Businesses that rest on their laurels are doomed to fail. Instead companies should innovate, and the best place to find original ideas to improve is within the workforce.
Customer reviews and testimonials are often seen as valuable drivers for change, but how many companies give employee feedback the same billing?
There probably aren’t many businesses, of any size, that put nurturing great employee ideas on their priority lists. This means sensible suggestions for change are likely falling on deaf ears.
But ignore them at your peril. As Richard Branson wrote: “Innovation is not just reserved for so-called creatives or leaders – it is for everyone. Those working on the frontlines, day to day, or dealing with the products or services, first-hand, are often best placed to make improvements and come up with solutions.”
In many cases an app or workaround can boost efficiency. Will Read, CEO of ideas management software Sideways 6, wants more companies to tap into the pool of innovative ideas that employees are having every day.
Fresh out of university, Read scored a graduate job as a data analyst for Sky TV. He quickly found himself identifying ways to improve the client experience but sharing and executing his ideas proved frustratingly difficult, so he left to solve the problem.
Read thinks employees are uniquely positioned to help businesses improve and innovate. He says: “We see business leaders as the cell nucleus and its employees as the membrane: they are the most in touch with how the outside world is interacting with a brand.
“Unless the CEO commits to spending several hours per week with customers then they don’t really know what’s happening at the frontline. But your employees listen to your customers’ hopes, dreams, fears and feedback and they see that through the lens of what the company is trying to achieve. That combination is a powerful driver for change and improvement.”
It's a message that rings true for Richard Stewart, who worked in employee benefits and insurance for 20 years. By 2005, he was well aware the sector had a big problem: it was pricing out all but the biggest companies with the deepest pockets.
He describes furnishing companies with employee benefits back then as a bit like tailoring a bespoke suit – “fiddly, time-consuming and expensive”. Consequently, the fees could be even higher than the cost of the benefits themselves.
Stewart was convinced technology was the answer to making the sector more agile. Lacking tech skills, he found Steve Carter, a software engineer who would execute Stewart’s ideas. Together they launched one of the first enterprise-scale cloud solutions for employee benefits, followed by another for micro-businesses.
Stewart says that once you start innovating, it’s hard to stop. He explains: “Innovation is frame of mind. If you’re wired to fix problems, you keep finding problems to fix. Imagine the power of a whole company looking for a better way to do things.”
Their latest innovation is a piece of insurtech called Untangler that solves an age-old problem for insurers. In seconds, it transforms messy spreadsheets into readable data, mimicking what humans in insurance companies had spent millions of hours doing manually, freeing people up to do more meaningful and fulfilling work.
Develop your culture
Both Read and Stewart left their jobs to innovate, so how can businesses nurture and retain the innovators in their workforces? A new report by Accenture found workplace culture to be the single biggest driving force behind innovation.
Accenture surveyed 18,200 workers in 27 countries, including more than 150 C-Suite executives, and calculated that global gross domestic product would increase by up to $8 trillion by 2028 if countries were to increase their innovation mindset – the willingness and ability to innovate – by just 10 per cent.
So the trillion-dollar question is how do you create a culture of innovation in your own business?
Gemma McGrattan, director at employee engagement consultancy Synergy Creative, which helps brands like RBS, Vodafone and ODEON engage their workforces, suggests helping employees feel part of something bigger by making the company’s strategy and direction clear.
She says: “Business owners should be open and transparent when trying to fix an issue or change something. The more open to ideas and willing to evolve you are, the more engaged and likely to contribute employees will be.”
McGrattan adds: “Being closer to the customer, it’s likely they’ll have some great ideas about how to make processes, systems or approaches better and more efficient. I love how Waitrose asked its partners for ideas, resulting in annual savings of over £160k worth of till roll after one of the checkout team suggested refining the information on printed till receipts.
“So set the challenge, step back, offer support as needed and be open to the results and willing to give new ideas a go. Try this for a week, assess the impact and change the process to suit your employees. A theme and clear messaging about why you’re doing what you’re doing will help people to understand the importance of their involvement.”
And finally, says McGrattan, don’t forget to reward successes and share stories about things that have been implemented from employees’ ideas.
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