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Can we make a suggestion? Innovate or Die!

pp_default1 UK firms are failing to tap the creativity of their employees, stifling the innovation we all know to be vital.
This is the latest in a series of columns written for HR Zone from management education portal

More soul-searching in crisis-torn Britain. The leading employers’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), reports that UK firms are failing to tap the creativity of their employees, stifling the innovation we all know to be vital.

In the 350 UK businesses surveyed by the CBI there are few procedures in place to encourage, track and put in place the brilliant ideas that could be emerging from the “shopfloor”. Even failures are not being analysed properly to see what can be learned from them.

Flatter structures and the end of hierarchy were supposed to liberate organisations, so that intellectual energy could burst forth uninhibited and release the potential of all employees. Well, a bit like the trains at the moment, this flowering of talent and innovation seems to have been delayed.

This is an age-old management problem, and by no means solely a UK one. How do you know what you don’t know? Where is the next inspired idea coming from? What could our staff really contribute given the opportunity?

Management’s traditional response to these questions is best summed up by the cartoon that shows a large (but bottomless) suggestions box fixed firmly to the wall, standing directly above a capacious waste-paper bin. In the Fordist world, managers managed and worried about strategy, and workers worked, or at least pretended to.

The booming ’90s and developments in the new economy have finally put paid to the top-down only school of management. Where did Enron get the idea to trade energy services on-line (now 40% of the business from zero three years ago)? Not in the boardroom. Who generates the ideas and revolutionary customer service innovations in internet start-ups and incubators? Everyone.

Gary Hamel has spoken eloquently (does he speak any other way?) of the need for businesses to open their minds to the limitless potential of innovative ideas, which could emerge from anywhere. Directors and senior managers should be fostering and backing ideas; they don’t have to come up with all of them themselves.

If top managers could “lighten up”, and send out the signal that “ideas are wanted here”, they could, who knows, be sitting on the next 3M Post-It note or Enron On-Line. But moving from a culture where everyone is keeping their heads down, to one where everyone is holding their heads up, is a daunting task.

“Innovate or die” is easily said, less easily put into practice as a strategic vision. It is yet another of those leadership challenges that cannot be ducked. But the rewards for successfully establishing a culture of innovation are potentially huge.

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