Small changes, big impact: How to be innovative in your workplace
To stay ahead, your organization must be continually improving. You need to find creative ways to operate better, faster and more efficiently — while also exploring radical new ideas that can shake up your industry.
But this kind of innovation must extend far beyond your C-level executives and R&D teams. It requires an all-hands-on-deck effort. Every employee must be an active innovator.
Employees can feel intimidated by the call to “innovate,” but you can help them see that small changes can make a big impact. You’re not asking them to invent the “next big thing,” although there’s certainly a place for that. You’re asking them to be curious — to look around for things that can be done better and then act on it.
Three steps to being an innovative employee
You don’t have to be a genius to be innovative. You just need to find a problem and work toward a solution. Here are steps you and your team can follow, as well as the ways these steps have played out in our team here at Rackspace Technology.
Step 1. Identify a problem
Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it is the best way. Start by examining your day-to-day operations. What’s working well and what isn’t? How can it be improved? New employees can be a great asset at this stage, since they can provide a fresh perspective and new ideas. You can also follow a process all the way to the end user and ask if they’re getting the output or experience they’re looking for.
On our team, we recently identified a manual, redundant process that could use improvement. The existing process involved receiving information from three different teams, each using their own delivery format: one team would submit an Excel spreadsheet, another a Visio chart and another a PDF. This meant someone would then need to manually process this information and enter it into another system, so it could move to the next step in the process.
We’d just accepted this as “the way we’ve always done it,” until we recognized it for what it really was: an opportunity for innovation.
Step 2. Reach out across teams
Innovation cannot happen in a silo. It’s vital that you reach out to all of the people impacted and work together to brainstorm solutions. This step will help uncover the “why” behind the current process, as well as any roadblocks you may need to address. By getting a wide range of stakeholders involved (you may want to get a C-level sponsor, too!), you can build consensus and buy-in for your initiative — which is key if you want people to adopt your innovation. Leave people out, and you’ve got an uphill climb when it comes to convincing them to use what you’ve built.
For us, this meant identifying who was involved in each step of the existing process and working constantly to build alignment. In most cases, these were people who had never interacted before — so we focused on being transparent and listening to everyone’s perspectives. What’s been amazing is seeing how, even after we wrapped up this particular innovation initiative, these teams have continued to interact and collaborate. If we had gone on our own and implemented a solution within our silo, we would have missed out on building bridges and relationships that were never there before. Cross-team collaboration is the special sauce!
3. Make and implement the plan
Once everyone has agreed on a goal and identified any restrictions or requirements, it’s time to design and implement your plan. But keep it simple and flexible.
For our project, this meant first consolidating all of the input fields from the spreadsheets, Visio charts and PDFs into a single spreadsheet. We then created scripts that will take that spreadsheet data and automatically generate the files and templates we need. Lastly, since the spreadsheet has been a pain point for our end users, we created a user interface, so they don’t need to interact with Excel on the front end.
As a result of this new streamlined workflow, we’ve been able to:
- Take a process that used to take 5-10 days and reduce it down to a day or less
- Improve accuracy, with a 60% reduction in re-work
- Free our engineers from multiple tedious tasks, so they can focus on fine-tuning
- Create a standard, consistent, repeatable process that ultimately helps us be as flexible as we need to be
Once you have your new solution up and running, be sure to let others know who may be able to benefit. We reached out to a team that was preparing to create a new product, and they were facing the same problems we had. We were able to support them early on and create alignment, so they could benefit from our work.
Taking innovation seriously: Innovation Thursdays
Our leaders at Rackspace Technology believe in the importance of grassroots-level innovation. So they dedicate one Thursday each month, called “Innovation Thursdays,” for employees to focus on their innovation projects. We’re encouraged to clear our schedules, so we can have uninterrupted time to be creative.
In preparation for June’s Innovation Thursday, our group put together a global team for a 15-hour hackathon. We used that time to create the user interface for our project, working in sprints throughout the day. At the end of 15 hours, we all came back together to see the demo, walking through the interface we’d worked together to create. We wrapped up the day with an awards ceremony — some serious and some goofy.
The best part of this experience was that — even though each person has their own areas of expertise — in this moment, we were all just figuring it out together. We got to look at each other in a different way, without looking to one person for all the answers. We collaborated together to figure it all out.
And in the end, we’d worked together to not only innovate and solve a problem, but we created a better product and better alignment for the business.
Encourage innovation in your organization
You can create an innovation program that encourages your employees to be innovative, and also supports them with training and idea intake processes, recognizes innovation successes and enables leadership support for innovation initiatives. Hear directly from our RackLabs Innovation Program Team in their recent article, “The four pillars of a successful corporate innovation program.”
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