Technology is not enough: Why people are your key to innovation

The best way to unlock employees’ potential is through true autonomy

Often when I hear people talking about innovation, the focus is on technology — “what’s the latest and greatest bit of shiny tech we can use to innovate?” they say. But I think they’re approaching innovation all wrong. Although technology is important, it’s not the answer. Instead, you’re best resource to innovate is the type powered by pizzas, not electricity. That’s right, your colleagues are your best ally if you’re to deliver innovation to market. As Fjord put it: your people are your most valuable APIs.

The issue is: organisations are rarely set up to make the most of their curious colleagues. They create processes and structures that hinder the potential of their most valuable assets. To overcome this, and to innovate, organisations need to rethink how they unlock the potential of their employees. The key? Autonomy.

Autonomy is the key to unlocking innovation

It’s less about asking “what do we need to do to start innovating” and more about asking “what do we need to stop doing to start innovating”. This means freeing your people from the shackles of bureaucracy and letting them be curious and creative. To do this, you must grant your colleagues autonomy. As Daniel Pink, in his book: Drive, puts it: you can enable autonomy through the 4 T’s — task, time, technique, and team.

So firstly, let your colleagues decide the tasks they’re going to work on. This can be a daunting thought for some leaders, but it’s key if you’re to work towards innovation. The role of the leadership team will be to set a clear and compelling vision for your colleagues, assign teams to bring the vision to life, then get out of the way and let them do their thing. By giving your colleagues the freedom to decide how they’ll solve the problem in front of them, they have permission to explore news areas which will lead to innovation.

Secondly, allow your colleagues to decide how they wish to manage their time. You may need to agree an estimated time for when something will be finished, but then leave your teams to decide how they wish to spend their time on a daily basis. This means no rules on when colleagues should get to work, how long they’re allowed for lunch, or what time they can go home. Each individual colleague will have a different working style. Some will work better in the morning. Others will work better in the evening. If you want to achieve innovation, you need your people operating at the top of their game. And for this to be the case, colleagues need the freedom to work when they’re most effective. For this to work in reality, it comes down to trust. You have to trust that your colleagues will make the necessary progress, without micro-managing them on a daily basis.

Thirdly, you need to let your colleagues choose the technique they want to use to bring the vision to life. For designers, this might be the design software they use. For engineers, this could be the code they build in. Colleagues will work at their best when they’re using the tools they’ve mastered and are comfortable with.

Finally, to promote autonomy and achieve innovation, you need to allow your colleagues to choose who they want in their team. To ensure collaborative, high performing teams, let your people work with those who they feel most comfortable working with. Those who they share complementary skills. Those who have shared values. Those who they trust and admire. The freedom to choose teams will result in happy teams. And happy teams mean creative, more effective teams.

To conclude, stop trying to figure out what you need to do to start innovating, and start focusing on what you need to stop. Stop constraining your colleagues with prescriptive processes and burdensome bureaucracy. Give them the autonomy to do what they want, when they want, how they want, and with who they want.

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