Innovation has been much in my thoughts recently. In fact, someone asked me about it this morning, and I recently attended a briefing on how to help small businesses become more innovative.

There is a wealth of material online about innovation and how to do it, but I thought I could give some thought to a couple of things – the role of employee engagement in innovation (and vice versa) and what a culture of innovation might be.

Firstly, engagement and innovation. Let’s go to first principles about what engagement is, and see what that can teach us about innovation, eh?

I use a couple of  models to describe engagement which have worked pretty well over the years. One I borrowed with pride from Macey and Schneider, from a study they did for the Journal of Industrial and Organisational Psychology a few years back (why not take a look here, get your academic groove on). They had reviewed much of the existing research on engagement and posited a three-stage model, thusly:

  • Trait engagement – people needed a mindset by which they would become engaged
  • State engagement – people needed to be in an environment whereby their emotional state was one of engagement
  • Behavioural engagement – people with the right trait in the right state then behave as engaged employees

Let’s have a think about just one of these aspects – trait engagement. This requires the individual to be conscientious, proactive and to possess an autotelic personality. No, look it up.

OK, so autotelic means doing something for intrinsic reward – for the sake of doing it, rather than for an extrinsic reward (such as money). Now my knowledge of psychology is probably on a par with most non-psychologists who ply their trade in this area, but I would guess that an innovative personality is likely to be proactive, conscientious and like to do stuff for the sake of doing something interesting – in other words, someone with the traits of an engaged employee.

Moving on to state, this is where people feel committed, proud, happy and enthusiastic (state positive affectivity is the technical term), they feel involved and empowered with a sense of purpose. Again, these are the kind of feelings I would expect an innovator to have; if I had no interest in the future of the organisation and I don’t want to be there, I’m not likely to want to think of something new to make the company more successful, am I? 

So people with the right traits in the right state will display the behaviours of the engaged employee – things like going above and beyond your role, being proactive and adaptive – fostering change for the benefit of the organisation. Which, to me, is a pretty good description of innovation.

So you are way more likely to get innovation from your people if they are engaged. But what about the other way around? Does working in an innovative organisation make you engaged?

A quick look at those great places to work lists that are all over th’interweb will throw up the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, those kind of places. Not exclusively, but most of the brands where engagement is high tend to be associated with innovation. Two great examples, which I would advise anyone interested in this field to research in bit more detail are Semco and Gore.

What males many of these companies stand out as great places to work are their levels of employee engagement, and, according to the fine people at Engage for Success only 3% of disengaged people come up with ideas to improve things at work, compared to nearly two-thirds of engaged employees. Great places to work more often than not have the kind of culture which fosters innovation.

Which brings us to the second bit promised all that time ago in the second paragraph, creating a culture of innovation.  This could take a while, and you’ve already ploughed through a lot already, so we’ll save most of it for another blog.

What I will share is my key question when finding out if an organisation has an innovative culture – I ask “what happens when someone makes a mistake?”

If the answer is “the person who made the mistake gets shouted at” or “we try and find someone to blame” or “we try and cover it up so the boss doesn’t find out” then I get an inkling that the culture is not one where innovation shines. 

If the answer is along the lines of “we look at it, we find out why it went wrong and we change things for the better next time” then you are more likely to be in that innovation zone.

So your task for this week it to ask that question: what happens around your workplace when someone makes a mistake? And what does that answer tell you about how innovative a workplace you are in? Have a think.

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