Over the past few weeks I’ve been pondering on various notions of innovation and I’ve often argued that there is very little true innovation happening in the world of work. Testing my supposition, I went back to the dictionary definition and it’s worth repeating here:
1. something new or different introduced
2. the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods.
On this pure definition, I have to say that I was plain wrong. So my frustration really stems from the desire to see a more radical shift, the “game changer” if you will. It seems to me that most of the changes in the way we work fall into the second category of the definition. In the world of sport, successes of recent years have shown clearly that incredible performance can be achieved by incremental improvements in every aspect of the organisation. Clive Woodward managed England’s rugby union team to World Cup glory with just such an approach and in Beijing and at London 2012 Dave Brailsford did much the same for Team GB’s cyclists. And of course Formula One has been about fine tuning at the margins for years (leaving aside some of the more questionable tactical practices). Adopting a similar approach at work may result in high performing businesses but very few businesses past a certain size are able or willing to harness all the requisite moving parts together towards the same goal in the same way. The sporting examples above require huge investments of time, effort and money. They also require the kind of forensic approach that some commentators are recommending we stop doing because it takes up too much time and effort. For this approach to really embed in businesses we’re going to have to be prepared to stop doing much of the routine work that makes up the status quo. And since work is done by people for people, we’re going to need to focus much more of our attention on the workforce and the things they need to perform at their very best. In some offices, simply ensuring the printers worked all the time would have a decent effect on performance and simplifying the performance review process would put many more man hours back into productive work. Businesses don’t need expensive consultants to tell them this stuff. It is common currency at the water cooler. Management usually just lack the will to drive the necessary changes.
So what about the “game changer”? Many of the workplace concepts we’re currently seeing being touted as cutting edge have been around as ideas since the middle of the last century and are predicated on a mainstream approach to the way in which our cities are arranged and on the vanity HQ model that most multinationals adopt. Co-working spaces appearing in the community are pointing the way forward and there is definitely something to be said for a communal hub for encouraging brand values and a sense of belonging but the scale of this is very different if you aren’t trying to accommodate a large indigenous population. People working nearer to home spend more of their money in the local area, turning around the decline of our local high streets; they have the opportunity to work alongside people from other fields; they have less need for commuting and therefore have a lower carbon footprint; they are in harness earlier in the day and by exercising choice over where and how they work, they have a degree of personalisation that they rarely enjoy at the office (unless of course you love to travel between floors on a fireman’s pole and spend all your spare time playing table football). I would love to see one of the big banks decommission their skyscraper to move to this type of model. Any takers?