How HR can kick-start an innovation culture

April 12, 2016

Penny Whitelock and Wendy Dean, 8 April 2016 

You can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, say Penny Whitelock and Wendy Dean – you have to work hard to cultivate innovation.


Gone are the days when innovation was the territory of a boffin in a lab somewhere. In an unpredictable economy, managers who inspire their teams to come up with innovative ways to meet constantly changing situations are highly prized and much sought after. And HR can play a critical role in assessing whether an organisation’s culture is innovation-friendly – and reshaping it if it isn’t.

Many organisations claim to be ‘innovative’ if they’ve put out an ideas or suggestions box. But the difference between claiming to be an innovative business and actually being one is immense.

The problem with the ideas box philosophy is that it creates something of a mockery of what an organisation plans to do with new ideas, because it eliminates the opportunity to discuss, debate and develop ideas with colleagues. Sticking a suggestion box on the wall without a programme of change will be futile and will prompt justifiably sceptical responses to new initiatives.

Some of the most successful companies signal their commitment to innovation very clearly; for example, it’s built into Twitter’s missions ‘to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers’. They actively welcome ideas from employees and external customers to improve their products.

For innovation to really take hold, there has to be a commitment from the senior team – especially the CEO – to create an environment where people feel free to say how they feel. Consider the TV show Undercover Boss: every chief executive who takes part learns something they need to change.

There also needs to be an understanding of the need to create a space for people to bring ideas to the party. Most managers, if they spoke to their teams now, would discover that many of the sought-after innovations are already in place – perhaps dubbed ‘workarounds’ – but might be being kept secret by one or two people who are afraid to say they have a better way of doing things than the standard procedure.

When you do find workarounds taking place, ask: why haven’t they been shared? This will indicate the type of environment you have created, and whether it’s a space that gives your people the confidence to share ideas.

Signal your organisation’s commitment to sharing ideas and innovation by giving your initiative a name that everyone that can relate to. Better yet, start the ball rolling by asking employers to choose that name. If you manufacture biscuits why not call it ‘Taking the biscuit’ – it really doesn’t take a massive marketing budget to come up with something novel.

Then give employees the freedom to brainstorm solutions to the problems they face every day, and create a shortlist of the top three biggest issues that create pain for your staff.

Now the real thinking comes into play. If you expect to gain a high benefit from your innovation, and if your cost of innovation is low, you are more likely to innovate. A good way to keep your innovation cost low is to use the skills that you already have – not just ‘work’ skills, but those developed by employees in their daily lives. This is where the creative responses to work problems will be invented – and your innovation culture truly comes to life.

Wendy Dean is founder and managing director of Strategi-hr, and Penny Whitelock is director of L&D at the company.

Leeds based HR180 is a team of superheroes in HR Outsourcing, Projects and Consultancy committed to work in partnership with organisations of all sizes to establish working policies to go above and beyond Employment Law requirements, to protect both employees and employers alike. We love to hear from you, so call us on 0113 287 8150 or hit the Rescue Me button.

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