Power of the People: How Communications Can Unleash Employee Innovation

19 April, 2018 / Articles
knowledge-is-power

Regardless of industry, every organization today needs to innovate in order to keep up with the pace of change in the digital economy. In many organizations, more than ever before, it has become the communication department’s mission to encourage, empower and activate employees to innovate. That’s because organizations need to keep firing up the stove to spark and grow innovation — and that can only be done through frequent and consistent communications.

Any revolution, including one around corporate innovation, is a grassroots effort. Communications, along with support from the C-suite and direction from HR, strategy and innovation groups, can be the primary catalyst for a cultural transformation that turns an organization from an innovation laggard into a leader. The communications department must play a central role in freeing employees to tap into their inner entrepreneurs, and driving the company’s new direction on innovation. Communicators can do this by synchronizing five key elements for change.

Connect employees to the company strategy.

Reinforce and repeatedly share the company’s strategy, and tie it to the necessity for internal innovation. Let’s face it: In most companies, a majority of employees don’t even know what the company does or what the overarching strategy is. Even senior-level people often don’t know the entire portfolio of products or services made by their company because most are siloed in their own narrow domains. It is imperative to prioritize, simplify and clarify the company’s top strategies and the role innovation plays in them.

Transparently share opportunities and threats with your ecosystem.

Transparency means sharing the good, the bad and the ugly — areas where your company is excelling, but also where it is struggling. This should be shared across the board to help bridge the gaps between departments. In a tech company, for example, you would share this insight with all of your innovation partners, including corporate strategy functions, marketing, sales and engineering.

Undoubtedly, there are startups and traditional competitors beating you somewhere. Talk about threats and opportunities, as well as why they’re happening and how to overcome disappointments and achieve new possibilities. Be candid and forthright. Employees are smart and know when you’re sugarcoating the facts. The only way innovation will come about is if your communications are honest and trusted. If you aren’t transparent, it will be a nail in the coffin of innovation, either via quick and total self-destruction, a traumatic market disruption, an event that wasn’t foreseen, or gradual and agonizing attrition or inaction. As the legendary former Intel CEO Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid survive.” I would add, “Only the innovative thrive.”

Build a community of innovators around inclusion and diversity.

Encourage inclusion and diversity around innovation by celebrating people with different points of view — people who are mavericks and teams that agree to dissent, but come together with their varied talents, skills and perspectives. Research and experience have proven time and again that inclusive and diverse teams — whether that diversity is around gender, ethnicity, cultural or socioeconomic background, education or age — produce the most valuable breakthroughs. Disruptive innovation rarely occurs when everyone comes from the same background or point of view.

Listen to your employees.

Encourage feedback from your employees, and really listen to it. Collectively, they know a lot more than the company’s executives and board members about what is innovative. No true innovation ever came from the C-suite; innovation always bubbles up from those closest to their markets and customers. More importantly, take action on what you have learned. When employees believe their company truly cares about their opinions and will follow up with action, they feel empowered and are more likely to put skin in the game by committing to innovation.

A great example of an innovation coming from everyday employees is the PlayStation, which originated as an idea from a junior-level Sony employee named Ken Kutaragi. Upper-level management dismissed his idea initially, but Kutaragi persisted, and today the Sony PlayStation is the best-selling gaming console of all time.

Further, communications departments can tap into employees’ ideas by conducting focus groups, listening sessions and surveys. Listen to the feedback and surface their innovative ideas to those higher up.

Celebrate both accomplishments and lessons from failures.

Celebrate both the employees’ and the organizations’ accomplishments as well as lessons learned from failures. In fact, lessons learned from trying and failing are often what spurs the next successful innovation. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos credits his company’s willingness to embrace failure as one of the key elements to its success, saying in a letter to shareholders, “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins.” It’s about credibility and a willingness to honestly examine what worked and what didn’t.

With that said, we must also highlight areas of success to encourage more experimentation. Innovation takes a village, and communicators can help build it by spotlighting those pockets of gung-ho entrepreneurs that are present in any company. Communications should provide ways to help those internal entrepreneurs connect, collaborate and build their momentum companywide. Eventually, those pockets will merge together and form the fabric of the entire culture — turning employees from all levels and job functions in the organization into inspired entrepreneurs. This momentum can be built by celebrating achievements, sharing tangible results (as I discussed in my last article) providing updates on innovation progress and outlining the impacts on top and bottom line growth or profits.

In the end, innovation is about people and their talents — not technology. To bring power to the people, employees must feel empowered, informed and inspired to tap into their passions and bring their ideas to market. Communication — or lack of it — can unleash this talent and mean the difference between a culture of breathtaking innovation and a culture of eroding stagnation.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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