In today’s fast-paced, highly competitive economy, innovation has become a critical differentiator for business success. Many companies have dedicated teams whose primary function is to do just that—to find new and better ways of doing things, to generate new ideas and develop new products to gain market share before their competitors can get a foot in. But only the best companies recognize that innovation can come from anywhere. In fact, innovation can come from everywhere, whether or not it’s officially part of an employee’s primary job function. And this underpins the concept of Innovation By All.
Does this idea surprise you? Aren’t most employees just cogs in a wheel doing our part to meet our team’s objectives… our department’s KPIs… and our company’s goals? And shouldn’t we leave “innovation” to the experts? If we feel this is true, we are doing ourselves and our colleagues a great disservice and depriving our company of great ideas and opportunities to improve.
The first thing to do is to avoid getting stuck on the word “innovation”. The best companies are distinguished by their unique ability to engage all their talent in fueling new ideas and finding better ways of doing things to drive business success. Whether we call this “empowerment”, “continuous improvement”, “innovation”, or something else entirely doesn’t matter. What matters is that innovation is not confined to specific job functions or teams (e.g., Research & Development Department, Innovation Team, etc.), but that all employees are encouraged, empowered, and recognized for trying new and better ways of doing things, regardless of who they are and where they work in the company.
Some companies formalize this through regular events such as hackathons and project pitches, that allow employees across the whole company to hit pause on their regular work and come together to solve problems, generate new ideas for product development as well as internal work processes and tasks. These usually involve senior management as mentors and judges, and rewards for participation and winning ideas.
Beyond these formal platforms, the best companies also create a culture that facilitates innovation in the course of an employee’s day-to-day work. In our research on Best Workplaces and the Great Place to Work-Certified™ companies in Singapore and globally, we found six practices that cultivate this inclusive, innovative workplace environment:
1. Give all types of space
By “space” we’re not talking just about physical space. The leading companies also create mental, emotional and temporal space for employees to get creative, take risks and come up with ideas that advance the organization:
- Mental space refers to expanding employees’ minds with new, inspiring concepts and examples.
- Emotional space refers to the psychological safety that is crucial to taking risks. The test is whether actual failures are seen as learning opportunities and rather than shameful episodes with individuals or teams blamed for lost resources.
- Temporal space means carving out hours, days and weeks for employees at all levels to reflect, to imagine, to build.
DHL Express adopts an intentional approach to innovation with dedicated platforms and resources. One such approach is their Start-up Lab initiative which encourages employees to act on their ideas and develop solutions that support DHL’s customers or DHL’s operations. Teams have the opportunity to pitch their ideas, innovative business models, and technologies for long-term support. For ideas selected, there is a four-month program that offers coaching, lean processes, a vast network of experts, and executive attention in support of their initiative.
2. Nurture diverse connections
The second key practice for creating an Innovation By All culture is fostering connections across teams, roles, job levels, backgrounds and perspectives. This goes beyond breaking down silos—leading organizations actively build bridges, bringing people together who otherwise might never talk to each other let alone collaborate.
BitTitan believes that product engineering is a team sport and needs multi-disciplinary collaboration to succeed. It organizes product teams by key focus areas (scrum teams) that work closely with sales, support, marketing, and legal to ensure that product roadmap prioritization, changes, and enhancements are taken up based on market need. Meetings across such multi-disciplinary teams enable a lot of problem-and-solution discussion.
3. Create energy by thanking all
Most companies reward contest winners and celebrate their successes. But leading innovators go further. They encourage effort and participation by recognizing involvement, e.g. proposing a new product, participating in an ideation session, or providing feedback.
CrowdStrike’s premier innovation event is its annual “Think Week,” which brings together employees and teams from around the world across all departments to focus on projects, ideas, or initiatives that can have a great impact on their people, products, or customers. Winners receive generous rewards in restricted stock units and have the opportunity to be part of the development and execution of the project, watching their ideas come to life. Beyond this event, CrowdStrike also has a quarterly Hero and Team Bravo recognition program which helps to foster a culture where people are constantly challenged to think about problems in new and different ways.
4. Invest in everyone’s growth
It’s not about the “high-pos”. It’s about “all-pos”. Lavishing resources on just a few employees who show signs of having high potential effectively ignores the potential of everyone else in the organization, and often has unintended consequences such as infighting, frustration and favoritism. Instead, leading companies see the importance of maximizing all their human potential, and consciously work to help all employees develop.
Cadence’s High-Performance Culture expectations and capabilities help all employees identify their strengths and what they need to develop to take the next leap in their career. Its high-performance principles are embedded into all aspects of the employee life cycle: talent acquisition, career development, total rewards, talent management, and performance management. Its learning and development strategy is applicable to all—from individual contributors, managers, directors, to vice presidents and above.
5. Make it easy for all
Coming up with great ideas, breakthrough products and improved processes is hard enough already. Make it easy for your people to generate ideas and lots of them—volume is more important than unicorns. Leading organizations know they need to leave no stone unturned and that it’s not enough to put out a suggestion box or set up an email inbox for new product concepts. They go further, by doing such things as providing guidance for fleshing out a new concept and adopting systems that allow peers to comment on and get behind promising proposals.
Signify puts in place systemic ways to build upon ideas and put them into action, and celebrates organically generated ideas from the ground. For instance, the Signify Excellence Competition sees teams sending in their innovative initiatives for formal consideration, and winning entries are surfaced to regional and global level for assessment by the CEO and global leaders. Other platforms leverage the collective intelligence of employees, such as during discussions at townhall meetings, employee feedback, and sharing of best practices between internal teams.
6. Inspire all with purpose
This final practice is about helping everyone in the organization feel part of an organization’s “incredible.” We mean that literally. Our research shows that when employees use the term “incredible” to describe their workplace—in phrases such as “incredibly hardworking environment” or “incredible company journey”—they are 81% more likely to experience a lot of meaningful innovation opportunities.
At most organizations, inspiration and purpose tend to drop as you move down management layers toward the front line. Leading organizations find ways to fire up everyone from those in the C-Suite to those toiling in the basement boiler room.
At Adobe, individual business units engage with managers and employees to conduct vision workshops. These workshops enable employees to participate in strategy planning and identifying how their individual KPIs connect to the business unit strategy, and in turn, to Adobe’s global strategy. Quarterly All-Hands meetings are conducted to share information across functions, reward individual and team performance and update employees about the company’s overall strategic direction, as well as how the business is operating at a local level. Each sub-function of the Singapore business also conducts their own All-Hands meetings.
To give employees visibility on their impact on customers, Adobe created a customer experience site to provide a variety of resources and methods for employees to understand how every employee, regardless of their role in the company, impacts the customer experience. In return, employees can provide feedback, share new ideas, and drive customer improvements that affect customers.
Pamela is our Senior Consultant and Research Lead for Great Place to Work® ASEAN and ANZ. She has over two decades of consulting and policy experience helping organizations in their journey to become fair and progressive employers. She believes that every organization has the potential to be a great workplace, and works with data to distil insights and develop resources to help them. When she’s not burrowing down the rabbit hole of numbers and words, she’s probably immersed in a new K-drama or catching up with friends over a virtual drinks session.