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How two UK SMEs harnessed staff creativity to fuel innovation

Staff creativity in business
There are lots of ways to open up historically quiet members of staff

Want to ensure every kernel of staff creativity has the opportunity to make a positive impact? It’s easy to get everybody involved in a micro business, but organisational layers can stifle creativity as you grow.

If a business fails to harness staff creativity to fuel innovation it risks losing out on growth opportunities and could demotivate staff. Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety is a good place to start. Managers need to be accessibility and champion ideas, and employees empowered to experiment too.

We spoke to two successful entrepreneurs about how they’ve implemented these strategies to utilise staff creativity and drive innovation.

Creating an environment of psychological safety

True innovation comes from a variety of different sources and not necessarily from people who feel comfortable talking in front of large groups. This makes it important to create an environment where everybody feels comfortable sharing ideas.

Softwire managing director Zoe Cunningham is a big advocate of creating environments that encourage staff creativity.

“The innovative ideas are going to be quite disruptive and different,” said Cunningham. “In a top-down command and control hierarchy there can be negative consequences for people. We need to get rid of all those things to get people’s ideas.”

The approach is backed up by research. Analysis of Google’s top performing teams, which included more than 200 interviews, found psychological safety was “far and away the most important” of five key dynamics identified.

“We’re all reluctant to engage in behaviours that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork.

“On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees,” said Julia Rozovsky, the Google analyst that completed the research.

Harry Oppo Icecream
Harry Thuillier’s business is hiring quickly

Oppo Ice Cream co-founder and director Harry Thuillier said the 16-employee young company has worked hard to foster this kind of idea sharing.

“When you take away the barriers – the potential to be laughed at for a rather ‘out-there’ idea – and add the desire to achieve, innovation and creativeness can thrive,” he said.

In one instance, a sales manager at Oppo who Thuillier “didn’t realise had a creative bone in his body” came up with a unique campaign for a new supermarket listing, complete with a funny title and charity tie-in.

Embedding staff creativity in larger businesses

Building a company-wide culture of psychological safety can be harder in larger companies. It’s difficult to ensure behavioural norms are adopted and acted upon, rather than just being values displayed on the office wall.

Cunningham recommends starting out by asking: “What are the consequences for someone in the organisation if they say something we don’t agree with or things that look generally dangerous?”

Clearly, there are boundaries to what is acceptable. But for companies to avoid groupthink and be innovative employees need to be comfortable challenging the consensus, even if it’s presented by senior management.

Repetition in company communications is helpful in promoting this kind of behaviour. Meeting norms and company values can be displayed on the website and intranet, and awards can be given based on staff exemplifying behaviour.

The management team should ensure meetings they attend promote an environment of psychological safety, an approach that will then be mirrored among their subordinates. Make a point of creating space for any team member you think is struggling to speak up. Challenge ideas but don’t dismiss them out of hand. Speak less and listen more.

Ensure you show empathy with the position and emotions of staff members involved in conflicts too. Demonstrating you appreciate the anxiety and pressure surrounding their role and perception in the company helps create a space in which they can discuss issues more openly.

Other innovation reading:

Communication and empowering staff

Employees need to be able to reach senior management for staff creativity to be effectively harnessed. Softwire’s Cunningham invites any member of staff to book a meeting with her, in spite of the size of the business (the software development company has 150 staff and a turnover of £13m last year). People were sometimes nervous to get in touch, so she started running regular surgeries.

Zoe Cunningham Softwire
“Everything starts with yourself as a leader. It’s easy to forget that,” said Softwire’s Cunningham

Cunningham cites hiring contractors that particular teams want to learn from as one of the ideas that’s been developed in this fashion.

Creating lines of communication between staff members and managers means they can share ideas outside of their immediate areas of expertise. It’s also important employees are empowered to experiment within their own domain. Although this has limitations.

“Empowering people to make changes is important,” said Cunningham. “Except you always have to have some kind of limit. You can’t have a company with everyone making decisions on their own because then you aren’t a company and everything won’t gel. However, as most companies are controlling too much it’s safe to move in that direction.”

Oppo Ice Cream’s team has worked hard to avoid bureaucracy. The rapidly growing business expects to increase its headcount by 25 per cent this year and empowering staff has helped lure key hires from employers like Coca-Cola.

“Ownership, accountability and a sense of not always having the right answer breeds a sense of creativity. They won’t have their wings clipped. There are no committees that can wear down creativity and lead to ideas that are watered down. The sign off process is simple,” explained Thuillier.

In part, this is a function of their lack of spending power compared to corporate competitors. This restraint means they can’t afford to be too controlling and breeds creativity.

Spending limits can be useful tools to define the extent to which staff can invest in ideas. This helps create a healthy but managed area where they have agency, combined with easy access to senior management when needed.

CEOs acting as the role model

The management team needs to embody behavioural norms that will encourage staff creativity, rather than simply creating processes that are designed to encourage it.

“Everything starts with yourself as a leader. It’s easy to forget that,” said Softwire’s Cunningham. “You can be surprised by some of your own behaviours. It’s very important to think about what you want and how you behave and that you’re giving the right messages.”

Tapping into staff creativity requires creating an environment where they feel comfortable sharing ideas and giving them a healthy amount of agency. Adapting your own behaviour is a useful place to start thinking about how you can harness staff creativity.

Have a look at our helpful business practice tips related to future planning.

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