Innovation is a strategic priority for the majority of my clients. However, while organisations are focussed on innovation agendas and projects, many fail to prioritise enabling the people in their organisation to think innovatively. This is an error. Innovative thought is energy intensive, time-consuming and requires us to use a different part of our brains than operational work.
I explored this challenge recently, when invited to judge the ideas coming out of a Hackathon on a Leadership Programme at Chubb, the Insurance Company, run by their decidedly innovative VP of Talent & Development, Terry Jones. Watching the participants come together to innovate around pressing challenges at the organisation and the insurance sector more broadly, it was fascinating to see their journey from the usual corporate stance of operational short-term thinking, to arriving at out-of-the-box, truly creative solutions.
This led me think more deeply about why it is that Hackathons are so effective at generating innovative thought:
1. Hackathons generate lots of ideas: Researcher Dean Keith Simonton of UC-Davis provides strong evidence from multiple studies that creativity results from generating lots of ideas. In every occupation Simonton studied, from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of ideas produced.
2. Hackathons make time for the work that matters: Research by Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurialism at London Business School indicates that knowledge workers spend an average of 41% on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction. In a similar vein, the well-established Pareto Principle dictates that 80% of production comes from 20% of efforts. In this context, how can organisations make time for the work that matters, freeing up a significant portion of the day for incubation? At Chubb, the Leadership Programme Hackathon appeared to successfully achieve this.
3. The Chubb Hackathon encouraged curiosity in their leaders: Research indicates that successful leadership is less about having all the answers, and more about wondering and questioning. A curious, inquisitive leader also sets an example that inspires creative thinking throughout the company. According to research by Hal Gregerson, Jeffrey Dyer and Clayton Christensen, there are five ‘discovery skills’ that enable curiosity in leaders: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. Their research found that innovative leaders spend 50% more time on these discovery activities than do CEOs with no track record for innovation.[i]
What are you doing to encourage the vital capability of innovative thought at your organisation? I’d love to hear from you. And if you want to learn more about stimulating innovative thought at your organisation, get in contact with me at email@example.com.
 For those of you not in the know, Hackathons are creative problem-solving events. They can involve technology and code, or simply be a group of people in a room together trying to solve a challenge
[i] Dyer, J., Gregerson, H., & Christensen, C. (2013). The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Press. Chicago
By Graham Oxley, Digital Project Manager.
A few months ago, on my first day at Hot Spots Movement, I had one specific question on my mind that was particularly important to me: are they going to listen to my new ideas? Lots of smaller companies have a challenge innovating due to decision-making being driven by a select few, usually the founders, who can sometimes fail to embrace change. Research shows that start-ups are 9.4% less productive on average when the founder is also CEO. So, starting a new job at a 10-person company with a single founder, you can see where my apprehension stemmed from.
Luckily for me and given what we do here, Hot Spots Movement recognises these challenges and in my first few weeks I have been set to work looking at existing processes, documents and marketing with the goal of thinking of ways to improve them. Why a brand-new person with no experience of the product or research? The answer is that I brought different advantages:
1. I had more time than anyone else. With projects already underway, aside from training and shadowing, I had spare time on my hands. I could take the burden of creative thinking off those who were in client meetings and delivering projects. I could set aside dedicated time for new ideas.
2. I had no biases or preconceptions: I had a blank slate in terms of how I thought we should represent ourselves, meaning I could be totally honest about my thoughts and think without restriction. I had no existing investment in current processes.
As I delved more into our research and read more about innovation, I began to discover that the challenges of innovating in an SME are not that different to those in a multi-national FTSE 100 company. There are a couple of key similarities:
1. Employees don’t have time to incubate. Everyone is busy these days and this is impacting the time we can spend simply thinking creatively about innovative ideas. Distracting technology and open-plan workspaces mean that we are dedicating less and less time to creative thinking.
2. Innovation inbreeding. This is the concept that the same group of people keep thinking of ideas and don’t, or can’t, look elsewhere for new ideas. In a small company this is unavoidable; if you only have 10 employees, you only have 10 brains thinking of new ideas and they quickly come to think in sync about certain things. In a larger company, this is usually by design as innovation is left to a specific ‘innovation team’ who themselves have the same challenges a small company of fewer brains and convergent thinking.
Whether you’re an organisation of 10 people or 110,000 people, the argument is definitely there to be made that your newest employees may be the best equipped to help with innovation. They arrive with new experiences, different perspectives and often have the most ‘free-time’ that they will have in their entire career at the business as they have yet to take on projects. In small companies, one person can have more impact – when I arrived into a team of 12 employees, the brain capacity increased by almost 10% overnight – and if you think about the number of new employees arriving into larger businesses, the aggregate effect is likely to be the same.
Finally, back to my earlier question, did they listen to my new ideas? Well, I have made some suggestions that have been taken well and you may see the outcomes in the near future.
I have been exploring and researching the future of work for over 6 years now. It has been a fascinating journey as the pace of change driven by accelerating connectivity, new talent models, and cognitive tools is astonishing. In this blog, I would like to share 3 unexpected insights on the future of work that I have come across from my research and advisory work with companies around the world. They are:
- Hierarchies are here to stay
Experiments to do away with hierarchical power structures in most organisations have not been smooth. An indicator of these challenges is that when given the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of Zappos 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their titles and status. Indeed, getting organisations to do away with hierarchical power structures is proving to be next to impossible. For all its enemies – and the millions of copies of employee empowerment handbooks – hierarchy is amazingly resilient. An indicator of this is that since 1983, the number of managers employed in the U.S. economy has nearly doubled, while employment in other occupations has grown by less than 40%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.[i]
Why do hierarchies persist? Countless social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of social organisation were more advantageous, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii] Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and systems serve a purpose. On the most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and simplifies interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity.[iii]
- The importance of solitude
Creativity requires solitude. Today’s world is fixated with association. We live in hyper-social times where the random association of things is not just routine; it is endemic. However, in recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that we tend to get our best ideas when our attention is not fully engaged in our immediate environment. When we are not focusing on anything in particular and letting the mind wander, the brain’s default mode network is activated. Many of our most creative insights arise from the activity of this network. Using many regions across the brain, the default mode network enables us to remember the past, think about the future, understand ourselves, and create meaning from our experiences. Activating this network requires deep internal reflection facilitated by solitude.[iv]
- Engagement is not a purely beneficial experience
A recent study conducted by Yale University study examined the levels of engagement and burnout in over 1,000 U.S. employees. “For some people, engagement is indeed a purely beneficial experience; 2 out of 5 employees in the survey reported high engagement and low burnout. These are the optimally engaged group. However, the data also showed that 1 out of 5 employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. This group is the engaged-exhausted group. These engaged-exhausted workers were passionate about their work, but also had intensely mixed feelings about it — reporting high levels of interest, stress, and frustration. While they showed desirable behaviours such as high skill acquisition, these apparent model employees also reported the highest turnover intentions in our sample — even higher than the unengaged group.”[v] That means that organisations may be at risk of losing some of their high performers not for a lack of engagement, but because of their concurrent experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms.[vi]
[i] Hamel, G. & Zanini, M. 2016. Top-down solutions like Holacracy won’t fix bureaucracy. Harvard Business Review
[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.
[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.
I recently returned from running our annual Workshop in Sydney. Alongside trying to find the best flat white in the city and dealing with jetlag, I was able to hear more about what is on the minds of our Australia based clients. At our workshop we discussed why companies need to build a narrative on the future of work, and how to build a future-proofed culture amongst other topics. There were three major takeaways for organisations that came out for me around the workshop.
- Think about your narrative
Despite increasing digital disruption and the rise of AI and analytics, organisations need to ensure they don’t forget the social aspects of change, and the power of stories over straight facts or data. Research has shown that stories impact people’s brains differently to facts, causing more connections in the brain and leading to closer relationships between the storyteller and the listener. People use stories as a way of understanding the world and this is particularly true when it comes to the future of work. Employees are looking to employers to provide a sense of stability and purpose in a rapidly changing world. Organisations therefore need to reflect on their own narrative on the future, thinking about what it will mean to work in their company and how work will be done in the future. Where are your non-negotiables? Where are you going to take a bet and what will stay the same? In considering questions such as these, companies can provide their workers with a story about where they are going, and how they will be supported along this journey.
- Abandon assumptions around aging
The importance of not relying on stereotypes and assumptions around aging also came out strongly in the Workshop. Longer working lives mean that organisations cannot make assumptions around the needs and desires of their workforce, particularly older workers. No longer is it always the case that a worker in their 60s is looking to retire, for example. Organisations need to make sure that their practices and processes are not based on erroneous expectations. They need to rethink the way they approach retirement, or what it means to progress in the organisation, so that people are not penalised if they want to downgrade their working hours without losing status in the organisation.
- Identify your influencers
Finally, the need to think about the cultural influencers in organisations was another important point. Rather than relying on hierarchical leaders, companies need to uncover the real influencers and work with them to drive cultural change. These influencers can be discovered through network analysis or crowdsourced conversations but should be brought in early on in the process to ensure the behavioural change so crucial so a successful culture shift.
It was great to hear from our members in Sydney, and we look forward to our next trip Down Under!
During my final year at University, students were approached by counsellors about taking lessons in mindfulness in order to help us cope with the stress of final year. Initially, I dismissed it as another one of those health fads claiming to be a panacea for all modern ills, but after hearing about the benefits from other friends, I decided to do some research. Mindfulness can be described as a way to focus one’s awareness on the present, so that you are more conscious of what you are doing in that moment. Essentially, it is a way to re-programme one’s mind to think in less stressful ways. Admittedly, as quite an anxious person, this resonated with me, and so now I try to incorporate mindfulness into my everyday life, and since starting here at Hot Spots Movement, I have been interested in how mindfulness could be transferred into my working life, and how it can help workers to be less stressed and ultimately more productive.
Over the past decade, research into mindfulness has exploded, with thousands of studies being conducted into its possible potential. The latest neuroscience studies are predominantly what transformed this practice from an ancient Buddhist concept into an exercise adopted by celebrities, businesses, politicians and the NHS. In 2007, scientists discovered that there are two different networks in our brain, two different ways we interact with the world: the default network and the direct experience network. The direct experience network is activated when you are being mindful; not thinking about the past, the future or about other people. It is argued that this way of thinking allows you to get closer to the reality of an event, making you more flexible and relaxed in the decisions you make.
Some of the world’s biggest companies such as Google, Facebook and interestingly, our Future of Work Consortium member KPMG are paying attention to these studies and are now offering mindfulness or meditation programmes as a way to make their employees happier and less stressed. For example, Chade-Meng Tan, a Google pioneer completely revolutionised Google through introducing the ground-breaking ‘Search Inside Yourself’ mindfulness programme to all employees. Perhaps this approach to wellbeing is one of the reasons why Google is consistently rated as the world’s best employer. Similarly, CEO Mark Bertolini completely reshaped the culture of Aetna when he joined in 2010, drawing on his experience of mindfulness, which helped him through a time of intense depression after a life-threatening skiing incident. He introduced free yoga and meditation classes to all employees, with those participating reporting on average a 28% reduction in their stress levels and a 20% improvement in sleep quality. Since Bertolini took over as CEO, Aetna’s stock increased threefold. The New York Times wrote an interesting article on this case study, finding that Aetna’s employees each gained an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year.
Another motivation behind introducing mindfulness into the workplace has been the immense pressure that workers are under today. According to the City Mental Health Alliance, 50% of long-term absences are accounted for by such stress, accumulating to 70 million sick days. More poignantly for employers, stress causes losses of £26 billion a year for the UK alone, and so it is no surprise that the leading innovative businesses have embraced mindfulness, in the hope that it will reflect in not only employees’ wellbeing, but also in productivity levels, and ultimately in profits.
I believe that introducing mindfulness into an organisation is a step in the right direction. Research may still not be able to unequivocally say that practicing mindfulness increases productivity, however the results of neuroscience studies are impressive and the case studies such as those of Google and Aetna show it is definitely worth investing in.
If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of mindfulness at work, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In his 1994 book, ‘The Age of Diminishing Expectations’ Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, perspicaciously argued that ‘productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything’.[i] When one considers that productivity is perhaps the main driver in an economy’s ability to grow and therefore also the greatest predictor of the standard of living for a given person or group of people, it is difficult to disagree with Krugman’s contention.
In essence, productivity is defined as output per hour worked. In recent years, however, within the developed world productivity levels have been lagging. To elaborate, the recent ‘Skills and Employment Survey’ highlighted that in the UK, labour productivity has historically grown by around 2% per year since the 1970s, but since the 2008-2009 recession it has stagnated and has failed to climb back to its prerecession growth rate.[ii] This unprecedented and unexplained slump has become known as the ‘productivity puzzle’ and is an issue that has caused widespread concern amongst economists, business leaders and governments within the developed world.
As productivity levels continue to stagnate, organisations are implementing AI solutions which are reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s superb dystopian TV show ‘Black Mirror’ to help boost productivity levels. Amazon, for example has recently patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more productive. Veriato, a software firm, is able to track and log every keystroke employees make on their computers in order to measure how dedicated they are to their role and the company.[iii] In Helsinki, a digital innovation consultancy named ‘Futurice’ has installed sensors that can track an employee’s every move in the office, even in the toilet.[iv] Such technologies fall under the remit of what experts call the internet of things (IoT). Employees report mixed feelings about these new technologies, with a Harvard Business Review study revealing an approximate 50/50 split between those who believe AI technology enhances productivity and those who either disagree or feel its impact is neutral.[v]
The appeal of using advanced AI from the organisation’s perspective is clear and, although surveillance at work is not a new concept (factory workers have long clocked in and out), the scale to which certain AI technologies can now be used to monitor the productivity of the workforce is leading some commentators to suggest they are bordering on Orwellian. This inevitably raises acute philosophical questions about the ethical underpinnings of applied AI in the workplace. Indeed, just how far are organisations willing to go in the pursuit of productivity? Finding the balance between safeguarding basic privacy, workers’ rights and enhanced productivity will raise some moral dilemmas for organisations, and will no doubt become central to AI discourse in the coming years.
Finding this equilibrium will not be an easy task for organisations. A recent RSA report on the ethics of AI suggests there is a public perception that we may be surrendering too much power to AI technology.[vi] One thorny issue is that existing ethical frameworks are often incompatible with the world of technology. Science has attempted to develop ethical frameworks before – from Asimov’s Three Laws for Robots to Nick Bostrom’s work on ethics. Adhering to these frameworks can be problematic, as humans often find it difficult to develop virtues for their own conduct, let alone build relevant virtues into new technologies.[vii] The debate around ethical AI must also consider how certain workers are better equipped than others to prevent employers going too far. For example, those with a specialist, in demand skill-set stand a greater chance of resisting any unethical implementation of AI, whereas those in insecure forms of employment such as zero-hours contract workers in low-wage industries, have considerably less leverage.
In the current economic climate, solving the productivity puzzle is an alluring prize for organisations. However, if organisations wish to solve it using certain AI, it must be conscientiously executed with a strong injection of humanity to help ensure workers can retain a sense of dignity in their work during this period of accelerated and uncertain change.
[i] Krugman, P. (1994) The Age of Diminishing Expectations. Cambridge, MIT Press
[iii] The Economist (2018) AI in the Workplace
[iv] Burke, C (2016) In offices of the future, sensors may track your every move – even in the bathroom (The Guardian)
[vi] Balaram, B (2018) The Ethics of Ceding More Power To Machines (RSA)
[vii] Dalmia, V. Sharma, K. (2018) The Moral Dilemmas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (World Economic Forum)
Last month I was lucky enough to watch a presentation by Professor Dan Cable of London Business School, talking about a concept called Learned Helplessness and how it is affecting performance at work. Learned Helplessness is a psychological theory initially developed by Martin Seligman in the 1960’s and can be seen in many different aspects of our daily lives. The theory states that in the face of aversive stimuli, which an organism is unable to escape from, the organism will eventually accept the loss of control and give up trying to avoid the pain.
We see this in real life, more so than we are potentially aware of. Weight loss programmes are a great example. Working as an ex-swimming coach I’ve seen dozens of people decide to lose weight and pick up a new exercise regime or diet expecting instant results. When these results don’t come immediately they give up and try a different one, and another and another, eventually reaching a point of learned helplessness where they accept that they can never lose weight and give up trying.
Another example occurred at the World Cup with the Spanish football team. Spain, a footballing giant and a favourite for many to lift the trophy, sacked their manager just two days before the beginning of the tournament. What resulted from this was an embarrassment for a proud footballing nation, Spain were knocked out, in the Round of 16, by minnows Russia. Now there are many factors at play, but one suggested was that many footballers (not just Spanish ones) are so dependent on their managers direction that they’re unable to think for themselves. The Spanish team had five world cup winners in their midst, almost 60 top-tier domestic titles between them all and combined almost 950 international caps. These professionals had the experience to play with any manager, no matter who they were, yet they felt helpless to think for themselves.
So, as a professional, why is this important for you? Well there’s evidence to suggest that many employers are inadvertently creating an environment of Learned Helplessness. Employees are put to task doing mundane repetitive jobs and they lose the ability to engage their brain’s “seeking system” which we use to explore our environment and most importantly experiment and learn new things. And it’s not just repetitive tasks that can foster Learned Helplessness. Many organisations have a culture of “zero-tolerance” to failure. It’s long been known that when workers feel anxious or afraid they no longer receive the physiological reward for being creative or curious, meaning organisations are missing out on those innovative ideas that could make all the difference.
But what can you do about it? How can you ensure your employees are constantly looking to innovate, be creative and learn new things and not in a state of Learned Helplessness? Well through our work here at Hot Spots Movement, there are a couple of ways which we find to be extremely effective in encouraging innovation:
- Ensure Psychological Safety
A common cause of Learned Helplessness in the workplace is a fear of the repercussions of failure and a perception that it is unwise to challenge the status quo. People must feel able to try new things and potentially fail. Google’s approach to this is well documented, with 10% of their people’s time dedicated to working on high risk, potential high reward projects, where failure is seen as a perfectly acceptable outcome for pushing the boundary. Further to this, employees should be comfortable challenging the norm and challenging leaders (within reason) as well. Just because “we’ve always done it that way”, doesn’t mean that it’s the right way and you should be encouraging your people to ask “why?”
- Encourage an Appetite for Learning
We’ve been banging the drum on this point here at Hot Spots for a little while now. “Good Work” is work that allows you to learn new things. As Dan Cable says, you must ensure your employees’ “Seeking Systems” are engaged to ensure they don’t just go through the motions at work, feeling powerless to change course or experiment. Instead, organisations must create an environment in which people seek to learn new things and where you aid them in developing skills and requirements for the future, not just the now.
- Demonstrate results
Finally, Learned Helplessness can easily result if people speak up about a new idea only to have it fall on deaf ears. If you really want your employees to be proactive, take on new challenges and elevate performance, then you need to visibly act on their suggestions or, at the very least, acknowledge the idea and explain what will happen next. It only takes a couple of instances of an employee’s idea being disregarded before Learned Helplessness sets in.
So, what’s the key message for you and your team? Consider the dynamic in your organisation: are people proactive in tackling challenges and crafting a way forward? Or is there a sense of inertia, suggesting a culture of Learned Helplessness? Spot this early and start making the small changes that enable your people to feel back in control.
If you’d like to find out more about how to prevent Learned Helplessness and how you can create a culture of learning and innovation within your organisation, then please don’t hesitate to reach out at email@example.com