Innovation is an often used word in the ICT area, a strange amorphous concept that appears in job titles and even commercial contracts. Innovation is the the child of ideas and need; faced with a problem, we come up with an idea, and create an innovation (or rarely, an invention), to fix that problem and “make things better.” However, modern research challenges the way in which we try to force innovation.
So let’s look at how we do it today, and then how we could do it better.
You all know and dread the corporate “away day. ” You are herded into a meeting room or hotel conference room somewhere for an entire day whereby the management team speak at us in order to stimulate new ideas and innovation.You are fed food that has had the nutrients sucked from it and follow an agenda, perhaps written by a facilitator who has been brought in for the day. At the end of the day, the only reason most of us stay, we are given a beer or wine. Ideas are collected, written down, and then never acted on.
The second thing that we do is that we don’t listen to or cultivate introverts. Given that between a third to half of us are introverts, this is a rather egregious mistake that we need to remedy. Using the example above, the introvert does not feel they can speak out in that environment and their input is lost. The entire system is geared toward the extrovert.
The clash of the two can be hilarious. I remember years ago, working for an Australian company, being flown to Canberra (yes, Canberra. My manager at the time lived there so we by default spent a lot of time in what can only be described as one of Australia’s most boring cities) and locked in a room for two days with the engineering staff and sales staff. The idea was to come up with new and creative ways to progress the company, the outcome was quite different. It didn’t help that it was facilitated by an ex-Roman Catholic Priest who looked like he’d dressed himself based on the Matrix movies. Worse, being an American company, we had cabaret dancers and fire jugglers to “motivate” us as we arrived.
After a day, the engineers has sequestered themselves into a corner of the room and refused to engage with the sales team or the facilitator, in fact they had become quite hostile and were refusing to participate with “the other idiots.” The sales team had reverted to peacock status grandstanding for the various manager’s who were there, the facilitator had no control, and the HR Manager arrived in running shorts to save the day. He didn’t of course. The day broke down and early drinks were supplied, the CEO of the company brought in his own band, that the HR Manager played bass in, and the evening turned into a minor riot. One person was summarily fired for taking inappropriate pictures of the female staff.
Now. Not all workshops end up like this, and you have to see the funny side of this kind of session. However it highlights the contrived, old school, command and control type approach to “innovation”.
And we’re still stifling innovation, probably to our own detriment with two high-profile acts of stupidity by Yahoo and HP banning working from home (read flexible working) in the past few months. And it goes on and on, here are some stats that show the dinosaur like attitudes that still exist. It’s incredible in the 21st century (flying cars any day now), that these attitudes exist.
- 89% of business effectively ban the use of Facebook (and other social media sites);
- and yet perversely, 65% of business say they have had positive gains through the use of social media.
- 40% of companies actually assign someone to trawl through staff emails to check out whether or not they are “ok”.
Humans do not innovate when they are packed into offices like battery hens, disallowed access to new technology, rewarded on the time the spend sitting in a chair rather than achieving things, are told “no”, are not allowed time to research & explore, have draconian command & control managers, are not trained, are not given “wilderness” time, are not allowed to work flexibly, have all their intellectual property taken from them, are underpaid, have no ability to gain a promotion, and are spied on by the company in an overt way.
It is no wonder that we see such a problem with productivity in this country. Particularly in ICT.
Where does this attitude come from?
In large part it is due to the rise and rise of the “Human Resources Gravy Train”. Now, not all HR people are this way inclined, however I can count on one hand the number of HR departments of worked with over the years that support the employee rather than push the dystopian view of corporate cattle management that we see in the paragraphs above. A recent job advertisement at Vend shows a company attitude toward hiring an HR GM that is refreshing, we know they must have some kind of different attitude because they are doing well, seen as innovative, and known as a great place to work.
“At Vend we think HR is a dirty word. We don’t simply employ humans, we employ real people with real personalities – and some pretty awesome personalities at that. Culture is super important to us at Vend. Not just having fun at work and enjoying the ride, but working super fucken’ hard to do what’s right by our customers and for our investors.”
So what kind of environment do we need to provide to ICT staff and contractors in order for them to innovate? Well, there are a lot of methods that add up to a very different environment to the World War II style management that still persists today.
- People need “wilderness time”. Perversely, the best ideas come from individuals as opposed to groups. This is scientifically proven. If you ask a group to brainstorm for ideas and you ask individuals to do the same, the ideas generated by the individual are better.
- On the above note, we need to cater for the introvert. Between a third to a half of us fall into this category and happy clap group outings don’t work for the introvert.
- Get rid of the desk. Literally. Provide spaces for people to work but don’t provide assigned cubicles for individuals. People work better when they have the freedom to wander around the office and work where they want. This also encourages good cross-pollination of people’s relationships.
- Allow flexible working, or work from home. Let’s get a couple of things sorted out up front. Firstly, flexible working is of great benefit to the company, agency, and individual, it’s proven, get over yourself and accept it. Second, a bad employee will always be a bad employee regardless of their working arrangements. Thirdly, management is generally the issue here, not the employee, managers need to be taught how to manage in this environment.
- Consider how an employee can be rewarded for good ideas and benefit from intellectual property they develop. Consider financial rewards or accolades; getting the press to cover it, trade journals, whatever it is it is about providing direct recognition to the employee and team.
- Pay them what is fair and be transparent about it. If you consistently underpay a staff member then you’d better be making it up somewhere else.
- Get rid of the term Human Resources. It’s offensive to everyone but Human Resources and the Command and Control set. Abolish it. Look at models where it works well and copy it.
- Get rid of the HR “employee satisfaction” survey and the metrics for measuring people that we all know are crap. Measure people on their outputs and be clear about it.
- Allow staff to integrate, collaborate, socialise, and share knowledge with staff from other companies. As an example, Pikselin run a fortnightly Friday night session that brings in a range of speakers, each attendee brings some beer, and a brief presso (ten minutes) is given and then people just get together to talk (Contact Mike Riversdale on twitter if you are interested @MiramarMike). There is rumoured to be an informal meet in Wellington at Hashigo Zake on a Tuesday night. Auckland has a vibrant interaction of ICT companies at certain social locations as well. The point is, you need your staff to get out and experience the rest of the world rather than develop blinkers.
- Stop spying on staff. Stop reading their email, stop blocking websites, start encouraging social media use including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and blogging. Encourage people to talk about what your company and organisation are doing. Take off the firewall censorship. Allow BYOD. Yes I can hear the shrieking about security now. Why don’t you focus on how you can securely let this happen rather why you shouldn’t let it happen and creating technical Colditz’s that stifle thinking.
- Create a sandpit where staff can trial new technology just for the hell of it. New apps, new cloud services, new whatever. This is particularly important for development.
- Invest wisely in training.
- For staff who are reading this, start pushing it. Likely there are six to ten of you and only one manager, tell them how its going to be.
This kind of environment is how innovative ideas and creativity are allowed to spring up. Those that do not adopt this way of thinking will be left behind, thankfully. They will also find that their staff over time leave for greener pastures. The world has changed.