Giving staff time to think creatively can pay dividends

Without it, we’d all be bereft of sticky notes, our shoes would still be squelching about in the rain, and the internet would be a far less powerful communications weapon. Giving staff regular formal ‘innovation time’ away from their daily duties pays off.

Conceived in the US, it is gradually spreading to the UK, but how do HR and line managers strike a balance between giving staff the freedom to be creative, and letting them all skive off one afternoon a week?

Whether it is the ‘womb rooms’ beloved of trendy London ad agencies, the flotation tanks deployed by more wacky product development consultancies, or even the copious amounts of alcohol used by market research houses to get focus group participants to ‘disinhibit’, there is a growing belief that by de-cluttering employee minds of the minutiae of everyday working life, creativity and innovation must surely blossom.

No rules

Inventions company 3M was probably first off the starting blocks when, more than 60 years ago, it decreed that every employee – from postroom to director level – would have the right to spend 15% of their working day engaged in projects and experiments that had no immediate commercial value to the firm.

There were, and still are, no rules about when and where the brilliance had to emerge – a garden shed at home being just as appropriate as a chemistry lab or a staff canteen – and all ideas would be looked at, whether technical or operations-based.

The Post-It note was the most famous idea to come out of ‘15% time’, although the inventor had to harangue his line manager to ensure the idea got a hearing. And while he received no cash for his multi-billion pound brainwave, the kudos he received internally was mind-boggling.

Free your mind

The second 3M brainwave to have transformed our lives is leather protector Scotchgard. Scotchgard’s inventor, a female chemist, happened to spill some chemical over her tennis shoes while conducting some random experiments during 15% time. Five minutes away from the 3M building that wet day, she was astonished to find that the spill appeared to repel water. She reported the discovery to her manager and a new global product range was born.

3M’s technical director for the UK and Ireland, Christiaan Persoon, says the idea of 15% time is “to free people from their daily duties to have some fun trying things out”.

But another company has gone even further to encourage staff to be creative. Search engine pioneer Google offers its engineers the freedom to “pursue products they are passionate about” for a full 20% of their time – the equivalent to one working day a week.

Its policy has already paid dividends, however, as ‘20% time’ has already incubated and hatched search engine products Google News and Google Suggest, and the promotion of an ideas culture within the firm has, says a spokesman, “become even more vital”.

Universal freedom

The key to giving employees more freedom to come up with ideas is to ensure it is universal, rather than granted to a few select managers.

At car manufacturer BMW, for example, the company actively challenges the notion that some people are paid to have ideas, while it is the job of lesser beings to simply carry them out.

At BMW’s Cowley plant in the UK, where the Mini is produced, staff suggestions – from cutting unnecessary use of paper to more complex engineering solutions – saved the firm more than £10.5m between 2002 and 2004. Of the 14,333 shop-floor ideas considered by management in that period, three-quarters were put into action.

UK employers may find it difficult to formally ring-fence time for creativity because, as a nation, we have “traditionally not been good at empowering staff to be creative”, according to Anthony Denatale, operations manager at Ideas UK. This professional body provides advice and guidance to help promote the development of staff suggestion scheme programmes.

“Of course, we would love to see thousands of firms be as inventive as 3M or Google in deploying staff ideas, but many organisations are still better at monitoring their staff than liberating them,” he says.

“Among some employers, there will always be a question mark over whether 15% or 20% time is simply a way of evading the everyday, bread and butter work.” As long as that attitude prevails, UK companies will be afraid to experiment, he adds.

That is why it is imperative to trust your staff and resist the temptation to place rules and procedures around something as nebulous as creativity, believes Persoon.

“While we would be a bit disappointed if hundreds of staff all decided to take every Friday afternoon off for ideas generation, this has never actually happened,” he says. “Individual managers know what staff are working on during their 15% time, and they also know where exactly the ideas are being developed. To lay down conditions about the sort of innovation we are looking for though, or to create a time frame, would be as futile as expecting true originality to come out of a highly structured brainstorming session.”

The best way to encourage staff to be creative is to give them space and time, allow them the freedom to make mistakes and forget any notion of rules, adds Persoon.

But who manages the ideas generation process? Should HR professionals draft and police ‘ideas time’ policies?

Harnessing ideas

HR departments are precisely the right people to harness the power of creative ideas, according to Denatale at Ideas UK.

“HR is the one function that can be relied on to manage a scheme well and ensure that staff are rewarded for their efforts,” he says. “The danger of putting creativity in the hands of a ‘bright ideas’ department is that a change of regime may see the whole notion disappearing from the agenda.”

Although only a small number of firms currently offer dedicated creativity time, other names, including Boots, ITV, Lloyds TSB, the Ministry of Defence and the DVLA, are understood to be looking at the development with interest.

Andy Beddows is chairman of Ideas UK, and suggestion scheme manager at Boots. The pharmacy’s ‘All Ideas Matter’ scheme was launched around two-and-a-half years ago. He believes that, as a way of opening up the company to employees, it has been invaluable.

“On the manufacturing side of the business, employees are already given specific time for looking at ongoing issues and concerns, but in the retail environment, it wouldn’t be feasible for all staff,” he says.

Boots encourages employees to supply their thoughts and ideas through a host of channels, including e-mail, letters, the intranet, or correspondence to the company magazine.

“Although it may be that we get 1,000 ideas that each save the business a pound, rather than one idea that saves £1,000 as in manufacturing, there is an important message here about management being open to suggestions and being responsive,” says Beddows.

As for following 3M’s lead and providing staff with formal ideas generation time, Beddows concedes that, with a workforce of 100,000 people, it would be difficult to give everyone time off to be creative, but may consider offering it to a specific group of staff in the future.

Whether it’s in your terms and conditions or not, freeing staff up to think beyond the day-to-day clearly pays dividends.

Something to think about the next time you visit Google.

Case study: Dollond & Aitchison

Dubbed ‘Every Idea Is A Good Idea’, high street optician Dollond & Aitchison’s ideas scheme encourages all staff to write directly to the chief executive with their suggestions and gives each letter writer a full written reply, as well as an appropriate reward for ideas that become reality. There is even an old-fashioned staff suggestion box in stores to encourage them.

One of the firm’s most important innovations in recent years, which came directly from the staff ideas programme, was ‘Styleyes’ – a computer-aided system for pairing customers with the ideal spectacle frame to suit their appearance and lifestyle.

Rolled out alongside a major TV advertising campaign and a shop redesign programme, the Styleyes launch helped reverse a major decline in the firm’s fortunes and increased sales by 17%.

Setting up an ideas scheme

  • Keep the scheme simple and the rules transparent. Promote it to all staff and make it clear that everyone’s ideas are welcome. Ban personal attacks – dressed up as ‘suggestions’ – on colleagues and managers.
  • Value all suggestions that are made and ensure that it is the clear responsibility of a particular staff member or team to evaluate them. Boots aims to give a response to all ideas within 20 working days, even if it’s a ‘no’.
  • Implement every single suggestion that is seen to be feasible without fail and without delay. If you don’t, your scheme will not be taken seriously.
  • All staff suggestion schemes registered with the Inland Revenue allow tax-free rewards of up to £5,000, but you may need to prove that the idea is original.
  • For some staff, recognition may be enough.

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