particularly demanding when it comes to choosing where they work, and are looking for more collaborative ways of working.
You can also get feedback by asking your customers what they want, and if they have ideas about how you might develop your products and services. This can be rewarding for both sides, and shows your commitment to shaping the future of your business together.
10. Provide time and freedom to innovate
Make sure everyone understands that innovation is a priority, and build in opportunities to “think outside the box” when it comes to brainstorming or discussing new ideas. Consider scheduling creativity-boosting activities like art, writing or cooking workshops, drama sessions or problem-solving games. These can be related to business issues, or just opportunities to experience new ways of thinking, collaborating and learning.
11. Dare to fail
Failure or disappointment isn’t the end of innovation. It’s an opportunity to fine tune, adapt and learn.
12. Use tech as a tool
There’s an ever-increasing range of software and project management tools designed to help with innovation and creation in the workplace. This includes using collaboration tools and virtual reality and the metaverse as a way to help your ideas form and grow.
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