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How disruptive startups benefit from embracing employee innovation

Written by Josh Russell on Thursday, 07 January 2016. Posted in People

Startups live or die on their ability to stay ahead of the curve. That’s why the best businesses are those that are open to employees’ innovations

How disruptive startups benefit from embracing employee innovation

In a commercial landscape defined by disruption, no business can afford to ignore a potential source of innovation. In light of this, embracing the disruptive ideas that emerge from every area of one’s business is becoming key to survival. And the truly competitive companies are those that make use of the most fertile source of innovation available to them: their employees.

For businesses keen to produce truly disruptive ideas, attempting to guide innovation from the top-down or through a siloed department isn’t the best approach. Ultimately, companies that try to innovate at arms length will inevitably lose out to those in which an openness to new ideas is embedded at a cellular level. “Innovation needs to be an organisational norm,” says Carl Rodrigues, CEO and founder of SOTI, the enterprise mobility management company. “Concerted efforts must be made to nurture and encourage this type of culture amongst all employees – or else [businesses] run the risk of it fizzling out.”

There are several different ways a startup can approach this: one strategy simply entails being open to suggestions and recognising those that have helped improve processes. “Essentially you need to say: ‘We can try small things; if they don’t work that’s fine and if they do then we’ll make champions of you’,” says Simon Hill, CEO of Wazoku, the provider of idea management software. He points to Waitrose as an example: the company has a programme in which employees can suggest ways that everyday processes around them can be improved. It trials these ideas at store level and, if they’re successful, rolls them out across its network. “That person will then be rewarded, recognised and championed across the business,” he says.

A more hands-off approach involves empowering teams to find new ways to resolve existing challenges. “It’s about getting people working in autonomous teams and solving specific problems,” says Dave Tonge, CTO of Moneyhub, the personal and professional finance app. Rather than attempting to control every aspect of these projects, Moneyhub simply sets the goal and allows its employees to find the optimum solution. “We equip them to do what they think is best to hit the goal,” he says. “This means giving them a lot of freedom in terms of how to solve specific problems, rather than saying ‘we need this feature, this feature and this feature’.”

But this isn’t the only way to make the most of employees’ creativity and expertise: both SOTI and Moneyhub allocate creative time to their teams to experiment with new ideas. 

“Our programme is intended to encourage employees and provide them with dedicated time for innovative pursuits,” says Rodrigues. The scheme, titled SOTI Jolt, invites employees to propose new ideas to a committee and, if they’re selected, allows them to spend up to 20% of their working week as innovation time to bring the project to life. “It allows employees to work on projects that they are passionate about and, in turn, pushes the company’s innovation to new heights,” Rodrigues explains. “It’s a recipe for mutual success and satisfaction that keeps the entrepreneurial spirit alive throughout the organisation.”

As one can probably infer, this has wider benefits than just improving a startup’s product or service. “For creative thinkers, there is no greater motivation than knowing they can be given a platform to run with their ideas,” Rodrigues says. This can have a truly transformative effect on a business’s talent, providing increased engagement and helping to unlock individual’s true potential. “People who perhaps never saw themselves in leadership roles begin to appreciate their own capabilities and seek out greater opportunities to innovate and manage projects,” he continues.

Running a startup in this way can also profoundly alter its DNA. “If you can make innovation accessible at all levels of the business, you fundamentally change its culture in a very meaningful way,” says Hill. Not only can doing this guarantee that companies are casting the net as wide as possible for potential innovations but it can also utterly change the way they are perceived by top-end talent and the world at large. “The best-in-class businesses – the Toyotas of this world – have been doing this for many decades,” Hill continues. “They have a culture where people feel valued all the way from the top to the bottom of the organisation.”

But, despite the myriad benefits that embracing employee innovations can bring, it seems that many companies are still wary of harnessing the creative input of their employees. According to the EveryDay Innovation report published by Wazoku last October, the average UK business receives 31,200 ideas a year but only 43% of these ideas are acknowledged and just 39% are implemented.

Ironically, Tonge believes that part of the reason for this is an unwillingness to disrupt the old ways in which innovation is handled. “A lot of people really get used to not working in this way,” says Tonge. “They get used to not really being innovative.” Adapting to a world in which innovation is the prerogative of every individual throughout the business requires a shift in responsibility, something that can prove to be intimidating for both those at the top and at the coalface. “It requires a cultural shift from management but also from employees,” he says. “That new freedom and empowerment can be quite daunting.”

However, it’s important to recognise that embracing innovations from every level of the business doesn’t simply mean opening the floodgates and abandoning all oversight. “You need to empower teams and enable innovation but that doesn’t mean that there should be no measurement,” explains Tonge. Making astute use of metrics can not only act as quality control but also offers employees the safety of a framework in which to operate.

And team members that may be wary of putting ideas forth still have an important role to play in assessing and refining the innovations that emerge. “In an age of increased personalisation, not everyone is an innovator or an ideator,” says Hill. “Others are great at challenging and championing ideas.” Making use of the critical abilities a company has at its disposal can help whittle down a longlist of ideas and create an effective business case for those that stand to have the most positive effect. “By the end of that process, you’ve got a really strong insight-driven set of data to tell you whether or not these are actually good ideas,” he says.

Ultimately, there has never been a better time to embrace employee innovations. “People are now waking up to the fact that this is becoming critical,” Hill concludes. 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As acting editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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