Today, when we think of those organisations and companies that are most innovative, we often think of the technology sector. But the reality is that in a fast-moving and globalised economy, innovation is no longer optional but rather essential in order to achieve success across all sectors and industries including engineering. In this article, we’re going to clarify what we actually mean by the term ‘innovation’ and consider the characteristics of those organisations that embed it apparently so seamlessly into their day-to-day operations.

Alternative options

Finally, we will explore a couple of simple exercises that individuals, teams and organisations can carry out when considering how innovative they are, how controlled or creative they may be and what alternative options might be available to them? To begin with, innovation may be defined as ‘the intentional introduction and application within a role, group, or organisation of ideas, processes, products or procedures, new to the relevant unit of adoption, designed to significantly benefit the individual, the group, organisation or wider society’. While quite broad in its scope, innovation cannot exist without both creativity and imagination. It is already well documented that organisational culture, both formal and informal, appear to have a significant influence on the degree to which creativity and innovation are stimulated in any workplace setting. In considering your own organisational culture, it is important to understand those more overt aspects of it that exist among teams and departments which can either help or hinder innovative practice. Innovative organisations also have certain characteristics such as being non-complacent where their ‘autopilot’ is well and truly turned off. Staff are motivated, focused and energetic.

Close proximity to their clients

They maintain close proximity to their clients engaging, listening and responding to them consistently. These organisations are consistently ‘outward looking’ in their strategic planning. They encourage autonomy and devolved power sharing in their systems and structures. Innovative organisations recognise that real innovation comes through people and there is a consistent concentration on their strengths which they use to then harness more effectively. How does your workplace measure up to these characteristics? Take each of them and scale your workplace between 1 – 10 (1 meaning truly awful and 10 meaning exceptional). Next, consider what steps you as an individual, the team and the wider organisation as a whole can take today in order to improve your score? Managers in creative organisations understand that innovation can come from any level and that often the best ideas come from individuals outside of their specific defined role. As such, they ensure that employees' duties are not overly restrictive. Management also appreciate that while they may set organisational goals, within these parameters, employees should be allowed to find their own solutions in achieving them. While innovative organisations never operate carelessly, they do recognise that risk is natural and should never be avoided at all costs. Having absolutely no tolerance at all for any kind of risk means that individuals, teams and organisations operate well within their actual capability and are unlikely to ever reach their full potential. It is important to remember that experimentation keeps us honest. It allows us to give ourselves permission to fail and learn; to remain curious and to work on the edge of our capability. Every failure is a teachable moment rather than a career ending disaster! Below, is a useful exercise in considering the extent of control and creativity we impose on ourselves as individuals, teams and organisations. In doing so, it then allows us to consider alternative options so that we can enhance performance.

You: the individual

How much control do you impose on yourself? Are you the kind of person that has a rigid set daily routine? Same daily journey to work? Like to park your car in the same spot each day? How about your evening routine and weekends? Do you tend to avoid change? Alternatively, perhaps you prefer greater flexibility and freedom in your work? Spontaneity is welcome as each day is an adventure. Do you like the creativity that comes with a little chaos and welcome change with open arms?

Us: the team

How much control is there in your team, either self-imposed or expected by others? Perhaps a little bit of both? Is the daily work routine predictable, careful, measured? Are meetings formal with set agenda? Does the team tend to react negatively to proposed change? Alternatively, perhaps the team is loose in terms of its structure and interactions? Maybe there’s a lot of flexibility, innovation and creativity? Meetings when they occur are informal and unpredictable. Perhaps, at times the team is so free in terms of structure that it is a little chaotic and it’s hard to set any long-term goals?

We: the organisation

How controlled is your organisation? Are policies and procedures, regulations and governance underpinning all activities? Are systems and structures rigid and inflexible? Is there a set rigid five- or even seven-year strategy? Does it take a long time for decisions to be made? Are daily interactions formal and reserved? Alternatively, is there enormous freedom within your organisation. Are the boundaries between teams and departments informal, fluid and interchangeable? Are mistakes treated as learning opportunities? Is information shared openly and is there a learning culture in your workplace?

Where are you right now?

If one end of the arrow below is ‘controlled’ and the other ‘creative’, where would you place yourself? Think about yourself as an individual. Think about the team you are in and finally think about your organisation. Where would you place each on the arrows. Far to the left where it’s very controlled, or way over to the right where there’s enormous creativity? Or perhaps somewhere in the middle? Are you brave enough to ask somebody that knows you well where they would place you?

Considering alternatives

Next, I want you to move yourself, your team and your organisation to another spot on the arrow and consider what that might look like. If you are very controlled as an individual what might it look like to ‘let go a little’? Could you learn new skills, meet new people in the workplace or create new possibilities for yourself? What actions could you take to relinquish some of the control in your day-to-day work? Alternatively, it could be that you aren’t controlled at all and focus too much on creativity. Maybe you need to tidy things up. This might allow you to ‘get on top’ of your workload and prioritise what is most important right now. If as a team you are very creative in nature right now, would a little more control provide more stability and reduce conflict for example? What actions could you take individually and collectively to gain back some of the control that’s lacking at present? Alternatively, if you are in a team that has too much control, could lessening this provide more creativity and innovation to the group? What actions could you individually and collectively take to remove some of the restrictions that have been placed on the team at present? As an organisation, could incorporating a little more control improve your collective performance? If so, then firm up on rules and regain your control. This will provide you with the solidity and foundation to perform at a higher level. However, if employees are feeling bored and restricted with very little innovation evident then perhaps it is time to revisit the characteristics that were outlined earlier. Consider changing the rules. At times those very rules that individuals and teams once created for themselves need to be reviewed, revised and yes, even discarded for meaningful innovation to flourish. Author: Joe McDonald, is founder of create10 providing impactful half or full day workshops on innovation, leadership and team performance. Also, confidential one to one coaching and flexible online courses. See for further details or email Special 10 per cent discount across all client services for Engineer Ireland members.