“Australia is a really creative nation, but we’re falling down on innovation — we’re not letting the ideas through”, a prominent business executive has said, which can dramatically impact on business growth and profitability.
Lynn Wood (pictured) has previously chaired and held board positions at a number of high-profile businesses and organisations, including HSBC Bank Australia, Macquarie Goodman Group, Noni B, NSW Lotteries, GPT Funds Management and the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB).
Such corporate and regulatory experience afforded her considerable insights into the creativity apparent within Australian workplaces, as well as the roadblocks that are stopping many businesses from harnessing this potential to drive change, growth and profitability.
In a bid to help businesses of all sizes better capture their innovation potential, she created IdeaSpies Enterprise, and undertook what she described as the “first employee innovation survey” she had ever seen, in order to deliver metrics that quantify the issues she long suspected.
The sizeable poll covered around 2,000 Australian employees — the results of which have been provided exclusively to My Business — on their views towards innovation, and crucially, whether they are part of the ideas-generation process with their employer.
Ms Wood said that around 60 per cent of the participants work in business, 16 per cent are employed by non-profits and the remainder are working within government. While slightly more came from large organisations, of more than 5,000 employees, respondents were “pretty evenly spread” across the spectrum, including microbusinesses and other SMEs.
In the first of a two-part look at the findings, My Business explores exactly what the research found on employee innovation in Australia.
What the IdeaSpies Employee Innovation Survey revealed
Similar to the results of a separate study on innovation recently conducted by technology provider Ricoh, IdeaSpies found plenty of untapped, or underutilised, opportunities for businesses to harness the ideas, knowledge and skills already present within their workforces.
Some 76 per cent of respondents said that they had more ideas to contribute (that figure rose to 89 per cent among 26- to 35-year-olds) than they currently are, but in a startling finding, almost half said that their boss was not interested in receiving them.
When posed the question “why don’t you contribute ideas?”, and allowed to answer more than one response, the largest response boiled down to perceived disinterest on the part of their manager.
Almost one-third (31 per cent) of respondents suggested that their boss is not open to receiving new ideas. That was despite 84 per cent of managers covered by the survey stating that they are discussing innovation within the business.
“My organisation’s leader is fixated on innovation, however, doesn’t have the resources to fund it. It’s extremely frustrating, as the health of the business is crumbling,” one respondent was quoted as saying.
More than one in 10 suggested that there was too much risk associated with offering their ideas, while around one in six complained that doing so was too difficult.
Just 5 per cent of respondents confessed that they had no ideas to contribute. Almost 30 per cent said that they were too busy to voice their ideas.
This led the report to suggest that a significant gap exists between organisations talking the talk and those walking the walk when it comes to innovation.
“Leaders often don’t recognise that their employees are the best source of innovation and could contribute many more ideas than they do now,” it said.
The most obvious ramification of an innovation drought is the potential loss of new revenue streams, efficiencies or growth prospects going unnoticed.
However, the research uncovered a direct correlation between organisations that actively foster and listen to employee ideas, and their overall desirability as an employer.
More than 90 per cent of respondents said that they would be more likely to stay with their current employer if they were able to contribute more ideas to the organisation and its future direction, with around 39 per cent stating that they “definitely” would be more likely to stay and 51 per cent stating that they “probably” would.
“Many were annoyed when time was spent developing an idea and either they weren’t empowered to test it, or they received no feedback on why it wouldn’t be accepted,” the report said.
“Feedback was shown to be important in building employee engagement.”
Citing a communication problem between the desires of idealistic employees and the realities facing their managers, Ms Wood said that there can be many reasons why this breakdown occurs.
“People who are putting up ideas want to have them properly considered, and a lot of the time leaders don’t want to open up — being very frank — because they feel that people don’t have good ideas, or they feel they don’t have enough time to analyse the ideas or look at the ideas,” she said.
“So then, they only hear ideas from people at the top, or worse, going out to consultants instead of asking the staff.”
Ms Wood agreed that this in turn creates a new threat to the business, as not only do employees leave, but they take their ideas with them — often to a direct competitor — or launch the idea themselves through their own start-up.
“If you don’t encourage those people, they are more likely to leave your organisation.”
Part 2 of this series looks at the positive steps businesses can implement to better harness and drive employee innovation.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.