What’s the point of innovation without participation?
White Paper

What’s the point of innovation without participation? How to unlock a culture of ‘innovation everywhere’ without risking it all

Tom Howlett, COO at River, explores the concept of an innovation culture.

In this white paper, Tom discusses how to break down silos and build participation through cross pollinating teams. He explains how fostering participation improves efficiency and reduces errors through continuous improvement. Learn how to identify, fuel and shine a light on the 'idea makers' in your business.

Chapter 1

Deep change or slow death?

As we move into a new industrial revolution, it’s clear that companies need to step up to handle and create massive amounts of innovation. And now, more than ever, innovation is on the lips of business leaders. In fact, PWC’s global CEO Survey singles out innovation as the top priority of CEOs (putting it ahead of human capital, competitiveness, customer experience, and even technological capabilities).

So, we know we need to innovate, but what’s the point of harping on about innovation if we don’t bring our people along with us? The key to making innovation work is to embrace participation at all levels... because ideas can come from anywhere, not just the ivory tower.

Sadly, the word innovation has been glamorised by celebrity entrepreneurs who’ve shot to business stardom - but what about the countless people in regular business who create new products and services day in, day out? And what about innovating more efficient and effective ways of working? Those ideas can have just as much impact on the bottom line as new product development. So, how can you surface this innovation and make participation a winning strategy in your business?

Chapter 2

No innovation without participation

The myriad pitfalls of not getting to grips with how your business handles innovation are pretty obvious. Standing still in such a rapidly shifting and globally competitive environment is dangerous - just look at Kodak, Blockbuster and Toys R Us.

So, if we’re clear that innovation is a must, how will you make sure you’re not left behind? How can you ensure you’re doing everything possible to cultivate innovation at all levels in your own organisation? To help in this quest, we’ve created seven operational steps business leaders can take today to move towards full participation in the innovation race.

Step 1. Surface ideas at all levels

As technology accelerates change, successful companies must find innovation everywhere in their business to take full advantage of the massive opportunities this new world brings. The best leaders know they don’t have all the answers, so they find ways to liberate their people. That way everyone can contribute to the organisation’s mission.

By fostering a culture of ‘innovation everywhere’ you’ll adapt more readily. You need to find ways of freeing the ‘idea makers’ that sit on the front line so you can compete now - and in the future. That means giving autonomy, freedom and the ability to try new ways of doing things.

Step 2. Validate ideas in a safe environment

Ok, you’ll be thinking about the risk now - right? How can you give autonomy and still protect your organisation from unacceptable risk? And how do you stop autonomy leading to chaos in a world where hierarchical governance is too slow and too conservative?

Yes, autonomy can come with a large dose of risk. Not everyone with a great idea will have the experience to take responsibility and implement their idea successfully. Without an understanding of the wider implications that a change in process or new initiative might bring, they might miss some of the pitfalls. So how do we get over this fear?

We need to create a safe environment. One that allows people to validate and test their own ideas. You can do this quite simply. Try out an idea for a week or two, and then measure the impact. Consultants and coaches often talk about the need to get out of your comfort zone. But, as Kevin McFarthing wrote, this blatantly ignores that most people tasked with creating the next big thing are already deeply uncomfortable with that assignment. What we really need to give people is more comfort and less stress.

There are many excuses for not experimenting and validating ideas. We don’t have the time, there are fires to fight and targets to meet, are just a few. But the answer is simple. You have to embed participation in goal setting and ideas that propel you forward, or you simply won’t survive.

Step 3. Create healthy teams that provide safety

Change is unpredictable. So, how do we create the perfect permaculture for safe germination of ideas? The key is a careful blend of independence and community.

We all crave the freedom to do what we believe is right. Similarly, most people want to have a positive impact on the organisation they work for. However, to be completely happy at work (or to use a buzzword; ‘engaged’ at work), we need to feel that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Whatever terminology we use, we all want to feel part of something at work - a movement or a community - that aligns with our own values.

Healthy teams can give this autonomy safely. When people support each other and feel free to challenge ideas, that’s when honest feedback can be discussed openly, and assumptions can be tested at the same time. When this dialogue emerges, the community - or team - develops a shared understanding and becomes smarter than the sum of its parts. It’s very different from the experience of getting feedback from a manager - something that’s often a one way street.

Fostering teams is our first line of defense when it comes to the challenge of individual autonomy. Cross pollinating teams provide that safe and healthy environment for participation, where innovation can thrive.

Step 4. Align goals to purpose

So, we’ve established that teams are crucial for testing innovation, but, how do teams stay aligned with the organisation’s mission? A collection of teams all moving in different directions might generate some interesting outcomes but most businesses are looking for alignment around a common purpose. Right? In traditional management, when a leader shares their vision, people ask how it will affect them personally. When people and teams have autonomy, they ask how they can affect the vision.

If a leader communicates a meaningful purpose that people believe in, and provides an environment for healthy, autonomous teams to act on that vision, change will happen.

So how can you effectively communicate strategy? And how do you make innovation work across functions and divisions? Luckily, technology now allows leaders to communicate directly through multiple channels. There shouldn’t really be any excuses for a lack of alignment when strategy deployment is so easily solved through technology.

This may sound simplistic, but technology allows you to bring people together online (regardless of internal taxonomy) so that physical location and proximity have little bearing on your people’s ability to access a consistent, strategic message.

Step 5. Allow teams to set their own goals

The next challenge that emerges on the road to innovation, is autonomous teams and their struggle with procrastination. Without someone to take charge, seemingly endless discussion on what to do next can become frustrating. And instead of fostering innovation, you kill productivity. To overcome this, teams must have goals.

To minimise the risk of procrastination, and maintain that balance of autonomy, encourage teams to set their own goals. Or, or at least, allow them to input into the goals the team takes on. This might be a simple voting system or a discussion forum to raise concerns before a final decision is made.

If you can encourage teams to adopt time specific goals - even better. It introduces a sense of urgency that encourages teams to give things a try, rather than simply talk about it. When it comes to involving people in innovation, it’s often about trying something different, that challenges the status quo, which leads to new ideas.

Step 6. Don't make data a luxury

If teams can set their own goals, and they understand the business strategy, then they have true autonomy with a sense of ‘conscious contribution’. But it’s hard to set goals without knowing where it’s most valuable for them to focus their time. And for that we need data.

Traditional managers have the luxury of data that the teams on the ground often lack. If teams are to set smart goals they need to be able to measure the things they can improve. Then they need to receive feedback that shows them if they’re really making a difference.

Typically, business data is passed (over email) between managers, in complex spreadsheets that are hard to interpret. But for our autonomous teams to truly innovate, data shouldn’t be a luxury. It should be in everyone’s hands.

Mobile phones provide the perfect way to get data whenever we need it. Outside the business world, in everyday life, we’ve surpassed the desktop age and have moved firmly into a mobile (and wearable) one. Fitness apps are a great example of how everyone can engage with data once it’s in their pockets. There’s a huge opportunity for businesses to extend this into the workplace. And this is when it becomes really interesting...

So, consider how comfortable your business is with personal mobile phone use. If it’s something you’ve shied away from, ask yourself why? But if you’re not there yet (and you will be soon), there are still many ways to get meaningful data into people’s hands. That’s when everyone can participate in innovation and see exactly where their action is having an impact on business success.

Step 7. Take responsibility and share success

When autonomous teams aren’t connected, they spend their time finding different solutions to the same problems. Every experiment generates data and the value of that data is supercharged when it’s shared with other teams who face the same challenges.

Making the goals, activities and conversations of teams easily accessible across the organisation will fuel your innovation. Not only will your people learn from each others’ experiences but they’ll also be inspired. Everyone likes to hear about success and wants to understand how they can replicate it.

This type of openness dramatically increases organisational intelligence. The transparency also improves trust and It can foster a little friendly competition too.

Although this may all sound revolutionary, working in this way doesn’t require dramatic transformation. The technology is now available to switch from command and control to autonomy, collaboration and transparency. So the best advice? Embrace it!

Chapter 3

Implementing the seven steps to innovation

The most productive organisations find ways to encourage autonomy whilst ensuring alignment with goals. They give freedom that comes with a responsibility to be open and share the lessons learned. If you want to compete in this new world you’ve got to create an ‘innovation everywhere’ mindset and adapt your system of work to encourage and facilitate participation.

In summary, the seven steps you can take to create participation in innovation right now, are:

  1. Surface ideas at all levels - Ideas can come from all levels, so by creating a culture of ‘innovation everywhere’, you’ll promote participation in achieving your company’s aim.
  2. Validate ideas in a safe environment - Change is unpredictable and new ideas will need to be tested.
  3. Create healthy teams that provide safety - A team environment that promotes feedback and healthy discussion is vital.
  4. Align goals to purpose - Communicate the company strategy so that goals can be aligned.
  5. Allow teams to set their own goals - Encourage teams to have input in goal setting and to create time sensitive goals that create urgency.
  6. Don't make data a luxury - Put the data in everyone’s hands so people at all levels can understand what to focus on and the impact of their contribution.
  7. Take responsibility and share success - Make it everyone’s responsibility to share the lessons learned and build up business intelligence on how innovation works in your organisation.

Want to see what River can do for you?

If you're interested in fostering innovation and team participation in your business, why not book a demo?

We'll show you how River brings teams together in one place to collaborate and achieve goals. Start putting data into the hands of everyone and get teams focussed around activities that continually improve. Surface the success in your organisation by sharing the gold dust that creates real impact.

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  1. This is a really great piece. You have taken many big, difficult ideas and made them consumable and actionable.

    I think you would be very interested in the work of Micheal Arena, Mary Uhl-Bien and their colleagues who have a huge amount of research data from academics and practitioners. You can find them on Connected Commons.

    1. Hi John! Thanks for your comment.

      The Michael Arena paper on ‘The Adaptive Space Imperative’ is fascinating. I particularly like this quote; “For the large modern organization, innovation is both essential and increasingly difficult. Innovating requires managers to grapple with a paradox: How does one empower those with innovative ideas (in the entrepreneurial system) and ensure that their best ideas are effectively implemented (using the operational system)? Our research suggests that by understanding social networks and developing an adaptive space, even seemingly bureaucratic organizations can facilitate emergent innovations.”

      With River’s data collaboration approach, we hope we can help organisations give their teams this adaptive, social space to innovate around the goals that really matter.

  2. Some really useful references – thanks to John for sharing.

    Given the priority on innovation as demonstrated in the survey referenced in this paper, understanding what drives true innovation I think is key. The paradox proposed in the quote Emily mentions from Michael Arena would logically become more challenging the more isolated the entrepreneurial activities are from the day to day operational concerns. I find the book “The Myths of Creativity” (https://davidburkus.com/books/the-myths-of-creativity/) to be a very digestible treatment of what does and doesn’t promote innovation in an organisation – debunking many myths that might have been historically used to justify a separation of innovation pursuits from operational activities. Based on research by Teresa M. Amabile of Harvard Business School, the book promotes four key elements needed for innovation: domain expertise, a defined creativity methodology, people willing to engage and company acceptance of new ideas. At River we are creating a product aimed at supporting a creativity methodology in organisations that are prepared to accept new ideas by helping to encourage and engage the true experts in each domain – the teams doing the work – using socially oriented technology to surface and distribute great ideas from across the operational employee networks.

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