"It’s no secret that some of the best innovation comes from applying existing ideas in a new context," says Isla Wilson, who heads up business growth consultancy Ruby Star Associates.
What better way, then, to encourage intrapreneurship than by taking on a role outside the company?
Wilson actively encourages her staff and the people she advises to take up non-executive director (NED) roles. She says she has seen companies who’ve supported their employees to take on board roles, "develop new products or services in response to a sector they hadn’t fully understood, respond faster than the rest of their sector to a new threat, having seen the impact it is having elsewhere, import methodologies or techniques that aren’t currently being used in their sector and build strong strategic skills in senior management levels which support future succession planning."
"Great innovators are brilliant at pattern-recognition," says Wilson, "they learn to see the characteristics of a challenge without getting so detail-focused that they can’t apply ideas from elsewhere. Working as a non-executive director in another sector can increase your team’s ability to identify trends, predict outcomes (and unintended consequences) and import new ideas into your organisation."
One common complaint Wilson hears from business directors is that its senior team doesn’t have strong strategic skills. "They struggle to differentiate operational from strategic issues. Non-execs focus at a purely strategic level- practising this skill in a new setting strengthens strategic reasoning in other contexts."
Lots of sectors devote significant time to understanding what others in their sector are doing but it can be harder to devote time to looking more widely and seeing what happens in other sectors. Non-executives are often in the role of "fresh pair of eyes", objectively viewing data in an organisation. “Applied back within your organisation this skill can identify opportunities to learn from outside the sector and to respond faster to threats and opportunities," says Wilson.
But how do you go about encouraging this? "Being a non-executive director is something which people have to really want to do in their own right," says Wilson, "But great employers will recognise the benefit of allowing team members to work flexibly in order to accommodate an additional role which builds skills, develops strategic thinking and builds professional skills."
Wilson says that people are usually best suited to being a non-executive in a field which they are really passionate about but which is different from the sector they already work in. "Too much operational-knowledge can obstruct developing strategy and make it harder to have impact."
Sometimes it’s just about checking out how other companies do things. Matt Roberts, runs nonexecutivedirectors.com, a database of more than 8000 members. Roberts’ own NED activity has brought fresh insight into his company. "Through NED positions I have had in other companies I’ve been able to bring insights which I wouldn’t have had previously. For example, within this company we changed from reporting month on month to looking at figures weekly. This way we’ve been able to grow quicker and work to achieve our targets weekly instead of waiting to the month end."
There are downsides. The amount of time required by board roles really varies, as does the schedule of meetings. Some meet on a regular schedule, others often have urgent or extraordinary meetings. Some teams always meet on the same day or at the same time of day, others move about. "All of these things will have an impact on how easy it is for someone to accommodate the two roles," says Wilson, "If your team member is interested in applying for a role it’s important to ask them to outline how they will manage the time they need and how this will impact on their job."
Roberts agrees: "Boards appointing new NEDs are often looking to find people that already have experience of how a board operates and know how a good NED can make a difference. We know from our database that most have been a director for 14 years or longer." Roberts says that anyone wanting to encourage their staff to get NED positions should be aware of the time commitment involved.
But the time commitment can certainly pay off. As Wilson points out, "Non-executives have to hold themselves to very high ethical standards and that means they shouldn’t be benefiting financially from their position other than through any salary attached." This means that while your employee can’t ‘get you in’ with the company they represent, or provide you with commercially sensitive information, someone else is picking up the bill for their self-development and, ultimately, your improved culture of innovation.