Friday Reflection – Innovation Day

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Apparently, last Friday was National Innovation Day – who knew? It was perhaps a coincidence then that this week I was talking to a client about how they can turn the well-established processes and culture in their Business around. About how they can take on something that seems so set in its ways and inject impetus and momentum into it, and how they can return to the innovative, inquisitive youth of the company’s origins. To them, it seemed an impossible task. I empathised as it is often clear to see that when businesses grow, they understandably put in more and more control mechanisms: processes, approvals, sign-offs and layers of management – all of which can too easily stifle innovation.

So how do you reverse this trajectory? Well, Toyota famously developed its Kaizen approach which encourages their front line workers to actively improve products and processes – not just through idea generation but also through implementing them – often without approval. Employees’ know-how makes their input invaluable and by demonstrating the value Toyota puts on this they reportedly receive 700,000 ideas from their staff each year. I remember doing a student job in a warehouse and being annoyed that a consultant came in and earned fortunes improving the processes when all he had seemingly done was ask us what would help improve things – to be fair to him he listened and questioned and measured and implemented – but at the time I thought why didn’t they just ask us directly in the first place.

However, studies seem to show that too frequently frontline ideas are withheld, lost in translation or in the layers of hierarchy or organisational silos. Research shows that there is also something called the “ideator bias” where 74% of ideas presented are overvalued, this overvalue is coursed by two main factors – firstly status – where the ideator bias was significantly stronger at a higher organisational level – managers seeming projecting their increased confidence in their abilities. This plays out even in controlled experiments where the same participants were asked to act as managers or frontline workers, when acting as managers they were more confident in their ideas. The other factor that leads to overvaluing your ideas is whether the idea came from an individual or from a group. Where perhaps counterintuitively the group has more ideation bias – they overvalue the idea more – and the larger the group the wiser they seem to think they are. They seem to create a bond with each other and the idea can swept them along with a feeling that blinds them.

In his book Drive Dan Pink Sights, the Australian software company Atlassian give their staff FexEx days. These are one day bursts of autonomy where people are allowed to work on anything they like (as long as it isn’t part of their normal job) provided they show what they have created to their colleagues 24 hours later – hence the name FedEx days – the participants have to deliver something overnight. According to the examples given the output of these non-managed, autonomous, self-motivated days is significant and wide reaching. According to Dan Pink giving people autonomy, and purpose (to work on something they are passionate about) and allowing them to master ie learn something new really increase motivation and engagement and so in turn output and idea generation.

So it seems if you want to be more innovative separate idea identification and idea assessment – as people especially managers and groups overvalue their own ideas. But give power, credence and value to the people in your business who do the job – give them a platform or even dedicated FexEx days and see what magic they can bring.