Innovation should no longer be reserved for companies that invent new products, or come up with life changing technologies. Every business should innovate, from corporate law firms, to design agencies, to manufacturers. Innovation and creative thinking can improve and enhance everyday processes. It can fundamentally change the way you capture customer data. It can lead you to amazing discoveries and ideas with the potential to drive huge profits.

You could argue that the power of innovation is now widely recognised, with many businesses setting up innovation or creative teams and hubs focused on ideas, stimulating change and making the business more successful. Other businesses might work with expert partners to help them innovate. Either way, they’re clearly taking it seriously, right? You could argue that the answer is a firm ‘yes.’ But the fact is, these businesses that seem to be placing such a huge emphasis on harnessing creativity and ideas, could be missing a huge trick if they’re overlooking their frontline staff – or worse still – treating creativity as something which should be handled separately from the core of the business.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common problem in businesses. Admittedly, getting it right can be tricky, but businesses shouldn’t fear letting innovation flow like a rich stream through the heart of their organisation. Making it a part of everything they do, every day, is a far better approach than isolating it to a remote ivory tower of creativity, which only builds resentment and a disconnect among those closest to the customer.

So, what should businesses consider if they want to harness creativity from within?

Make Innovation A Fast – Flowing Stream

Innovation is a little like water. It’s most powerful when it’s allowed to flow, unhindered. If you try and turn it on and off like a tap, it takes away some of that power. Ideas to improve the business should become part of everyone’s day job, and not just simply to tick a box when it comes to appraisals or related to a fixed project. Equally, innovation shouldn’t be ‘turned on’ for the sake of it in a quest to improve a product without thinking about things from your customer’s perspective. If you’re going to build channels for your employees to share ideas, make sure they’re always open and accessible. Keep motivating them to continue sharing. Even if you think you’ve found a solution to a problem, don’t stop listening to ideas too. This would not only be demotivating, but could also mean you miss some valuable insights that are useful in many other ways.

Power To The People

It takes confidence for someone to share their ideas, and an enabling management style which encourages experimentation, and indeed failure, is key to making this happen. Employees feel empowered if they trust management and each other, and if they believe they’re truly listened to. Even if their ideas are put into practice, and they don’t work, it’s important that the value of their contribution is still recognised and championed. If they become fearful about being associated with a failed idea, they certainly won’t contribute again. It will also have a wider impact as their team members probably won’t either.

Time Out

If you’re one of those people that get struck with inspiration when out strolling in your local park, or you have an amazing idea or realisation while on a long train journey, then you’ll recognise that ideas and creativity do not need to be confined to the four walls of an office. In fact, it can be really hard to take a step back from the day-to-day if you’re confined to the same environment all the time. If you want to encourage employee led innovation, factor in time and spaces for them to think. Perhaps organise a once weekly gathering off site, or in a separate part of the building where they can be more energised by their surroundings. Encourage employees to approach managers with ideas, and allow time for them to be developed, so that they don’t get swallowed up by the day-to-day and feel like their creativity is being stifled.

Flexible Roles

Many organisations run a tight ship when it comes to job descriptions, and ensuring employees are fulfilling the objectives associated with their role. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can mean that roles become rigid, and an employee isn’t given the chance to move beyond the confines of their actual ‘job’. At CAB, we have our job hybridisation programme, where employees are given the freedom to work across other parts of the business, developing new skill sets and bringing a fresh and creative approach. In some cases, this has meant that one person ends up being able to do the job that previously two people were doing; the rewards are obvious in terms of stimulating innovation, and it’s hugely empowering for the individual who doesn’t feel ‘stuck’ in a role with only linear development opportunities.

Healthy Competition

Competition is good, provided it makes employees feel energised and motivated, not intimidated and stressed. Some businesses take the idea of competition a step further, by organising an official contest of sorts, inviting employees from across the business to enter and come up with ideas to solve a pertinent business problem or to simply change something for the better. It’s important that these initiatives are managed well, that the best ideas are shared with senior management, and acted upon. Nothing is more demotivating than creating a fanfare only for those who enter it to feel like their ideas are not given proper consideration. Celebrating the success of the competition winners will spur on others in a supportive and enabling business culture.

Honesty

The notion of an old- fashioned town hall style meeting feels slightly outdated, but the idea of providing an open forum for your people to challenge management, put forward ideas, and ask important questions, is a progressive one. Many businesses might be fearful about this approach, but some of the UK’s most successful brands are champions of it. Innocent hold a monthly, company-wide meeting, hosted by the founders, where they give a financial update, sharing with employees all the key finance and business performance figures. Everyone is encouraged to ask questions, to challenge, give feedback and most of all, understand how the business works. Innocent believes that this level of transparency with employees has encouraged people to get involved at a deeper level than just performing their roles – which is key to unlocking creativity.

Don’t Obsess Over Process

Yes, processes for sharing ideas are important to some extent, but they shouldn’t be the only way an individual is empowered to be creative. Smaller businesses often behave in an instinctively innovative way because their teams share their thoughts and ideas every day, in an ad hoc way. It can be difficult for a larger organisation to suddenly adopt this approach, but there is a lot they can learn from more agile businesses that are creative to their very core. These businesses often have a full commitment from the top to the bottom of the organisation; where everyone feels responsible for new product and service development. Because of this, ideas are shared every day and acted upon without layers of bureaucracy getting in the way.

How Should Employee Led Innovation Inform Customer Experience?

There has been a visible shift towards customers considering brand strategies, and CX as the most important differentiator for a brand. Our research into this confirms that ultimately, customers will remember you, and become loyal, if their buying or service experience is efficient, enjoyable, and better than anyone else’s. The fact is, that to succeed in delivering a winning customer experience, it’s crucial that everyone in the business has a voice and input into how CX is shaped and developed.

This doesn’t just apply in service industries, where front line staff in a restaurant make suggestions about how to improve diner waiting times, for example. It applies in every type of organisation; because ideas should come from everywhere, and by seeking input from those with a range of roles and responsibilities, you are gathering a diverse group of perspectives rather than just those of the senior management team. The rewards gained from building a collaborative and creative culture are compelling. Just ask the likes of Ella’s Kitchen, Instant Offices, and Netflix, who’ve all pioneered employee led innovation and have highly successful product lines and services to show for it.

If you want to maintain a competitive edge, become more successful and boast a positive and collaborative culture, then you need to make sure creativity isn’t held in an ivory tower at your business, and is encouraged and unlocked. Of course, not every idea will be fantastic, or even applicable, but the rewards gained from a single great idea and empowering your people, are obvious.