Unleashing workplace innovation

All of this raises a key question: if it works, why isn’t everyone doing it?

The limited spread of workplace innovation can be understood in terms of several interwoven factors including:

  • an excessive tendency to see innovation purely in terms of technology;
  • low levels of awareness of innovative practice and its benefits amongst managers, social partners and business support organisations;
  • failure of the market and (in most countries) public policy to provide sufficient access to robust methods and resources capable of stimulating, resourcing and sustaining effective workplace change;
  • the failure of vocational education and training to provide knowledge and skills relevant to workplace innovation.

Moreover we’ve stressed throughout the Practitioner Programme that the benefits are only fully realised when workplace innovation practices run throughout the entire organisation – hence the importance of the Interdependencies. A large body of research shows that one of the most significant obstacles to achieving high performance and fantastic places to work is partial change – a failure to recognise that organisations consist of interdependent parts that either nurture or obliterate innovative ways of working.

So what will all this mean for me as a Senior Workplace Innovation Practitioner?

Your role is to help close these gaps by seeding your organisation with the knowledge, skills and practical resources that will inspire, inform and facilitate effective, sustainable change. The Programme will build on what you’ve achieved already as a Workplace Innovation Practitioner. It enables you to share its insights and inspiration, and create pathways for others in your organisation to develop and deploy their own knowledge and creativity as they take part in the Practitioner Programme.

As a strategic thinker, you’ll also be anticipating the journey and the roadblocks which might get in the way.

A good place to start is with the senior team

We take for granted that you have a mandate at a senior level for your emerging role as a Senior Practitioner within the organisation, but to what extent is this underpinned by a sufficient understanding of the nature and extent of the changes that might be proposed?

The MD of a manufacturing company signs up to a workplace innovation programme, believing that what he sees as ‘employee engagement’ could be much stronger, and identifies two managers as potential Workplace Innovation Practitioners. Findings from the Workplace Innovation Diagnostic® reveal serious shortcomings in terms of leadership transparency, employee voice and workforce empowerment throughout the organisation, with lots of red and amber scores across the results table. Our two managers meet the MD to discuss the Diagnostic findings and are met with shock and denial: “This isn’t what I signed up for – I wanted a practical solution to fix the problem, not criticism of my leadership! I just don’t believe this is what our employees are saying about the company!”

The MD did eventually accept the truths behind the Diagnostic findings and eventually became a passionate advocate for workplace innovation, not least when the journey towards new workplace practices and culture began to release him from a continual round of firefighting. Yet much time (and anxiety for the two managers) could have been avoided with a clearer understanding at the outset. As a Senior Practitioner you will be wise to probe a simple “OK, go ahead then”, making sure that your mandate goes well beyond the application of superficial remedies.

Commitment to embracing change needs to encompass the entire senior team, and this can be even more challenging! One dissenting voice within a senior team of ten can exercise a disproportionate influence, particularly when it is mainly heard in discrete corridor conversations rather in the formal settings where it is open to challenge. People begin to question the leadership’s commitment as well as the feasibility of change, and the task becomes very much harder.

Of course this echoes the Practitioner Programme’s Forum Topic on persuading senior colleagues to embrace change – you might like to revisit it now to reflect on recent contributions and to add fresh thoughts of your own.

Building senior team commitment is where the Emotional Intelligence for Change Leaders module can also come into its own. The module builds on The Emotionally Intelligent Leader section of the Practitioner Programme, exploring in greater depth how the mindsets and self-perception of leaders can shape the culture and even the design of organisations and working practices. It provides you with a mirror to hold up to senior team members (or even middle managers – see below) that will help them to gain greater self-awareness and to reflect on the impact of their behaviours on others.

On the other hand, if that’s too great a challenge you can always ask our Emotional Intelligence experts to help!

Middle and line management resistance is well known as a constraint on workplace innovation

Research evidence on line managers and change draws us in two opposing directions. On the one hand there is an extensive body of evidence which reveals managers as a “barrier reef” to organisational change. In this analysis, enlightened policies and approaches adopted at Board or senior management levels are dissipated by the inertia and resistance of middle and line managers who may have a strong psychological investment in the status quo. Managers’ mindsets and their understanding of how to manage are shaped by a web of tangible and intangible factors including established custom and practice, career progression, and prevailing performance measures. To paraphrase US novelist and journalist Upton Sinclair,

“It is difficult to get a manager to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  (with our apologies for Mr Sinclair’s lack of gender neutral phraseology!)

Power is sometimes seen by managers as a zero-sum game: to empower workers, managers have to lose it, potentially challenging their self-identity and status within the organisation. Such ingrained resistance can generate high levels of immunity to any evidence that better ways of working might exist:

“If there was a better way of doing things, don’t you think I’d have thought of it already?” (UK senior engineering manager).

This, however, is a misunderstanding. When power is shared the overall sum increases, enhancing the capacity of managers and employees alike. As we’ve seen in the Organisational Structures section of the Practitioner Programme, power sharing frees managers themselves to focus on their strengths rather than on micro-management, increasing their job satisfaction and wellbeing.

When plans for change anticipate and address their individual anxieties, managers can emerge as important ‘change entrepreneurs’; such entrepreneurial behaviour is also associated with explicit senior-level support for initiative and experimentation, supported by appropriate coaching and personal development opportunities.

In our experience, most managers will adapt well when supported into new roles that reflect their individual strengths as well as the needs of the business. If, on the other hand, it is clear that the person concerned no longer fits within the organisation, the difficult decision to remove them may, in the long run, prove easier than dealing with the consequences of retaining them.

Employee engagement in change poses equally interesting challenges – and opportunities

It’s often said that people resist change when it’s being done to them, something that many organisations nonetheless fail to understand. Experiences of personal hurt and disadvantage resulting from top-down change are widespread and can lead to a culture of non-engagement or open antipathy. Given that so many top-down change initiatives fail (research evidence suggests a failure rate of between 60-80%), they also generate a high degree of cynicism. Palle Banke, one of our Danish colleagues, describes this as BOHICA syndrome – Bend Over, Here It Comes Again.

So it’s not surprising that managers sometimes tell us that their people “just want to do their jobs and go home at the end of their shift without getting involved in changing anything of thinking differently”. To which, the only sensible answer is “well, what have to done to make them like that?”

People certainly dislike change that is done to them, but that’s not the same as disliking change itself.  Thinking about the things that frustrate you at work or which prevent you from doing a good job is a common part of working life – as is imagining how things could be made better. You can hear these conversations when colleagues meet in the pub after work, or over the dinner table at home. Yet – as we often say – these ideas and experiences represent one of the biggest wasted resources in many companies. The opportunities for improvement or innovation that they represent never make it back to the workplace whether because of time pressures or fear of challenging the status quo – so people decide to keep their heads down and avoid ‘going the extra mile’.

This is why, at every stage of the Practitioner Programme, we emphasised the importance of starting with people’s day-to-day working lives in their jobs and teams.

Each Element module starts with a short assessment exercise in which potential problems are scored, helping participants to ground the topic in their own experiences. (You can download the combined self-assessment tool for use in your change initiatives).

Likewise, in the Engagement section of The Fifth Element module we discuss various ideas and tools that you can use to stimulate reflection and fresh thinking. Our favourite is Group Recall because it harnesses people’s natural inclination to tell stories and share anecdotes about everyday life – and we’ve found it to be immensely powerful in generated real insights into workplace culture and practice once sufficient trust is established within the group.

So, as a Senior Practitioner, you can find yourself unleashing energy and engagement across the workforce, sometimes with unexpected results. People who have never been asked for their opinion at work over long careers can emerge as insightful and enterprising participants once they have found their voice. All they’ve ever needed is encouragement.

This is underscored by a powerful anecdote of WIE’s Peter Totterdill when he worked on a project in the clothing sector:

“During the project, one woman who was in her late 20s revealed she had been living in a really abusive relationship with her partner. She hadn’t said very much in the group sessions but when the group got really stuck on some problem about how you get the workflow going, she got up and grabbed the pen, drew a configuration of how the workflow would work and it just clicked with everybody. She’d just got it. Then next time we saw her she said – I’ve left my abusive partner because I discovered I have a voice.”Peter Totterdill

Whether employees are motivated to share their ideas and experiences by the needs of the organisation or by a desire to improve their own working lives isn’t really the point. Remember the evaluation of 470 workplace innovation projects undertaken in Finland which showed that improvements in quality of working life have a strong association with improvements in economic performance, and indeed may actually enable them. Findings from the study suggest that workforce participation is the main ingredient in achieving this convergence between economic performance and employee well-being.

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