2004 - Nurturing ideas in the workplace
If you are ever visiting Detroit,
take the chance to spend a day at the Henry Ford
Museum in Greenfield Village. Ford, the man who
once described history as "more or less bunk",
was in fact a passionate preserver and collector
of social artefacts.
This being the US, the museum
is more than a series of glass-fronted cases.
Ford liked to collect buildings: a church here,
a school there, the odd antebellum mansion, patiently
dismantled and re-erected on the museum's 90-acre
Ford's proudest exhibit, however,
was a replica - that of Menlo Park Laboratory,
Thomas Edison's New Jersey workshop. Menlo Park
was responsible, in the space of six frenetic
years between 1876 and 1882, for - among other
inventions - the phonograph, the telephone carbon
transmitter, improvements to the telegraph, and
Yes, it was all a long time ago,
but Edison's organisation is a remarkable model
for focusing human ingenuity on the development
of technological improvements that created tangible
benefits to society. His collaborators were craftsmen
and artisans who called each other "muckers"
in recognition of the way they all mucked in to
help each other.
Most of them were single young
men, living in a nearby boarding house (also now
preserved at the museum) and sharing Edison's
commitment to investigate the potential of electricity
as a power source. They worked long hours, often
late into the night, stopping occasionally for
sessions of drinking and singing around the organ
at the end of the room. It was an informal, collegiate
arrangement. "Hell, there ain't no rules
in here. We're trying to accomplish something!"
said Edison at the time.
I could not help picturing this
during a short seminar in London recently, organised
by the Brathay Forum, part of the Brathay Hall
Trust, a Cumbria-based educational and training
charity. The forum was discussing ways to improve
innovation and creativity in the modern workplace.
Innovation is a buzzword these days; the government
is all for it and companies also seek it to revitalise
But the corporate experience
of innovation does not tend to run smoothly. Once
a business is up and running, the need to service
demanding production, distribution and sales cycles
can relegate concerns for stimulating creativity.
The problem with innovation is
that it is often sparked by thinking or ideas
that occur outside daily working routines. Edison
himself was fired from his job as a telegrapher
at Western Union "for not concentrating on
his primary responsibilities and doing too much
moonlighting". The problem was that his bosses
paid him to be a telegrapher whereas Edison was
never happier than when he had the opportunity
to experiment with ways of improving the technology.
Of course, his knowledge and
research disciplines would have been worth millions
of dollars to Western Union but it would have
been difficult to explain this to the hard-pressed
supervisor of a telegraphy department. It was
difficult then and it remains difficult today.
There are many ways to stimulate
workplace innovation , as Mark Brown, a visiting
professor at Henley Management College, pointed
out at the seminar. Much of his work, he says,
involves trying to establish some balance in business
between creative impulses and the need for structure
and rules. Some young companies have too little
structure. He also observed that too much innovation
would be inappropriate for some activities.
"You don't want staff to
be thinking about continuous improvement and innovation
when landing a passenger aircraft. You want it
to be landed safely and expertly every time."
On the other hand, says Prof
Brown, "idea assassination" has become
a favourite bloodsport in some companies. This
is a fundamental problem for creativity consulting,
no matter how good the processes available in
the marketplace. While there are plenty of people
at the top of large companies who understand the
need for innovation , there will always be a tension
between this need and the daily operational demands
of the business.
This is why so many well-organised
and well-intentioned suggestion schemes often
founder. I recall one in which the boss, who was
backing the scheme, managed to generate some good
ideas from an initially sceptical workforce. Then
he was promoted to the main board and replaced
by a new boss who allowed the scheme to wither
away, and with it any residual goodwill among
staff towards suggestions schemes.
As one contributor to the Brathay
seminar put it, "You can infect companies
with ideas for a time but they tend to have strong
immune systems that soon respond to get rid of
So how can companies avoid this
immune reaction? One way, said Margaret Exley
of Mercer Delta, the consultants hosting the forum,
was to nurture a new project in a protected environment
away from the parent.
"When the Prudential set
up Egg, the financial services business, the top
team made sure that that the people working in
Egg were completely protected and kept out of
reach of the rest of the business," she said.
The same lesson, she said, was
learnt by Royal/Dutch Shell when the company created
a protective nursery for innovation in which projects
were nurtured outside the normal corporate processes
Sometimes, she said, the same
kind of protection needed to be extended to individual
employees. She recalled a physicist employed by
the Atomic Energy Authority. Managers regarded
him as a maverick but they understood his potential
worth which rewarded their judgment. He saved
the authority millions of pounds when it was faced
with a serious problem in one of its reactors.
"If you are looking for
a big fundamental change in any system it's not
a good idea to work in that system. It is far
better to create a microcosm and to protect it,"
said Ms Exley.
While companies such as the Prudential
have demonstrated the effectiveness of such strategies,
employees embarking on any new business within
the confines of a larger company should be wary.
It only takes a change at the top or a corporate
take-over and the protective arrangement can disappear
overnight. For some, the only sure way to make
the best of a big idea is to go it alone.
Not all innovations , however,
are big ideas. And even when they are small -
such as improvements in working practices - they
can be resisted by employees as effectively as
new ideas can be resisted by sceptical managers.
The best way to achieve such changes may be to
introduce innovation in small graduated steps.
Of course, in workplaces that
happily resemble the Edison organisation, such
approaches are likely to be less important. The
great man knew all about this. So if you want
to see real innovation , you could start in a
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