Podcast: Encouraging bottom-up innovation and ideas sharing

Contributor: David Harkin, CEO of 7billionideas Group

In today’s constantly evolving world of work, the battle is well and truly on for leaders to drive innovation and ultimately beat the competition.

Often the best ideas come from an organisation’s employees, but worryingly, they’re not always being listened to.

So, to help us understand how we can all better drive bottom-up innovation, we’re joined today by David Harkin.

David is the CEO of ideas company, 7billionideas which exists to connect the seven billion people on the planet with their own ideas.

1. Before we get started, it would be great if you could introduce yourself to our listeners.

I’m very proud to be the CEO of 7billionideas. We are an ideas company which exists to connect the seven billion people on the planet with their own ideas. We passionately believe every single person out on that planet has an amazing imagination.

We operate into two industries. The first is the corporate space, where we help organisations become relentless when it comes to innovation on a daily basis. And secondly, we work in education, where we work with students all around the world, encouraging them to think big and dream big about the possibility of their own ideas.

2. And how was 7billionideas formed? Can you give us a little bit of background to the company?

This year we’re celebrating seven years of 7billionideas and it started as a discussion amongst friends, talking on a bank holiday weekend, coming up with every-day, fun, thoughtful and creative ideas.

The planet’s population was passing seven billion people at the time and I turned to one of my co-founders, Jenny, and said, ‘Isn’t it amazing that the vast majority of people out there come up with ideas every single day, but the vast majority of people don’t do anything about them? Why don’t we build a business, build a platform called 7billionideas.com and give people the courage to actually act on their ideas.’

We turned to each other, thought it sounded like a brilliant idea and we got a smart phone out and checked the domain was free for 7billionideas.com. We bought the domain for £20, and it was the best £20 that I have ever spent.

It completely changed our lives as we started the business. We then launched a crowdfunding campaign to get the seed capital that we needed, and we were the fastest crowdfunding pitch back in 2012.

Then very quickly, in 2012 towards the back end of the year, and early into 2013, we started to go into schools and businesses, helping them become relentless when it comes to innovation and inspiring students to think big.

3. And how did you get into the education and corporate space?

Well, firstly education, what we initially built was an ideas platform. We wanted to go into schools and inspire students. We weren’t teachers, our background was working in tech, in the city. So we literally knocked on the door of any school that would take us and said, ‘Can we come in please and see if we can inspire your students? Do a quick twenty minute “think big dream big” assembly and see if we can challenge your students to come up with an idea which could change the world.’

We used all of our holiday at the time, we used any free time that we had and very quickly, we found that we did have a way of really engaging and inspiring students. And that’s when we launched our education arm, which has now worked with over 75,000 students across the world.

We came from big businesses and innovation was something that we were always passionate about. And as we were doing that we were very conscious that it wasn’t done well in lots of different businesses, and that the small ideas do really count.

We decided to start exploring how we could offer, and work with corporate organisations, how they could really embrace this mentality of becoming relentless. And then that’s when we started taking steps back in 2013 of going into businesses, sometimes taking what we’ve learned in the education space, and how we’re inspiring students, to see if we could inspire businesses as well. And very quickly again, we built the confidence that this was going to be an industry that we could really work and grow in.

4. Why are you so passionate about ideas?

I think I’m passionate about actually connecting people with their own ideas and not going through life not acting on them. We’ve acted on our idea, which was 7billionideas, and it’s rewarded us, it’s empowered us. It’s taken us to places and will take us to places we’ve yet to imagine. It’s given me so much and I know it will give so much in the future, to myself, my co-founders and my team. But I think what I’m really passionate about and what I’m relentless about is encouraging people to get going with those ideas.

People often think it’s a huge gap to getting started, whether it’s an idea in a business or an idea to start a business. They always give lots of reasons why they can’t get going. And they’re really frustrating to hear because often it’s just a small step, a little bit of courage to get going.

And nothing makes me prouder, seeing the ideas being impacted in businesses and seeing the impact it’s having on those employees and their clients.

And, equally, having students come forward or students who’ve been on our programs in the past send emails in and say that they’ve started a business. That’s what really gets us out of bed every day at 7billionideas.

5. Do you think there’s an inherent problem with businesses not listening to the ideas of their employees? And if so, what’s causing this?

I do, I passionately believe in this. I think the first big reason is that businesses are typically, brilliantly busy places. There is so much going on. There’s so much to concentrate on. Working with your clients, working with your employees and trying to make the P&L look better.

Consequently because businesses are brilliantly busy places, there are missed opportunities every single day. We believe that businesses are constantly missing out on opportunities which could save them money, it could make them money, improve productivity, client and employee satisfaction. So businesses and people are busier than ever before.

But then, secondly, it is an inherent problem, because they don’t have the correct systems or approaches when it comes to innovation. We talk about relentless innovation at 7billionideas. Most businesses, their innovation strategy and approach will be, ‘We do want to listen to ideas and these are the things that we do’. They might have a suggestion box, which they will put in reception for people to put an idea on a piece of paper and drop it in. But any suggestion box you can open today around the world, it’ll probably be empty.

The second thing that they claim is that they have an open door policy. Most managers and leaders and directors will say, ‘I have an open door policy. Anybody can walk in and share an idea,’ but it takes a huge amount of courage to walk through that door and share an idea. And that will only appeal to a certain type of person. Most introverted people will not have the courage to walk through that door and share their initial idea.

And the third thing most businesses will do is have team meetings, maybe on a quarterly basis. They will have part of that, they might have a think tank where they might try and solve a particular problem. But that’s really hard, actually, to come up with an idea, in a room. And putting people on the spot.

And it’s irregular as well if you’re having it once a quarter, four times a year. It needs to happen on a day to day basis. So it’s an inherent problem because businesses are busy, but because they don’t have the correct systems and frameworks in place to innovate, and more often than not they only try it once or twice a year. To us it should be relentless, it should be a 24/7 approach.

6. And do you think that this is a problem mainly facing large corporates, or do most businesses struggle with this?

I think it’s a problem for all businesses, SMEs and large organisations. I think the problem becomes bigger, the bigger the business is because it’s harder to change the culture when it comes to innovation.

I worked in an organisation with hundreds of thousands of employees previously, before starting my own organisation, and there’d be a certain type of idea that they’d be looking for from the top down, so it becomes harder.

So it doesn’t matter if you’re a small SME or large organisation. Most organisations are brilliantly busy, are moving at a fast pace, and innovation is only coming from a few people, typically top down rather than bottom-up.

7. Talking about the different levels of organisations, do you think the problem is mainly senior people not listening to more junior people in their organisations?

It’s not necessarily alienating senior people. I think it’s a different degree. I think senior people have different responsibilities, different pressures and different challenges on their own time.

I think it happens at all levels, whether it’s first line management, whether it’s a senior vice president. But the opportunity there really is from the bottom-up. If you start listening to employees on a daily basis from anywhere across your organisation.

So I don’t want to pick on the more senior people, they are sometimes more pressed for time. But it’s a problem in every organisation because one of the big things missing is having that open dialogue regularly amongst employees. Because that’s when ideas begin to come out.

8. You’ve mentioned bottom-up innovation there. What exactly do you mean by this and what are the business benefits of bottom-up innovation?

Bottom-up innovation is an appreciation that ideas can come to anyone at point from anywhere in the organisation. It doesn’t matter if you’re there on day one, or if you’re leaving that organisation. It doesn’t matter what level job you’ve got or what your skill is, it’s that everybody can contribute. Everybody can come up with an idea and what we mean by an idea is a continuous improvement suggestion. Different definitions that people use. It’s a change in mentality that everybody is responsible for within your organisations to add value.

People apply to firms and businesses around the world and organisations. And they will always say that ‘I’m motivated, I’m creative, I’m passionate.’ All of those buzzwords which you use in interviews or CV’s or LinkedIn profiles, you don’t have to look far. Someone would have said that at some point while they’re applying to that firm.

At 7billionideas, that means everybody, we believe, applied to the business that they work for saying that, they were an intrapreneur. Where they act like an entrepreneur, but within a business. But they’ve got to go show it within an organisation, so it’s a change in mentality.

The first thing is an appreciation that ideas can come from anywhere. It’s a change in mentality that everybody in the organisation, not just the senior people, is responsible for improving and getting people to start really sharing those ideas.

And it makes incredible good business sense as well, because in all these ideas are small hunches which can be crystallised, turned into the idea, and give business benefits such as marginal gains. And marginal gains in ways that they will see ideas which save money, make money, improve productivity, improve employee satisfaction, and indeed client satisfaction. So it makes good business sense as well.

9. Apart from the positive impacts the bottom-up innovation can have on businesses, which we’ve just talked through, what positive impact can they have on the employees themselves? For example, can it boost overall wellbeing, engagement and,
ultimately, employee retention?

Absolutely, there’s a major problem in businesses all around the world. The Deloitte index reports that 80% of people out there are dissatisfied with what they do in the U.K. That equates to over 24 million people coming to work on a daily basis. I’m glad to say I’m in that 20 per cent of six million people which are happy. Everybody at 7billionideas, and I’m sure at Hays, are in that camp. It’s a big problem. I’m a big TED fan and I listened to Daniel Pink’s TED talk a number of years ago about how people are truly empowered.

People aren’t empowered by money, they’re better empowered by being listened to, and having that freedom to actually act on their ideas. It has positive impacts on the employee’s well-being, engagement and retention.

Forbes claim that a highly engaged workforce, from a business point of view, leads to 21 per cent greater profitability, it reduces absentees by about 40 per cent, there’s less turnover of staff up to 60% per cent, and you’re five times more likely to perform better if you feel like your voice is being heard at work.

So having a bottom-up innovation approach makes complete sense from a business point of view, but also from an employee point of view. It’s an employee engagement program, which is happening all the time, and it will lead to your employees being more engaged and feeling like you’re a company which truly listens to them.

10. And I assume it makes employees more productive as well, doesn’t it? Which of course, we’re hearing a lot about productivity issues in this country. So it just makes more sense at a societal level too.

Yes, absolutely. I think employees want to be productive. I did a blog recently about fifth day productivity. I kept on talking to organisations and people in my network, and as it moved towards the end of the working week, Friday was a relatively unproductive day for a lot of people around the world, as people are watching the clock and looking forward to the weekends.

I said a statement at the time, that ‘Man United wouldn’t stop playing in the 72nd minute of a football game. So why should we all stop working on a Friday?’ That’s the time when we can really, really push on.

And I think that there’s times in the week where employees can go, ‘Okay, we’ve had a hard week, we’ve had a tough week, we’ve been all hands to the pump. Maybe this is the opportunity to sit back, reflect and work on some of those interesting ideas that we’ve come up with and really start capitalising on that time’.

But with people typically tailing off, you can re-engage a tired workforce, by saying, ‘You know what? Let’s stop for a few minutes and work on your ideas.’ 1% per cent of a working week is twenty minutes and every business can give their employees twenty minutes to go work on something they really want to work on, which is going to help that business.

11. Some workplace cultures may consider themselves as simply not conducive to idea-sharing. And, as a result, employees could feel perhaps a bit daunted by the prospect of sharing ideas. How can managers on the front line encourage their direct reports to share their ideas more regularly?

Well, the first thing you’ve got to do is create dialogue, to get people talking about ideas. And this appreciation of getting into this world-class mentality is something we talk about at 7billionideas.

You can’t watch a game of football without the commentators saying, ‘That was a world-class. That was a word-class moment. That was world-class goal.’ But people don’t talk about that in business, you never walk out of a meeting saying, ‘That was a world-class meeting,’ or a training day, and say, ‘That was world-class’.

I mean if you just challenge your employees to start, ‘Let’s start getting into “this is world-class” mentality, let’s start talking about it, let’s start building dialogue amongst each other.’ Then ideas will begin to flourish. So that’s the first thing that a manager can do.

The second thing they can do is really embrace ideas. The small, the big, the crazy, whatever they might be. No idea, to us, is silly. Often those first ideas which are shared aren’t actually an idea, they’re a hunch. Someone is coming up with something, because they believe there’s a problem or way that it can be improved. And you’ve got to go explore that hunch and you’ve got to go, ‘Okay, that sounds interesting. Slightly different. Let’s talk about it and see if it leads on to something else.’

We do a lot of work in education and children are fearless when it comes to sharing ideas. They don’t think of the boundaries, the impact it might have, how much it might cost. And I think we can learn a lot, as businesses, from children by really just embracing their imagination. If someone has the courage to share an idea with you and your organisation, embrace it.

The third thing that managers can do, is realise that it isn’t a one-off. You’ve got to put the framework in place. You’ve got to have the right innovation systems to really capitalise on these ideas. You’ve got to consider three things when you’re really going to chuck yourself into this. You’ve got to go, ‘We need to have the right management system in place to act on these ideas. We’ve got to think about how we’re going to implement them. And then lastly, we need to make sure there’s a momentum plan.’ So this isn’t just a one-off exercise. Putting someone away in the corridor, having a coffee with them saying, ‘This is enough. Can you share an idea?’ We want this to happen every single day.

And then the fourth thing is setting the right expectations with employees, particularly patience. When you’re about to launch or you really want to start listening to your team, you’ll probably be inundated with ideas because you’ve not done it before. And you need to set the right expectations to people that they need to be patient.

Some of the ideas will be acted on, some of them could be acted on in the future, but we just need your patience. We are going to be listening, we want to become fearless, we want to drop the walls of this organisation, we want to hear ideas, but we will need, a little bit of time to act on them.

If you set the right expectations, then people won’t get disengaged. Once they’ve shared an idea and you’ve not acted on it, they would appreciate that you’re going to have to have the right management and implementation plan to go make it happen.

12. Do you think that some managers may potentially feel threatened by an employee who constantly comes up with great ideas? And how can management change their mindset about this?

Well, to put it quite frankly, a manager’s job is to get the best out of their employees. If anybody’s feeling threatened or really concerned, then they’ve got to think about how they can let that employ flourish. They’ve got to put an employee first. And they shouldn’t really be a manager, in my opinion, if they’re curbing the enthusiasm, the energy, and particularly good ideas.

I can understand it feeling daunting. You’re under a huge amount of pressure and suddenly you’ve got a small team, and they’re coming forward with a huge amount of brilliant ideas. But you’re a team and they’re your team. You should encourage it, help nurture it, and ultimately, help those ideas progress because it’s going to allow everybody to benefit.

A manager’s job, in my opinion, is to get the best out of their team and if their team would come forward with fantastic ideas, then they’re lucky to have those people in their team.

13. And of course teams are made up of many different personality types. You mentioned introverts before. How important is praise and encouragement in day-to-day management style, and encouraging everyone on your team to share their own ideas?

It’s critical. When we launch relentless innovation programs with organisations, one of the biggest things you’ve also got to think about is the reward and recognition post-launch. And we always encourage to stay away from monetary rewards, because it kind of leads to the wrong type of ideas and focus. We want people to feel part of a vision and part of the journey. They have a responsibility as an employee. Don’t take it for granted that you’re an employee, you’re here to add value, you’re here to bring your expertise into the organisation but we’re also going to realise that, when you come up with something, we need to make sure that we are recognising you. We are giving you the pat on the back and most people just need that recognition. Sometimes they just need a thank you. Too often businesses are brilliantly busy and sometimes we don’t even find the time to say thank you.

So it is critical, but I would encourage organisations to stay away from the monetary rewards. There are lots of different ways you can recognise your employees to make sure people are sharing ideas for the right reasons.

For example, some businesses we’ve heard will say that, ‘You’ll get a percentage of the savings, you’re going to get a percentage of the making,’ and then what happens is people just concentrate on ideas which are linked to those gains, rather than ideas which might just improve the culture or are harder to put a financial benefit to.

So that’s why I’d always say think for your reward and recognition scheme, but really be careful if you’re going to give a monetary reward for an idea.

14. And should a manager ever actively challenge the ideas coming out from their team, and if so, how can they do this in a constructive way?

It depends what you mean by challenge. Any idea that comes forward, I think it needs dialogue. When that idea comes forward, it won’t necessarily be the final idea. It won’t be perfect and that’s why you do need to talk about it. That’s why we’re big on our own platform of commenting feature. That’s when someone shares that initial hunch, and I use that word ‘hunch’ because it came from Steven Johnson’s Where Do Good Ideas Come From? TED talk. It’s a fantastic TED talk where he talked about hunches over time adding up.

Actually, when someone comes forward and they share an idea with their manager or share it on a platform, it’s just the beginning. You need dialogue, you need people commenting because what will happen is that hunch will crystallise over time and turn into a constructive idea.

So a manager should listen, they should talk, get into a dialogue, but also open up the dialogue to more people to see what they think. Because that way you’ll have a better idea coming forward from your employees.

15. And how important is it that bottom-up innovation and ideas sharing has role models within a business, at all levels of the business?

To us, if you’re going to launch a bottom-up innovation approach and start becoming relentless when it comes to this, then have ideas that can come from all people at any given time.

The most important thing that you’ve got to do is, once you’ve implemented those ideas post-launch, is to start showing role models, start showing best practices, case studies and examples, and not just the big ideas but the small ideas and all type of ideas. So people get a good grasp of ‘What do people mean by bottom up innovation? What kind of ideas do you want from me going forward?’

So you’ve got to show good role models. You’ve got to make good case studies and examples of people. The pat on the back, the photos, using social media wisely, giving out certificates, whatever it might be. Then everybody will start realising that, ‘Okay, if they can do, I can do it.’

16. And what impact does it have if an employee has a good idea and it’s not actioned, or not actioned quickly enough?

Well, this comes back to setting the right expectations, about patience and making sure that when you launch it, and you get hundreds of ideas in that first week, that people realise that you need time to act on it.

Sometimes ideas will be acted on straight away. Most ideas fall into two camps: they can be a quick win or strategic. And if they’re more strategic, they’re going to need a business case being built, and a little bit more research.

But you need to set the right expectations and tell employees that it might be irrelevant now, but it could be relevant in two years’ time. The fact that you’ve shared it, the fact it’s been documented, the fact it’s on an innovation management platform means that we know that you came up with it. We know that you contributed that hunch.

So it comes down to setting the right expectations, asking for people to be patient, but then also, often, an innovation management tool is also coaching.

Someone could come forward with literally a hundred ideas in the first month, and you might look through all of them, and there might be only one or two that you’re really interested in. And what you need to make sure is that you’re coaching that employee on the type of ideas that you want coming forward, maybe showing them the strategic goals of the company, or getting them a little bit more channelled.

What you shouldn’t do is lose that contagious energy, that enthusiasm, you need to embrace it, because that person’s adopted it, but you just need to get them a little bit more focused on the type of idea you want. Maybe not quantity, but quality of idea.

So it’s really, really important that you have a plan in place to coach, but that you’re also setting that expectation and asking people to be patient.

17. Leading on from this, do you have any examples of initiatives run by businesses to encourage ideas sharing and bottom-up innovation?

Well, we work with organisations all across the world, which are adopting this mentality, becoming relentless when it comes to innovation, and very lucky to work across industries as well.

And just a few which spring to mind, of great examples of bottom-up innovation. We worked with a hospitality firm which operates in lots of different environments, but one part of their business operates football stadiums and serving the food and the drinks at half time. And in one particular football stadium, it was taking about ninety-six seconds for a transaction to happen, serving a hot dog and a cup of tea. And it was taking too long and following customer complaints, they just got the team around together when they started really embracing this bottom up innovation approach. They just said to the team, ‘Has anybody got any ideas about how we can solve this?’

And someone put their hand up and said, ‘Look, two things, straight away. We don’t know each other’s names. Lots of temporary staff work in this team. So every time there’s a football game, you don’t know who you’re going to work with. So every time you’re trying to communicate with someone, that’s a few seconds lost. And secondly, the hot water and the tea bags were about ten meters apart. So if you’re making a cup of tea, you had to dodge everyone to get to the tea bag and get to the hot water. They just made those two changes and their average transaction time lowered to being under 60 seconds, which was a dramatic change on their business.

We also worked with an organisation in the education space employing 350 employees in a really hot country and on the first day that one of our programs was launched with them, one of their mums came forward. who had just returned back to work from maternity leave, and she was still breastfeeding. And she had to go, in the day, to go pump milk. Five or six times, she had to go find a toilet, a cubicle in a really hot, stuffy country. And she just said, ‘Can’t we please have a mother’s room somewhere in this establishment?’ Six people said they were doing exactly the same thing in that school, which makes nearly 2 per cent of their workforce at the school who completely acted on it and immediately made a mother’s room. And for those 2 per cent of people, it made their day much easier.

And even in the engineering space, we sat down with a managing director who was a little bit sceptical about bottom-up innovation. Could it really, really work? And by chance we had a maintenance cleaner come into the room, and we said, ‘Look, let’s ask this person if they’ve seen an idea which can improve the business?’ And it was a little bit of a gamble, but we did it. The person went quiet for a few seconds, and they said that we waste too much water. And for this particular manufacturing engineering company, in one of their plants, they were creating these pipes and they used to flush them out, every time they created one of these pipes, with some water, using a different barrel, a different case. And at the bottom of each of these cases was about four litres of water, which, once they do it, they literally just poured on the floor and put the next pipe in and got the next case. And the employee was like, ‘Surely we can use that four litres of water every time and utilise it.’ They quickly did a calculation of how many of these pipes that they were making on a daily and weekly basis, and they calculated it was about 1.1 million litres of water being wasted.

So they are brilliant examples and we’ve got countless, thousands more which come from our employees on a daily basis across all industries. You can see why we’re incredibly passionate about it, because all of those were just small marginal gain ideas. And if you do hundreds, thousands of those, what happens is you have the aggregated result of a big, big impact.

18. That’s great, thank you very much David, we really appreciate your time.
Finally, we do have one question which we ask all of our podcast guests. What do you think are the top three qualities that make a good leader?

A good leader is made, and a good leader needs a good ecosystem around them. Being a leader has its highs and it can be lonely at times. Similarly, being an entrepreneur can have its highs and be lonely. I think it’s your choice to be a leader. It’s your choice to be an entrepreneur. But in those difficult moments you need your family, you need your friends, you need your employees around you. So, having that really good ecosystem, I think, is absolutely critical for strong leadership.

The second thing, is having clear clarity on your own ‘why?’ Why do you get out of bed every day? I’m very much inspired by Simon Sinek’s ‘Starting With Why’ TED Talk, and his fantastic book on, you need to know why you operate, why are you a leader, how are you going to do it, and then what you do. So you need to make sure that you know why you’re going to work every single day.

And then my third piece of advice would be, good leaders really need to listen. They need to listen to their team. They need to listen to their friends and their family, but they also need to listen to themselves on a daily basis. Those thoughts going through their heads, their hunches about how they can improve. You need to become relentless when it comes to your own thoughts.

So I think good leaders need great ecosystems around them. You’re never a good leader just because of yourself, it’s those people which are supporting you.

You need good clarity on your ‘Why?’ Constantly reflecting, ‘Why am I leader? Why am I doing this?’ If you’ve got clarity on your why, it makes everybody who works for you, everybody in your business, it makes their job much easier.

And then the third thing is that you’ve really got to listen to those people around you, but you’ve got to listen to yourself because you often know what the right thing is to do as a leader.

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