As an advocate, researcher and supporter of employee led innovation systems, I deliver many workshops and seminars about the benefits of employee led innovation. Following a recent seminar, several mid-level managers commented ‘thanks for the great insights, we get it and will go back to work and start now’. My response (obviously) was to ask them if they would like to join a community of practice and continue to learn by sharing. Their answer was “no, our organisation is different and we can (or need to) effectively ‘go it alone’”.
So let’s consider some of the traps that first timers can fall into.
Innovation is a highly over-used word. To start a discussion about innovation, it’s best to agree a definition. To me, innovation is defined as ‘when the value is delivered’ or best described by a leading Australian business as ‘when the customer writes a cheque!’
Lists of ideas, workshops, training, ideas systems, teams etc are all necessary parts of the innovation process, part of innovative cultures. But without some careful balancing, they won’t simply produce innovation.
Most organisations today are looking for improved performance and recognise that an innovative culture is one of the necessary elements AND employee led innovation is critical.
To understand innovative culture, innovative people and change, let’s start with some basic science, psychology and proven research.
Bystander intervention or seizure experiments conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latane showed that the likelihood that someone will help is hugely dependent on the presence of others. If people think they are the only witness, they usually attempt to help. If there are one or more witnesses, the likelihood decreases proportionately. The more people; the less happens.
Current idea management and employee led innovation revolves around collecting ideas and encouraging others to vote/comment on the ideas. Gamification with fake money encourages participation. Thousands of ideas are collected and a few ideas are implemented. Few ideas are implemented because participants believe that someone else will do it. The more people get involved, proportionately less gets done!
Social influence is perhaps the most researched topic in all psychology. Norman Triplett conducted the first social psychology experiment in 1898. He found that cyclists had much better times when they competed against another cyclist rather than competing against the clock. This general point has been made in scores of subsequent experiments; from dogs to cockroaches. The social facilitation effect is why leading organisations join Hargraves. Being part of a group working hard to be more innovative improves individual innovation performance.
Like riding in a cycling peloton, employee led innovation is best when people work as individuals and as a group. Employee led innovation works best when the idea stays with the employee, driven by the innovator. It’s the leaders of the organisation who have the responsibility to empower the individuals and provide processes to coordinate the peloton.
So how do you create the “peloton” for employee led innovation?
Within every community there are a number of individuals who act as ‘the connectors’. The people that know people! The people that know how to get things done.
In the innovation context we call these people ‘catalysts’. When an employee has an idea, they are the Innovator – the innovation process starts as a single thought or idea in their mind. The next (and most important) step is when the idea is shared for the first time. That’s when it gets the momentum to turn it into an innovation. In many organisations, this is seen to be the role of the ideas management system. However, we know that technology alone doesn’t work. Everyone needs their peloton…their special group that encourages, inspires and makes them work harder. That’s the role of the catalyst.
By having innovators taking responsibility for their ideas, with catalysts as their peloton, real innovation happens.
The success of employee led innovation rests with the organisation’s leaders who set the context, and catalysts who empower individual innovators.
Do your leaders set the context? Do your catalysts empower you?