At a time when the Government is trying to present Britain as new, vibrant and innovative, evidence is emerging that British companies are in danger of losing their competitive edge because they aren’t bothering to harness their employees’ ideas.
A new survey shows that one in four of the UK working population believes they are not listened to by their superiors when they suggest an idea, while the same number say their bosses never bother to ask them for contributions.
The survey, conducted by NOP on behalf of design consultancy Elmwood, suggests that many British companies have corporate structures which stifle creativity.
Paul Middlebrook, a director of Elmwood, says the main reason British companies are “killing ideas” is that “most businesses today have structures which are alien to idea generation and based around the premise of co-ordination and control”.
More than 40 per cent of those who answered Elmwood’s survey said there were things that stopped them from offering ideas.
The biggest obstacle was that “no-one listens”, although respondents also cited lack of motivation; the fear of making a mistake; the belief that ideas just aren’t taken seriously; and the worry that bosses or co-workers would see them as troublemakers.
Perhaps the most depressing response of all was “new ideas aren’t relevant to my job”.
Middlebrook suggests a number of possible solutions to what he calls a “very real problem”. He argues that companies should:
Appoint a “director of change, creativity and growth”, who has responsibility for the fostering of ideas and for breaking down the barriers that stifle creativity.
Include idea generation as part of the corporate mission statement.
Ensure everyone in the company considers creativity a primary concern – “particularly top management who should walk-the-talk, constantly asking people for their ideas on how to do things better”.
Build creativity and ideas generation into all management and employee reviews and goal setting.
Conduct an annual creativity audit, which asks employees from the shopfloor to the boardroom to disclose how receptive they are to giving and receiving ideas.
Create awards and celebratory events to recognise new ideas.
Give people time and space to think about new ideas (as companies such as 3M already do).
Create a workplace environment which is conducive to ideas generation, with break-out space for teams to have brainstorming ideas.
Create cross-functional teams which can look at challenges from different angles.
Train staff in creative-thinking skills.
Share ideas horizontally and vertically throughout the organisation.
Finally, always greet new ideas, from whatever the source, with a positive attitude, even if the idea is not adopted.
Creativity is frequently viewed with suspicion by British bosses and staff alike, but as Middlebrook asks: “What does an inability to listen to your employees say about your company’s ability to listen to your customers? If bosses turn a deaf ear to the people closest to them, what chance does the customer have of being heard?”
Elmwood’s findings are endorsed by others who work in the field of new product development and idea generation. The director of one “think tank” says: “Most British organisations are appalling in the way they treat their staff, and if we’re not careful we could lose out to foreign companies – Japanese and American companies in particular – where innovation is encouraged. In this country, we have a culture that is not ‘idea friendly’, and it’s a tragedy.”
With the Millennium Dome and the Design Council-backed search for Millennium Products supposedly focusing our attention on the creativity of New Britain, and the media making heroes out of entrepreneurs such as James Dyson, creator of the highly successful range of dual cyclone vacuum cleaners, or Trevor Baylis of clockwork radio fame, it is particularly ironic that UK companies seem to be intent on stamping out ideas within their own ranks.
Creativity, it appears, is all very well when it is properly pigeon-holed – in the arts, fashion or the design industry, for example.
But too many managers in packaged goods companies and other brand-owning manufacturers appear scared of allowing creativity free rein – indeed, some appear scared of allowing it at all.
Yet products such as the Dyson cleaner, the Baygen radio or the Psion Series 5, which recently won the Grand Prix at the 1998 Design Business Association/Marketing Week Design Effectiveness Awards, clearly demonstrate that innovation can be a direct contributor to commercial success.