Empowering employees to innovate and solve problems

Being prepared to learn from your mistakes 

Sergey Ananov found himself marooned on a slab of ice in the Arctic Circle after things went rather wrong during his attempt to fly alone around the world in a helicopter weighing less than a metric ton. He crash landed, and had time only to retrieve his life raft – the satellite phone, distress beacon and GPS tracker all went to the bottom of the sea with his helicopter

Making the exceedingly icy swim over to an ice floe, he managed to pull himself up and take stock of the situation; polar bears, heart failure inducing chilly temperatures, 1/2 a litre of fresh water and a limited chance of rescue – especially in the fog. Yet  miraculously, after 36 hours and 3 polar bear attacks, he was rescued by the Pierre Radisson, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. Whilst tucking into a proper meal on board, he was already contemplating how to learn from his mistakes; he would start by packing his next helicopter differently to ensure all critical items would be within easy reach.

Ananov’s adventure is an incredible story and even more pleasurable to read sitting warm and safe behind my desk. Though what really struck me was that after everything he endured, he so readily processed the mistakes he had made and was devising how to do it better next time. Call it resilience, call it madness, either way I think it highlights a quality that is so often hampered in companies today.

Creating a culture that encourages employees to push the boundaries

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

 This quote comes from Ken Robinson, who talks passionately about the need to enable creativity in schools. Mistakes are stigmatised in schools and children learn to be frightened of being wrong. By the time we reach adulthood and set off in our chosen careers, we have been programmed to believe that mistakes are the worst thing you can make. 

Clearly there is a balance to maintain. It would be detrimental, for example, if employees on oil rigs or in health care took it upon themselves to try out new ideas in the field. But employees on the front line often have a wealth of ideas about how to improve the way things are done in the company and it’s highly beneficial for an organisation’s learning and continued success to capture these suggestions.

Initiatives that encourage creativity and solutions to problems

Pierre Goad, Group Head of Human Resources and Communications at HSBC, and his team introduced  HSBC Exchange in 2012, which turns top-down communication on its head. The premise is that managers (in all regions), arrange meetings with their teams, sit silently and listen. There is no agenda – it is time for the employees to talk about what is important to them.

For some managers, sitting silently does not come easily and it requires a very conscious effort to just listen to issues and solutions put forward by employees. One of the themes that emerged was performance management and this sparked a conversation for senior management.  By Q3 in 2013, 25% of staff had taken part in this “shut up and listen” project.

McDonalds invited employees to submit ideas as part of the ‘The Secret Secret Menu Challenge‘. The UK prize was that the winner would have their dream burger sold in stores. McDonalds Canada employees had the chance to win $10,000. The competition was advertised in a light hearted way too; submission forms had redacted text to imply hidden messages and they launched a humorous video denying the competition but with pop up messages explaining how to take part.

Some companies set aside ‘innovation days’ where employees are entitled to put aside their day-to-day work and focus solely on new ideas. Liz Ellis, HRD at Danone talks about dedicated innovation programmes they run for their employees, including ‘ideation fortnight’. In the latest ideation fortnight, over 700 ideas were submitted on everything to do with minor process tweaks to major strategy changes. They tested the best ideas in focus groups and further developed them in their annual Connect live event. They also encourage employees to have one learning each day, emphasising that development comes mainly from on-the-job experience.

Collaboration tools like Slack provide a channel for teams to use to discuss particular topics, projects or ideas. It helps to reduce internal emails and provides an easy way of keeping communication channels open across teams.

Managers and leaders need to support an open communication culture

I once met an HR Director who clicked her fingers at her employees to administer orders and woe behold anyone who made a “suggestion”. Even with the best company initiatives in place, employees will fear speaking up unless leaders and managers set the right tone. Include listening skills and empowerment techniques in manager training and measure these behaviours in 360 feedback programmes.

Employee surveys are another useful tool for understanding whether employees feel able to speak up and if you can interrogate the data at a team level, you’ll be able to identify role model managers vs. those who are not creating the right culture. Questions that help tap into this theme could be along the lines of:

  • If I raised a concern about how something is being done I believe it would be taken seriously
  • My manager encourages me to suggest new ideas for continuous improvement
  • If I were to make a mistake, my manager would be supportive
  • I feel safe to speak up and share my views
  • In my team, we have brought in new ways of doing things to improve our business

We need to accept that innovation might mean getting things wrong and in those instances, it’s vital to apply the learning from those mistakes. Providing communication channels, opportunities for innovation and safer ways to trial ideas minimises the consequences of those mistakes and will undoubtedly contribute to business success.



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