2.3 High Involvement Innovation

Cross-functional opportunities to think about product, service and process innovation
Time and resources to develop and pursue new ideas
Employee engagement in innovation as a core value
Effective management of innovation and improvement projects

Innovation is popularly associated with research and development (R&D), investment in information and communication technologies (ICTs), and high-profile entrepreneurs. However, this association can be misleading. There is growing recognition that the knowledge, experience and innate creativity of people at every level of the organisation offers an invaluable – and often untapped – resource for innovation and improvement.

High Involvement Innovation happens when employees contribute actively and systematically to innovation in products, services and processes. This often means that they are using and developing different competencies to those involved in delivering their functional tasks.

There are many examples of organisations that reject the notion of a centralised innovation team that operates from the top down. High Involvement Innovation is a bottom-up approach which empowers people, to reflect on past experiences and future challenges, to ask difficult questions, to learn from diverse places and to take part in creative dialogue with a wide range of other stakeholders.

“With every pair of hands you get a free brain” – Peter Totterdill’s interview with Professor John Bessant offers great insights into why employee-driven innovation and improvement is vital for competitiveness, and how it can be embedded throughout the company.

How High Involvement Innovation works

Innocent’s breakfast forum at Fruit Towers

A growing number of organisations argue strongly that new ideas can come from anyone. They often provide employees with regular opportunities to join cross-functional teams which identify and drive forward product or process changes that would otherwise be lost under the pressure of day-to-day workloads. Time-out sessions, ‘down-tools weeks’ and hackathons, bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t meet, can become fountains of constructive dialogue, creativity and innovation. Opportunities for experimentation and ‘fast failure’ play an important role in shared learning, but depend on removing ‘blame cultures’. For an increasing number of organisations, it means creating dedicated innovation spaces or ‘FabLabs’ that bring diverse combinations of people together, thinking in different ways, sharing technical knowledge and insights, creating new products or services and reinventing work processes. Networks of volunteer ‘guerrillas’, recruited from every level of the organisation, trained in facilitation techniques and empowered to ask difficult questions, also represent a powerful means of building a culture of innovation.



Be inspired

Our short film provides an overview of how four very different organisations are engaging their people in innovation.

Opportunities such as Down Tools Week at Red Gate Software enable staff to step back from the day job to develop their own ideas for new products and ways of working. DS Smith in Lockerbie created a one-day session for a cross-section of production staff to identify opportunities for improving production flow, and these have now become regular events. In Devon and Cornwall Police innovation forums have generated great ideas for improving the service at a time of financial stringency. Electric bicycles, for example, are a great way of improving visibility while ensuring that officers can cover enough territory in remote rural areas.

Innovative thinking should also be part of the day job and Innocent encourages staff at every level to think continuously about ideas for new products or processes. Being 70% sure that an idea will work is sufficient to get the support needed to take it forward. The Met Office argues strongly that innovation is not a specialised function and rejected the idea of setting up a separate innovation team. A network of volunteer “guerrillas” recruited from every level of the organisation is gradually establishing a culture of innovation in ways that break down silos and release new waves of creativity. Likewise Arginta actively encourages employees to challenge managers when things aren’t working.

MBDA has made long-term investments in developing innovation competencies and behaviour across its workforce. The company’s ‘Innovation Booster’ and other tools supports individuals and teams at the idea generation stage.

Employee-driven innovation and improvement emphasises the importance of aligning the knowledge and expertise of senior teams with the tacit knowledge and experience of frontline workers while recognising and valuing continuing learning. It must also reflect deeper structural practices within each organisation: sustainable and effective employee engagement in innovation and improvement cannot happen in isolation. As in Polpharma it must be driven from the top and reinforced by consistent messages from leaders, aligned with organisational structures and procedures, and underpinned by empowerment and discretion in day-to-day working life. Line management culture and performance measurement invariably play a critical role in enabling, or inhibiting, employee-driven improvement and innovation.

Increasingly the importance of the physical workplace lies in its ability to support serendipitous contact, congeniality and the sharing of tacit knowledge. This is already being reflected in contemporary office design, as you can see in our short film about inet-logistics, an Austrian logistics company.

Saint-Gobain has a global network of FabLabs, all of which display the FabLab charter. The Bristol plant’s FabLab has generated a range of business benefits including prototyping mods to factory machinery as well as to some of their key products – bearings for use in the automotive and other industries. The company invites ‘virtually every employee’ to use the FabLab to put their ideas into form, from manufacturing to marketing, human resources to customer services. Find out more about the company’s FabLab network in this video.

Leopharma’s Innovation Lab – the Leo iLab was established by Leopharma as ‘part of a long-term strategic decision to focus on patient needs’, but is independent from it, including having its own branding. According to its multidisciplinary team, featuring medical experts, AI experts, UX designers, anthropologists, growth hackers, and digital product managers, the iLab combines the best of corporate and start-up worlds. The Lab’s innovation activities focus on improving the wellbeing of people with skin conditions and its products have so far included apps to provide social support, lifestyle advice, and self-diagnosis app for those with skin conditions. The Lab takes a partnership approach, with hubs in the UK, US, Canada, France and Denmark, inviting partners innovation and start-up environments.

Download our FabLab report here.


Forum topic: What, in your experience, has been the most effective way of engaging employees in fresh thinking and idea generation?

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