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The number of employees at motor company Ford submitting inventions has reached record levels. During August, more than 4,500 employees submitted invention disclosures with nearly 1,700 of them first-time innovators. They included an idea to turn cars into a source of water and a transportable device to move people and objects short distances where cars aren’t accessible.
So how has the company managed to instil such a culture of innovation? In short, through huge commitment and effort and, importantly, making employees think, act and feel like inventors.
Ford executive vice president, product development, Raj Nair, explains that the increase in first-time inventors is a result of a push to drive innovation in all parts of the business. It has also ramped up its global innovation challenges where it seeks company-wide ideas and “coupled with input from employees” works out how these ideas can be furthered.
If it isn’t already, innovation should be at the very top of the corporate agenda. In the era of digital transformation and disruption, putting in place a culture and system that encourages innovation could be the difference between survival or extinction. Organisations need a new product development pipeline to ensure future growth.
Clearly, not every company will have the money, support and R&D resources that Ford has to prioritise innovation but there is still much they can do to empower employees to come up with brilliant ideas.
One of the biggest barriers to innovation is failing to break down the fear and consequences of failure. Business leaders must first change their own mindset and be more willing to embrace risk and then cascade downwards a spirit of experimentation. It is about creating a vacuum in which employees feel safe to pursue an idea and this means ensuring their superiors have bought into the commitment to innovation, too.
While line managers will understandably be focused on everyday performance they must also be able to balance day-to-day needs with helping to generate this all-important ideas channel. Any negativity towards a fresh idea will most likely crush an individual’s creativity and stifle progress.
It is therefore important to establish a link between innovation and the performance and reward system in the organisation. This is more than just putting in place an incentive scheme that perhaps doles out a cash reward or vouchers for a bright idea but building responsibility for innovation into managers’ targets. This will help to bring about a far more deep-rooted and cultural change in the way both managers and individuals are assessed, incentivised and rewarded.
While the aim of prioritising innovation is to build a pipeline for the development of new products and services, be mindful that innovation is required in other ways if an organisation is to progress and maintain its competitive edge. Coming up with new ways of working or re-engineering a process to bring about efficiency and productivity gains is equally as important. Ideas generation should not just be the preserve of those in customer-facing roles but everyone should be encouraged to play their part.
Indeed, the era of digital transformation is not about mapping old ways of doing things on to new technology but rather re-imagining ways of working and developing new approaches.
For too long, innovation has been the preserve of a silo that many organisations historically called the R&D department. Ford has shown that it is possible to make its entire workforce believe they can be an inventor. Ideas won’t necessarily flow from brainstorming in a trendy breakout room equipped with a slide and table football but rather by giving individuals permission, space and incentives to be creative in their daily lives.
If you build the right culture for generating ideas, they will undoubtedly come.
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