Five ways to create a culture of innovation in the workplace

Staff must be encouraged to generate and develop ideas in order to create a culture of innovation

Albert Einstein had it right when he said: "We cannot solve our problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." The translation of this is companies and people must evolve their thinking and try new things if they are to survive and grow. In other words, they must innovate.

Innovation is a hot topic these days. More than just a buzzword, it’s what sets successful businesses apart, giving them a competitive advantage. But the business world is often focused on results and returns, making it difficult to create a culture focused on new ideas and long-term gains.

While every business starts from an entrepreneurial mindset, with somebody delivering a new or improved product or service to the market, the firm often becomes less forward-thinking, taking a more defensive position as opposed to offensive, as it grows. The move to innovate by many companies is derived from a need to address problems. However, the most successful companies opt to innovate in order to raise the bar.

Everyone knows how tech giants Google and Apple raised the bar, but closer to home, even law firms, normally regarded as bastions of tradition and routine, have been engaging in innovation.


Take ByrneWallace for example. "We have been early adopters to software that helps us to manage complex and high-volume cases in a unique way relative to our peers. One aspect of this is our ability to export project data securely to clients. This has enhances information flows to clients as well as client collaboration," Byrne Wallace partner Michael Walsh says.

But in order to innovate, companies need to create a culture of innovation among employees, one where staff are encouraged to generate and develop ideas.

Experiment to
generate ideas

Companies must let employees know they are open for innovation. Some companies do this by creating a designated space where employees can be creative. Most office spaces, which are normally a sea of cubicles, have little room physically and emotionally where creativity and innovation can flourish.

Intel built an innovation Open Lab in Ireland to facilitate and enhance open research and innovation opportunities for the company.

"One room in the innovation lab is the kitchen. It has whiteboards from top to bottom all over the room so people can improvise and create prototypes in real time. There is a certain ambience in the room which lets people know they have permission and license to innovate," according to Martin Curley, director of Intel Labs Europe.

He says a lot of people forget about the need to create a culture of innovation when it comes to generating ideas and forward planning.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast every time. Unless the culture is in place it’s difficult to make progress on the innovation front.”

Vodafone spent €2.5 million redeveloping its 1,100 strong headquarters in Leopardstown, Co Dublin, removing private offices, cubicles and meeting rooms as part of a New Ways of Working strategy. There are central areas where people can relax and have coffee and symbols of power or privilege no longer exist. Employees come into work and sit wherever they can find available space. Not even the CEO has his own desk.

"Different areas of the business were working in silos, this tended to hold back new ideas and creativity and we decided to design a new working environment that would encourage communication," Vodafone Ireland HR director Rachel Mooney says.

She says the flexibility of New Ways of Working was driving innovation by creating opportunities for conversation between everyone not only across different departments but most importantly at different levels.

“We have found that this collaborative cross-functional working has brought about better team cohesion, enhanced productivity, and will result in bringing the brand closer to customers.”

Others do it by being intentional with their innovation intent. Innovation is part of the company’s mission statement.

“It’s important to create a compelling company vision with regard to innovation. That way people will take risks and generate ideas rather than be compliant,” Curley says.

Intel Ireland developed a vision to make Ireland a differentiator for Europe.

“A team of 70 people in Ireland came up with and developed the Quark microchip. We launched it a few weeks ago and it was the most significant product announcement for Intel in the last five years.”

ByrneWallace implemented a IMO (in my opinion) message board on the company’s intranet, so all staff could have their say on how they would like to see things improve.

“This is one of numerous ways we encourage idea generators to express their ideas,” Walsh says.

"We also conduct regular staff surveys with responses shared and addressed by our managing partner, Catherine Guy, in a town hall forum," he added.

Give staff time
to work on ideas

Innovation needs time, and more often than not, employees feel they have none to spare. As a result, a growing number of companies are giving employees time away from the daily grind to work on projects of their own choosing. Some companies hold innovation days; others have hackathon sessions while others again give staff a set amount of time to work on projects that excite them, developing and testing new ideas.

Google for example allocates a notional 20 per cent of time for their workers to develop their own ideas for the company, and work on personal, intrapreneurial projects.

Australian software company Atlassian encourages employees to take "FedEx Days"-paid days off to work on any problem they want. But just like FedEx, they must deliver something of value 24 hours later.

Curley says Intel employees aren’t given a set amount of time to innovate, but at the same time, the company isn’t obsessed with them using every minute of their working day to carry out their main job function.

“As long as their job is done, when they do it or how they do it isn’t that closely monitored. We empower employees to use their time well. Once they get their core job done, they can use any spare time to work on other projects of their own.”

In an effort to encourage innovation at Accenture in Ireland, the company organised a Festival of Ideas, which saw 1,400 employees coming together in one room to brain storm.

"Innovation has been a hot topic for Accenture in the last few years. We have had lots of conversations and brainstorming sessions about how we as a firm can be more innovative," Accenture Ireland HR director Suzanne Jeffrey says.

“About 18 months ago we came up with the Festival of Ideas to bring the workforce together to generate ideas. We had 1,400 Irish employees in one room all talking and coming up with ideas.”

Invest in idea generation
Implement some of the ideas employees come up with. Ideas have to be implemented or they're not worth anything. To truly innovate, companies need to ensure a culture that supports new ideas and new ways of doing business efforts, but also execute those ideas.

Vodafone runs a “1,000 Small Things” initiative whereby employees are asked to make one small improvement within their daily job – not just contributing to a collective library of great ideas but actually making change happen.

“It’s the bridge from innovative thinking to execution, encouraging a culture of continuous improvement through empowerment,” Mooney says.

Accenture captured all the employee ideas using social media at the Festival of Ideas and then shortlisted them to the top 10, and implementing those.

“It went down really well with employees especially when we put their ideas into action,” Jeffrey says.

One of the ideas implemented was thought up by LGBT group within Accenture. They suggested Accenture support the external or general LGBT Network in Ireland. This resulted in the company sponsoring the GAZE International LGBT film festival.

Incentivise innovation
Be it monetary or otherwise, the best way to keep employees trying hard and working toward success is to reward effort. Companies often think rewarding employees means big bonuses, but recognition for a job well done can come in all shapes and sizes. Employees can be rewarded with flexible working hours, a freebie or even the chance to develop their idea and head up the project.

Jeffrey says Accenture’s Analytics Innovation Centre, which opened in Dublin in 2011, was a result of a brainstorming session. The employees who came up with the idea for the centre got to work on its development, bringing it from an idea to reality.

“A group of employees were in a meeting thinking about how they can innovate. They came up with the idea for an analytics centre in Ireland. They drew up a business plan and began working on it. Their work has resulted in more than 100 new jobs in Ireland.”

She says the company also runs an innovation incentive scheme globally, whereby employees are asked to come up with ideas and the winners get cash rewards.

“Locally we don’t incentivise with cash. Being allowed to see the idea through is a reward in itself. We do give prizes and recognition for great ideas in Ireland, but not cash.”

Curley says Intel has an internal “academy awards” where employees are recognised for innovation.

Never fail to fail
If employees are constantly worried that they might lose their jobs, they will never take the necessary risks to develop an idea or offering. Not every idea will be a success and companies should be prepared for this. Innovation is not about failure but more about frequency of trial. People remember successes and hits more than misses.

Case in point: Google is known for YouTube and not Google Video Player. The same goes for idea generation, employees should not be worried about what their managers will say.

ESB head of innovation John McSweeney says it is important for companies to create an atmosphere that allows innovation, but doesn't instruct it.

“You have to create open dialogue and encourage challenge. People shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. In an atmosphere of fear you will never get innovation.” McSweeney says just because an industry such as electricity, which is very traditional, has done something for the past 100 years, it doesn’t mean disruptive technology could not come along and change everything.

As a result, the company has to be open to all new ideas, so it can be prepared. Curley says it is important that the manager sets the tone and encourages innovation.

“If the manager is always crushing and dismissing ideas, employees won’t come up with new ideas again. They have to try and give positive feedback, even if the idea is lousy.”