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Innovating from within: How to engage your own staff, incubate innovative ideas and see them flourish

Whitespace logo By Whitespace
29th October 2020

Corporate innovation can best meet its tremendous potential when coupled with an engaged workforce. Of course, it’s not just the innovation team themselves that need to be enthused with regard to developing new approaches, systems, products and pipelines that better drive efficiency, output, revenue or any other element of a Corporation.

A team working on laptops at a desk

Corporate innovation is a discipline that thrives when everyone from C-suite to back office and frontline staff has faith in its potential and is open-minded to contributing.

The best ideas, perfect partnerships and most progressive approaches to open collaboration might provably deliver truly meaningful results, but without workforce engagement those results could forever exist in a silo, never to have a tangible impact outside the walls of an innovation lab or team. Engage the wider workforce, and innovation is granted permission to prosper, whether internally or externally.

Of course, an engaged workforce is central to manifold aspects of a Corporation’s success. Large companies are in essence collectives of people, so it should come as no surprise that the engagement, wellbeing, and perspectives of that community effectively found a Corporation’s potential to succeed.

But as much as it may be obvious to state that an engaged workforce is important, how should a workforce be engaged so as to bolster the efforts of Corporate innovation and the business beyond? And how do we even frame or quantify what an engaged workforce looks like? Those are the questions that focused the efforts of those in attendance at the July 2019 gathering of the Whitespace Corporate Innovation Community, hosted in collaboration with the BBC.

Key Takeaways

Understanding the ‘empathy/discipline spectrum

To best consider fostering an engaged, enthusiastic workforce so as to deliver optimum results through Corporate innovation, it is worth first pondering a specific framing of management approaches generally.

There are myriad ways to manage a large and broad workforce, most of which sit on a relatively linear spectrum. At one end is the model of utter discipline; an approach you might see in earlier iterations of the military ‘management style’, built around obedience, where orders to the workforce are absolute and unquestioned, and actions are performed and delivered with precise discipline.

At the other end of the spectrum sits the contemporary model perhaps most common in smaller creative businesses, where empathy, employee agency, near spirit-level-flat staffing structures, the democracy of ideas, listening and kindness are defining to how the staff is managed.

There is no right or wrong point on that spectrum; management approach must always serve business type. Discipline remains fundamental to the military, for example. That said, the movement to the other end of the spectrum appears increasingly common, marking a trend in which there is much opportunity to adjust or improve workforce management with Corporate innovation in mind.

Defining ‘transformational engagement

With regard to fostering an engaged workforce, ‘transformational engagement’ can be understood to define approaches where employees are integral to developing and delivering business strategy. Encouraging and stimulating transformational engagement requires an authentic belief in the power of people to contribute both new and creative products and services, and outstanding customer/client service and efficiency. Equally, a belief that people provide a solution rather than be a root of problems is key to enabling meaningful transformational engagement.

Can disruptive innovation be less disruptive to workforce efficiency?

Large organisations are necessarily well-oiled machines; particularly with regard to the systems that govern and manage their workforces. As such, the disruptive reputation of Corporate innovation can see it framed as upsetting to established efficiency and process. Equally, the perception persists that – like marketing – innovation can be too many degrees removed from the practicalities of running a business, or even unrealistic and impractical in its demands for change. As such, an important question must be asked: How can Corporate innovators punch through perceptions of their discipline to better.

The answer, in part, comes from who you initially chose to engage with outside of your own innovation team. Those that are already engaged with the potential of innovation – and those that self-volunteer to contribute to or be part of an initiative or project testing phase – make an ideal starting point. They may quickly become evangelists for your efforts across your Corporation.

Equally, doing what is possible to break down walls that divide the innovation team from the rest of the workforce may have a profound impact. Empowering ‘non-innovation’ staff to believe they can be innovative and contribute original ideas to innovation projects can not just empower a workforce, but a company.

But there are many more ways to ramp up employee engagement, both generally and with specific nuance.

A four-point guide to engaging the workforce, and ‘punching through perceptions around innovation

One of the Whitespace Corporate Innovation Community’s invited speakers – David MacLeod OBE, co-founder of Engage For Success – shared his framework for better engaging wider workforces, broken down into four key points:

1) Establish a strategic narrative for your Corporation

Making staff keenly aware of the Corporation’s heritage, present goals, future aims, and broader vision and journey is key to engaging staff and making them feel part of a communal effort. Consider the hypothetical cleaner at NASA in the 1960s who, when sweeping the floor, is asked ‘what are you doing?’. If their answer is that they are ‘helping put a man on the moon’ – rather than simply ‘sweeping the floor’ – they are engaged in the company narrative and their place beyond the specifics of their role. That engaged worker will be more devoted, better rewarded and – in a more contemporary context – more open to embracing and engaging with initiatives such as Corporate innovation.

2) Engaging managers are key to engaged staff

Managers and line-managers that can focus their people, offer scope and enable productivity while also being human-centric, empathetic and considerate of their staff’s insights will see a more engaged, increasingly dedicated team likely to rally around new initiatives.

Backing up this logic, it was found that 65 percent of employees in the US would prefer a better boss to a pay rise. Plainly, human interactions in the workplace are hugely important re employee wellbeing and effort.

Numerous examples exist where human-centric, compassionate and empathic management delivered through simple means can make a significant impact on employee engagement. Consider the large Corporation that sends a bottle of wine and two glasses with onboarding contracts and paperwork provided by mail to incoming employees, with a playful note apologising that the employment starts with legalese, and encouraging them to offset the effort of reading a legal document by having a drink with a friend or loved one. That approach engages staff even before they have started their first shift.

Another example shared at the meeting came from a visit to aerospace outfit BAE Systems, where a monitor was installed in the office of a large plant, providing a live feed of a notoriously busy motorway junction common to the commute home. That feed let employees consider when to head home, and which route to take. The service to staff was ultimately small, and installing the system brought no direct advantage at al to BAE systems. But at a trivial cost, it offered something fundamentally useful for the workforce, making them feel supported, cared for and engaged.

A third example shared highlighted a manager of a customer service department supporting the team with regard to unreasonable customers pushing their luck. In the case of that team, if a customer became unpleasant or excessively demanding to a customer service worker, that staff member could ‘tell the customer where to go’. It may be contrary to the long-established principle that ‘the customer is always right’, but it recognised that the team involved were themselves human beings worthy of respect and support.

Ultimately, techniques such as those shared above should not be motivated by the direct gain re employee engagement. They should never merely be gestures. Rather, empathic managers that are authentically motivated to support their staff from a human-centric perspective will see engagement ramp up as a meaningful side effect of their approach. Managers of all kinds can level-up engagement by listening, never walking past dysfunctional behaviour, and using kindness when both coaching staff, and when highlighting areas with room for improvement.

3) Encouraging positive employee voice

Staff workforces communicate internally both frequently and passionately, and staff are informed and influenced by the voices around them. Collective employee voice guides the tone, engagement, and efficiency of an organisation and its staff. An empowered team with the agency in developing and establishing the likes of new process and practice will be more engaged and devoted; and they are particularly more likely to respect and stick to entities they have helped guide or shape, such as workflow systems or good practice guidelines. A discontented employee voice, meanwhile, can gradually and increasingly suffuse dissatisfaction and lack of engagement.

Listening to the collective employee voice can also help identify and contain problem behaviours and practice. A company with no sense of engagement with employee voice, for example, may fail to identify discontent and disconnection – or worse, miss dramatically damaging activity. Awareness of employee voice is not about – and should not be motivated by – monitoring negative behaviour. Yet a positive side-effect of lending an ear to your workforce can include the ability to pick up on staff beliefs which may in some quarters engender dissident behaviour. Listening to employee voice, for example, may have allowed Volkswagen to avoid the €27.4 billion costs (by September 2018) of the emissions scandal.

4) Doing as you say

The fourth and final point focuses on the simple matter of integrity is a powerful factor in setting the standard of – or harmonising – employee voice, while enabling workforce engagement. Subverting the adage ‘do as I say; not as I do’, managers at Corporations should set the example by explicitly respecting any listed or stated company values. Simply put, ‘doing as you say’ will do a tremendous amount to establish and refine workforce engagement.

Engage for success also provides a range of resources on understanding and enabling employee engagement, including white papers and slide decks.

The potential of staff ‘knowing their why’.

Similar to the point above with regard to engaging staff with a meaningful company narrative, it is important to encourage staff to ‘know their why’. That is to say, staff should know ‘why are you part of what we are, and what we do as a corporation?’. Staff that are engaged with ‘knowing their why’ are considerably more likely to devote more to a Corporation’s effort and innovations.

Reward, support and educate your engaged innovators

Staff from within and beyond the innovation team that are actively enthusiastic about initiatives – or self-volunteer for initiatives – should be supported through the maintenance of an environment that meaningfully supports ‘internal entrepreneurs’. Supporting ‘intrapreneurialism’ can establish infectious engagement that spreads through a large organisation, attracting open-mindedness and engagement with Corporate innovation.

It is equally worth considering establishing an internal centre for intrapreneurialism, so as to support any staff in being entrepreneurial, whatever their role in the company. Consider establishing a formalised ‘journey’ any staff member can take to not only have their ideas supported but to educate them in the process and practice of entrepreneurialism. Creating a framework can engender a striking ‘workforce movement’. At NatWest – also speakers at this meeting – the ‘Entrepreneurial Development Academy’ gained incredible momentum, encouraging 16,000 staff – or 20 percent of the organisation – to volunteer for involvement. That all, of course, must be facilitated with minimal disruption to the involved staff’s prime role; unless that disruption is warranted or relevant.

The power of ‘radical candour’

It is a simple but important point that frankness is key to engaging the workforce with internal and collaborative innovation. The notion of ‘radical candour’ refers to absolute honesty with workforce; a concept that can empower previous points in this document, such as establishing company narrative and connecting with ‘employee voice’.

Engaging through ‘feel-good factor’

It may sound trivial, or even asinine, but engaging through by being energetic, enthusiastic and personable provides a powerful currency to enable the success of Corporate innovation. Accept that not everyone will understand where you are coming from. A minority may very likely be dismissive of your effort. But staying upbeat and openly optimistic – and being welcoming to those who show even a very modest interest – will bring a great deal many more gains than pandering to the inevitable group who are actively unwelcoming to innovation in a broad sense.

Background on the Corporate Innovation Community

The Whitespace Corporate Innovation Community has been in existence for two years and was launched to enable Corporate innovation leaders and practitioners to come together in an informal environment and connect with each other, discuss and engage with innovation topics, share innovation insights and collaborate 1:1. The Whitespace team facilitate the community as part of our mission to help filter the noise around Corporate innovation and to also help Corporate innovators connect, share, learn and collaborate

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