First-Class Coach: Rekindling the fire of innovation

It's not unusual for workers to distrust their business' new owners. But that's not always justified.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 24 Oct 2011

Q: Our firm has a reputation for being innovative and agile which everyone who works here is proud of. But, since the firm was acquired by a larger rival last year, I am worried that it is becoming less innovative and more staid. Is there anything I can do to rekindle the spark?

A: It is not unusual for staff in recently acquired companies to distrust their new owners and to worry that the things which made them special will be driven out by the restrictive systems and processes imposed on them by the new regime. Sometimes this concern is justified, though often it is more a question of people becoming preoccupied with changes in the way things are done (largely at an administrative level), and getting diverted from the core values of the business.

But it is worth remembering that innovation is a precious characteristic of successful companies and your firm's reputation in this area may well have been a major factor in the new owner's decision to acquire the business.

Certainly, Sir Martin Sorrell, who built the vast WPP communication empire by acquiring companies and re-engineering them to be more profitable, also sets a high value on creativity. He is said to get irritated when the advertising and design agencies WPP owns fail to win major awards for creativity and he has invested millions in creative leadership talent to foster greater creative success, because he knows that this is something prized by clients.

So, if innovation is flagging, it is not just you who should be concerned: it is in everybody's interests to ensure this important quality of the business is revived and allowed to thrive.

What you can do to help this cause is encourage senior managers to put it on their agenda. Together, you need to focus on creating (or re-creating) circumstances favourable to innovation.

This initiative should include allowing time and space for new thoughts and ideas to arise. This can be a group activity, best conducted away from the distractions of email and mobile phones, but, equally, may be something that comes to mind unbidden, from the constantly labouring unconscious, as with Archimedes in his bath or Newton in his orchard. Stimulation from outside the office is also important. Then there is the matter of turning inspiration into workable plans - not always easy when under the pressure of timesheets and billable hours.

Acknowledgement of achievement, whether formal or informal, has a key role to play. Making it apparent within the firm that an individual or a team has cracked a tricky problem or come up with an ingenious solution to a genuine need will help remind everyone that efforts in this direction are encouraged and valued. Achieving external recognition is desirable too, both for in-company morale and for the messages it sends to the outside world, not just existing and prospective clients but your new owner as well.

Even though innovation may have evolved spontaneously from the founding ethos of the business, re-creating the right climate for it to flourish under the new ownership may require more tangible measures. Providing more rewards for creativity is one route worth exploring. Internal awards for different types of innovation, not just from frontline staff but in back office functions too, can be a very powerful incentive, whether or not there is a financial reward. A company I worked with introduced quarterly awards for pioneering, a core characteristic of the enterprise from its inception, which had begun to decline. They were surprised and delighted by the range of responses to this challenge, and the unity this overtly shared objective created within the company.

As an individual manager, you too can make a difference in the way you work with your teams. In performance reviews, make sure innovation is a topic for discussion, and you should acknowledge those who are fostering new thinking and creative breakthroughs.

You can also tackle the things that seem to be barriers to innovative thinking.

A new emphasis on profitability doesn't mean that creativity will be stifled. Just look at Apple, a company renowned for its user-friendly innovations. In fact, you might well benefit from doing some research into how Apple encourages new ideas, and into the myriad small businesses that produce applications, iPad covers and other Mac accessories.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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