Creating an environment that unleashes employee creativity

Creativity concept: Explosion of coloured powder
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Every business and industry is being transformed. We are all re-imagining every part of what we do, make and sell. In this age of technological disruption, competition is fierce and to succeed it’s essential to create an environment where employees are encouraged and motivated to make their most creative ideas a reality. And quickly.

This is relevant regardless of your business sector, but it’s especially important in the auto industry. We’re seeing unprecedented levels of innovation where autonomous driving, electric cars and connected vehicles are dramatically changing consumer expectations within our industry. We’ll see greater change over the next 20 years than we’ve seen in the last century.  

Employers need to unleash the ideas of their best talent and employees want to be listened to, recognised, valued and challenged. This comes up time and again when I read about the expectations of millennials in the workplace, but I would say this is no longer a generational issue.

For me, meeting this creative challenge is all about employee engagement. This makes all the difference. We need to ensure individuals’ voices are heard and that their best ideas are actioned.

So how do you make it easy for employees to stand out and make a difference in an organisation with many thousands of colleagues, across dozens of departments, and in multiple countries?

Developing a strategy to unlock the innovative ideas within our organisations is essential for success against this backdrop of radical change. It is also key for retaining the best talent.

Killing the suggestion box

The old ways of engaging employees and encouraging ideas are simply not good enough. There was a time when the humble suggestion box was as far as companies felt they needed to go.

The box did serve a purpose: it told employees that ideas were valued and that they could even be progressed if deemed good enough for the business. But as a tool for cultivating detailed ideas and motivating creativity throughout an organisation, it was limited.

You can’t just buy creativity. Monetary rewards or bounties won’t work in isolation.

Look at the feedback from people who worked at companies where suggestion boxes reigned. The consensus was that the corporate committees reviewing the suggestions were good for only one thing: killing great ideas.  

So, what’s the more modern solution to motivating employees? How can a company’s leadership create an environment where creativity can be unleashed?

Establishing a creative culture

You can’t just buy creativity. Monetary rewards or bounties won’t work in isolation. To establish a culture that continues to innovate over the long haul, employees need a real sense that they can shape and implement ideas that will allow the business to innovate and thrive, and by doing so, they can too. I call it a democratisation of ideas.

But how do you make this happen practically? In our case, we took inspiration from the start-ups we’ve been working with as part of our external corporate incubator established in 2016 – the BMW Innovation Lab.

It’s only by raising the status of the innovation process that a company can overcome the issue of people holding back or giving up because they don’t think anyone is going to listen to their ideas.

This project has taught us a lot about the entrepreneurial approach, and, more importantly, the need to develop a culture of creativity and innovation from the inside. Bringing in your creativity by working with entrepreneurial external companies can go only part of the way in driving change. Change must ultimately come from within.

This was the inspiration behind our Intrapreneur Lab – the staff-orientated companion to our start-up incubator. Using the same premise, the Intrapreneur Lab establishes a platform to inspire, shape and realise innovative ideas from the 1,300-strong workforce operating across our three UK commercial divisions.

By re-focusing the principle of corporate tech incubators towards our staff, it gives employees the opportunity to form their own internal start-ups. This not only ensures a more flexible operational structure that can allow companies to move faster when it comes to innovating, but it also empowers employees to take greater ownership of their ideas.

Building a new innovation culture

It’s only by raising the status of the innovation process that a company can overcome the issue of people holding back or giving up because they don’t think anyone is going to listen to their ideas. All ideas need encouragement and guidance to succeed.

In short, an intrapreneur programme gives employees an answer to the question, “How can I make a difference and how can I stand out in such a large organisation?” It gives them autonomy, a sense of purpose and a way to improve their skills – all of which are often valued just as much as monetary rewards, if not more.

However, an innovation programme’s success should be measured not just by the products that are developed. Short-terms goals will do nothing to change the culture in the long term. For a legacy to endure you need to create an environment where employees feel valued, where talent is retained and innovation has no bounds. Our approach to this creativity challenge isn’t the only solution, but it is working for us.

 

About Julie Holland

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