Contributor: David Harkin, CEO of 7billionideas Group
In today’s evolving world of work, the race is on for organisations to innovate, and to innovate fast. And you may not realise it, but often it’s an organisations employees who are the most important source of new ideas and fresh thinking that can really drive a business forward. So, to help us understand how we can all get better at ensuring our ideas are heard, and heard by the right people, we’re joined 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 jump into the questions, would you mind just telling us a bit about 7billionideas?
My name is David Harkin. I’m the CEO of an organisation called 7billionideas. We exist to connect the seven billion people out there with their own ideas and their own imaginations. And we feel very privileged to work in two industries; first in the corporate space, helping organisations become relentless when it comes to innovation, really getting into that mindset, and secondly, we work in education, encouraging students all around the world to think big and dream big about the possibility of their ideas.
2. 7billionideas sounds like a fantastic concept. How did you come up with it?
Yes, it was seven years ago now, we’re celebrating seven years of 7billionideas later this year. And we were sitting around as a group of friends coming up with fun, thoughtful and creative ideas. And I turned to one of the co-founders, Jenny, and said that there are seven billion people out there on the planet, every single day coming up with ideas but most people out there don’t do anything about their ideas. So why don’t we be different? Why don’t we create a business? We’re going to call it 7billionideas.com.
So, the initial idea was to build a social media platform. And we got our smartphones out, we bought the domain 7billionideas.com— Before you ask, we own 8-, 9-, 10billionideas. We’ve got all that wrapped up for the inevitable time when the planet’s population changes. But we spent £20 on the domain and it was the best £20 that we ever spent. From there we went on a crowdfunding platform, we became the fastest crowdfunding page back in 2012.
We evolved and adapted as an organisation, as we wanted to go into the corporate space to help businesses become relentless, and go into education, encouraging students all around the world to really connect with their own ideas.
3. And what was your background prior to 7billionideas?
Very different. I was in the tech world, working for IBM for seven years after leaving university. I did a history degree at Sheffield University in the UK and absolutely loved it. And as I was doing my history degree, I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. I was always keen on doing lots of different work experiences, researching different companies, and I was thoroughly enjoying my history degree. But the reality was kicking in, as I was moving towards graduating, that I really needed to think about my next steps.
So, I did two things which ended up being quite logical and game-changing for me. The first thing was, I got the Forbes 100 list out and said, “I want to work for a big company which is trying to do some big stuff out in the world.” And I looked at all the different industries and the different companies, and I literally crossed off the industries which I couldn’t really feel a connection with, and companies that I didn’t really find too interesting.
But then, very quickly, I found that the tech industry was pretty much the remaining industry on the list which led me towards applying to IBM. And then the second thing that I did was I thought that I want to go work for a big business. What value can I add in a big business? And I looked at typical business organisation charts and started looking at different roles within organisations and one particularly was standing out for me, that I wanted to go and learn how to be a sales specialist within IBM. So, I loved my time there, but then once we came across 7billionideas, I really found my calling in life. And then it was time to become an entrepreneur.
4. And for those companies that don’t have the right frameworks in place, are there any recommendations that you’d be able to give someone? How they can encourage their employers to set something up that enables them to share their ideas?
Well, the first thing is, it’s realising that ideas can come from anyone at any given time. We find that most organisations do three things when it comes to innovation. The first, they might have a suggestion box, where employees are encouraged to write down an idea on a short card, pop it in a box and everybody’s told where it is. But the truth is that those suggestion boxes are never really used.
Secondly, lots of senior management will claim to have open door policies saying, “Please come in, tell me your fantastic ideas. We’re here to listen.” But it takes a certain kind of character to walk through that door and share an idea. And most employees will not feel comfortable about going forward and doing that. And they’ll also be concerned that their idea might sound silly.
The third typical way that a company would like to demonstrate that they are innovating is hold team meetings and think tanks. And, “Let’s come up with as many ideas as we possibly can.” But they’re irregular and often they’re quite difficult. When you pull everybody into a room, it’s quite a challenge to come up with ideas on the spot. So, companies need to start realising that if they want to become relentless with innovation on a daily basis, they’ve got to put the right framework in place, but they’ve got to continuously be improving it. It’s not a one-off exercise. It’s adopting it. It’s making sure that you’re really building it into the vision. So, you’ve got to get the right framework and ideation and innovation management is key to that. But you’ve got to think before you introduce it, that it’s not going to be just something used for a few days. How are we going to make sure that we sustain momentum with it over a number of years?
5. So as the world of work continues to evolve at a fast pace, I assume that it’s more important for businesses to start listening to their workforce. Would you agree with that?
Yes, I think it’s more important than ever, in fact it’s critical. Your employees are your experts, whoever they might be, whatever they do on a day to day basis, they’re coming to add value to your organisation. And a fantastic CEO that we met when we were launching one of our initiatives within their business, to their employees, positioned it incredibly well.
He said that this business was based on one idea. It started off with an initial idea, but the survival of this business will be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of ideas coming together. So, it’s more critical than ever for organisations, for their survival and growth.
But also, the fact that a huge amount of the workforce here in the UK and around the world are dissatisfied with what they do. Approximately 80% of people, it was reported in the Deloitte Index Report in the UK, that’s twenty-four million people who’re going to work on a daily basis, not really empowered, not happy with what they do. And that’s incredibly worrying. And I think a lot of that comes back down to businesses not having the right environments and frameworks, or truly listening to their employees.
Listening is a difficult skill but you’ve got to put the frameworks in place because those people who are coming into work, they are your investment, they are part of your team, they’ve got a job to do and they see, constantly, continuous improvement ideas and unless they feel like they’re going to be listened to, they’re not going to continue to share them. But consequently, they’re going to end up being disengaged and not empowered to work for you.
6. So there’s not just a benefit to the employer, but there’s clearly a benefit to the employee if they’re feeling dissatisfied and the company listening to their ideas changes that.
Yes, absolutely. People are empowered. Daniel Pink in his TED Talk, talks about how people are truly empowered. He talks about a study of commissioned-led people and people which are just empowered to go on and act on their ideas. And I truly believe in that. I think everybody wants to go to work and of course they want to make a living and be secure, but they want to make a difference.
Most people do want to add value to who they work for. And value comes in different ways. It can be from your day to day job, but just in continuously improving the environment that you work in. And a pat on the back, a small idea, a big idea, does give you that lift as an employee.
But businesses need to listen. They need to take it seriously. It isn’t a one-off exercise. It must happen 24/7. Employee engagement programs or surveys happen once a year. For the life of me, I don’t really understand why that happens. Your employees are working with you typically five days a week and every single day they will see different improvement ideas. So, it can’t be one-off. You’ve got to put the right frameworks in place. Innovation management ideation is critical to that.
But that’s only one part of it. You’ve got to have the right model of innovation. You’ve got to be relentless when it comes to this. You’ve got to think about the before and after, when you’re going to start embracing your employees. You can’t just do it as a one-off because typically what will happen is when people share the ideas, you won’t have the right systems in place to act on them and then actually you’ll probably have a more harmful impact rather than doing nothing at all.
7. It’s so true. We spend so much time at work that if we’re given the opportunity to shape it, and to make it a better place and have our ideas heard, then there should be that platform to make that happen.
Yes. I mean employees, in every single interview, CV, LinkedIn application, will say, at some point, “I’m innovative, I’m creative, I’m determined, I’m motivated.” All those characteristics, we feel falls under the banner of being an “intrapreneur”. We act like an entrepreneur, but within a business.
But what happens is when people join that organisation, very quickly, even in the first days, if not weeks and months, they end up jumping on something that we call “the corporate treadmill”, where they’re going to work, they’re literally counting down the time between nine and five and going home. And that normally creeps in because they come in with a huge amount of excitement. Often businesses don’t appreciate how important that first day is, which is critical to an employee’s engagement long-term but then over time they become disheartened. They become disengaged. So, it is critical to start listening to your employees.
8. You mentioned the first day of someone starting a new job there. Would you say that’s also a good time to ask employees? When they’re just starting out with a company, they’re essentially a fresh pair of eyes to this business. Is that a good time to ask them about what they think about the business and anything that could be potentially done better?
Yeah, that’s brilliant. I was really interested, because we were talking, particularly in education, about the power of moments, and about creating memorable moments in education and in businesses that last a lifetime.
And someone recommended a book to me, it was called “The Power of Moments”. And it said that you didn’t have to wait for moments to happen, that you can create them. They did this fantastic study of how parents felt when they took their children to Disney, and that over the day they asked them to score out of 10 how they felt. There’d be waking up and trying to get the kids out of the house, you then turn up at Disney, you’re in a queue, it’s extortionate pricing, and away you go. And at some points of the day, it’d be three out of ten, four out of ten, you’ll pay for an overpriced burger. But at some point, there’d be different peak moments. And I believe at the end of that exercise, the average score of how a parent felt was kind of six, seven out of 10. But when you asked the parents six weeks later, “What was your experience at Disney?” they would always rate it considerably higher and they relate to a peak moment.
And this study showed that it was how they felt when they arrived at Disney, there would be a peak somewhere in the middle and when they left. And in this fascinating book, they would go on to talk about how important that initial moment was. For employees that first-day experience… Most employees, first-day experience is turning up, the laptop not working, getting a security badge. It’s just the day being wasted.
And I think you can completely pivot and change the way that an employee comes, and really make it a special day because they will feel like they’re in a special company. And I think part of that special day is immediately coming in and saying, “Look, we value you. That’s why we’ve employed you, we want you to share your ideas immediately.
You’ve got no filters, you don’t know anyone, no restrictions! Come in, come in all guns blazing, tell us what you can see, be transparent, be fearless with your ideas in those first few days.” That’s a big thing that we like to talk about. Get those ideas across.
And the business needs to make sure that they feel comfortable about doing it. They might have worked for fantastic employers in the past. “What was the greatest thing about your former employer?” That’s a great question you can ask on the first day. But absolutely capitalise on it. That’s crucial. Particularly those first four to six weeks when they see obvious improvement ideas, which other people have seen, but which just would not have shared.
And equally on exit as well. I think that’s a great opportunity when someone is leaving your organisation. Most exit interviews are just making sure that they’re off the IT systems and going through the formality. But that’s when you can have just a really frank and transparent conversation. “Come on, what could we really do? Give us something constructive— We don’t want a list of moans, but what would you recommend?” And make them feel empowered as they leave. That we’re an organisation which listened at the start. We value you every single day. Even when you’re leaving the organisation, we still want to be tapping into your brilliant imagination, please share it with them.
So yes, the beginning’s critical, all the way in the middle, but the end as well. You hear some fascinating ideas from employees as they leave an organisation and are, again, fearless because there’s no repercussions to what they’re sharing.
9. Fantastic. Thank you. Are there any other barriers in your mind that might stop an individual from raising their ideas?
Well, it comes back to this term being “brilliantly busy”. We’re living in a fast-paced world, in and outside of the environment, and I find that most employees out there sometimes feel that their idea might be too silly, it might be too small. They haven’t really understood the impact of that small idea and what could happen in an organisation.
People are also concerned it might give them extra workload. That they’re going to come up with an idea and they’re going to be told to go and implement it. I feel that everybody has a duty. You’re an employee of an organisation, you’re highly likely to have applied to that organisation saying that you’re innovative, that you’re creative, that you’re determined, you’re motivated. All those skills, in our opinion, are linked to the term being an “intrapreneur” where you act like an entrepreneur, but within organisation. I don’t think anybody has sat in an interview and probably not used one of those words at some point.
But what happens is when people come into an organisation and often, more quickly than you anticipate, they jump onto something that we call the corporate treadmill where they’re coming to work on a daily basis. They’re watching the clock till five o’clock, till they go home. And unfortunately, sometimes that happens in the first weeks, months and years of an employee being at an organisation. So, we want to kind of shift it.
The employer has a responsibility to having that framework in place, but we want the employee to feel empowered, to feel like if you really want to be adding value in your organisation, if you really want to be pushing on with your career, you’ve got to go do your day job, but you’ve also got to show that you are innovative, that you’re relentless when it comes to innovation. If you see an improvement idea, share it, it’s down to you and it doesn’t matter if it sounds silly. Put yourself out there a little bit. Because you don’t know the impact it could have, it could impact one other employee, it could impact thousands of employees or, indeed, your clients. It’s your responsibility to think through potentially the idea which might sound silly, turn it into a constructive idea. Think about the impact and go find someone in your organisation who’s going to listen.
10. And off the back of that, for any employees that want to contribute, want to put forward suggestions. Do you have any advice for them? How can they think about solutions to issues or any questions that they can ask?
Yeah, well, our companies called 7billionideas because we passionately believe every single person out there can change the world, change their communities, change their business or their families, whatever environment they’re in. Because everybody has an amazing imagination. So, I don’t believe good ideas are just for a subset of the community, everybody can go and do it. But some people like to say, “Look, I’m not an ideas person.” Which, to us, is not true. Everybody is an ideas person, but some people do struggle sometimes initially to come up with the idea. My advice here, the first thing you can do is start writing down some of your initial hunches, some of your initial ideas which come to you.
Steven Johnson, gave another great TED Talk about where good ideas come from, he points out that they happen over a period of months or years. It’s a hunch, and that hunch needs to be put on a piece of paper, put on a platform, and then it needs to be crystallised. So, if you’re someone who says you don’t come up with good ideas, I don’t believe that. I believe you have these hunches in the back of your head. You see problems every single day. You need to start putting it down on a piece of paper because that problem, that hunch over time could crystalise into a constructive idea. So that’s the first thing. Start appreciating your hunches.
Secondly, look for problems, okay? It won’t be far. You can go into work every single day. There’s no business out there which is yet world-class. That’s something else we like to talk about at 7billionideas, “What is a world class business?” Every single business can improve in everything that it does, and you as an employee will see improvement ideas. So, see the problems, think them through, and see if you can come up with a hunch or an idea to go and solve it. And just picking on that world-class mentality, which is something we’re talking about more and more at 7billionideas is we believe everybody can get into that world-class mentality. You often watch a game of football, sport, and the commentators are always saying, “That was world class,” “It was a world-class goal,”, it’s used all the time. But people don’t ever walk out of a meeting and go, “That was a world-class meeting,” or, “That was a world-class reception hall,”.
And I think that we can start getting into this mindset, but the only way you’re going to do that is if everybody kind of switches on in their head that, “I’m going to be relentless when it comes to innovation. If I see a problem, I’m not going to assume someone else is going to fix it. I’m going to come up with an idea, I’m going to present it, hopefully on an innovation management platform.” That is the best way for businesses to really embrace this. But if the organisation doesn’t have that yet, you can at least think about the problem, come up with an idea and then the impact. Because that’s what your leaders are going to want to hear. What is that impact going to be on the organisation if you go and share it? It doesn’t mean evenings or weeks of planning. It can just literally be on a piece of paper and thinking it through.
11. Fantastic. And to our listeners that feel that they might be too busy, do you have any advice to those people?
It’s an interesting term, this busy one. Therefore, I came up with the phrase “brilliantly busy”. Because I often find that when you ask people how they are, what do people say? They say, “Yeah, I’m fine, but I’m a little bit busy.” And they always say it in a very negative tone and their body language, shoulders are dropped. So, at 7billionideas, I’ve started saying to the team, “Alright, we’re brilliantly busy,” or sometimes we’re “terrifically tired” if we’re doing a lot. But look, I’m a busy person. I’ve got a young family, I’ve got a growing business. I like to try and keep fit when I can, but there is always time. What you’ve got to do is sometimes step back and look at how you’re spending your time.
The average adult is holding their mobile phone three hours a day. Now in the UK, that equates to forty-three days a year. That is quite scary. If you even take a percentage of that time, five or six minutes, whatever it might be, that can be constructively used. So, you’ve got to go find time. We’re holding our phones too much. We’re on social media for nearly two hours a day. As adults, we moan sixteen times a day. That’s two working weeks a year, we are moaning. What I’d say, anyone who claims that they don’t have time: get off your phone and spend a little bit less time on social media. When you’re about to moan, stop moaning and see if you can find some time in a day. There’s always five minutes.
And that’s the other misconception where people think about ideas. They always think about sitting behind a desk having to come up with a big old business plan, lots of detail, lots of confusing words. You don’t need that. What you need is some constructive thinking time. It could be in the shower, it could be in the gym, it could be on the way to work and just go find that five, ten minutes. Because that can be equally as important rather than finding hours to work on it.
So, anyone who says they haven’t got time, I kind of smirk. I do understand the pressures with family life, work life, but we are relatively inefficient as human beings. We can get distracted. So, I’d encourage people to just try and find time. There is always time in a working week. Just be a little bit more disciplined.
And once you’ve got that, even 1% of a working week is twenty minutes. You’ll be surprised at what you can achieve if you start adding those twenty minutes up every single week and how much traction momentum you can get behind an idea.
12. Employers should be listening to their employees. The different backgrounds that everybody comes from, the different ways that we solve ideas. It just makes complete sense. You’ve mentioned TED Talk there. And I was just wondering if you can think of any other inspirational role models that our listeners can perhaps look up and check, just to get ideas how they can share their ideas in an impactful way?
Yes, I mean, I’ve been very influenced by Steven Johnson who talks about where good ideas come from and he talks all about lots of stories, but his whole theory of hunches adding up, I passionately believe in.
But I was also very strongly influenced by Simon Sinek and his starting TED Talk about why successful leaders and businesses are successful and his whole theory of “why, how, and what”. You’ve got to know why you operate as an individual and as a business before you consider how and what you do. Most people know what they do. And I think this comes back to ideas. When you come up with an idea, why should someone listen to it and why is it important. Then you’ve got to come up with the how. You’ve got to go, “How can we go and implement this? And then what is the benefit going to be?”
I think a lot of people will just come up with the idea, like what the end goal should be. But you’ve got to position it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small improvement idea or a big game-changing when you’ve got to position it correctly.
So, there’s lots of people out there and I think the TED Talks are fantastic way of just learning, and podcasts as well now, of just listening and taking in information. But to me, Steven Johnson was a game-changer in the way that I see the world, and Simon Sinek. And there’s been many others as well that I’ve loved listening to and watching on the TED channels.
13. Fantastic. Well, thank you very much. If you could give one piece of career’s advice to our listeners, what would that be?
Well, I pick up a little bit again on Simon Sinek. So, my first bit is getting clarity on your “why”. I mean we are very lucky at 7billionideas that we operate in education and in the corporate space. So, we have the privilege of working with students from as young as four, to walking into some of the biggest boardrooms around the world.
And one of the biggest things that I see working with children as they grow up is you’re so open-minded as a child and you become narrow-minded as you grow up. And often your career decisions can be linked back to some of the decisions you’ve made even at the top end of primary school. But particularly when you’re picking your GCSE options, your A-levels, and universities. People start picking what they think they should pick rather than what they should really pick. And consequently, that starts taking them away from their path of what they’re passionate about.
And what I mean by that is, “What is their ‘why’ in life?” And that’s why you see a lot of people in their twenties, or thirty-something, just suddenly trying to pivot and change their career completely. And it can be linked back to picking the wrong GCSE’s, wrong A-levels, wrong university degree and getting the wrong first job because they picked that job because they felt they should do it.
So, my first piece of advice for anybody is doing exercise on the clarity of your “why”. What makes you tick? 80% of people in the UK, dissatisfied in what they do. I’m pretty sure that’s a common statistic around the world and most people are dissatisfied with what they do is because they’re not picking the right career path. They’re chasing the wrong goals, whether it be money or whatever it might be. So, get clarity on your “why”.
The second thing I’d say is you’ve got to push, push, push. Every single day. I did a blog recently about fifth day productivity and about as you move towards the end of the working week, how unproductive people become. I said that Man United wouldn’t stop playing in the seventy-second minute of a football game, so why does everybody feel like when it’s Friday that it’s time to sort of drift off? And to us, that’s an opportunity to really push on. If you are drifting off or you’re hitting the snooze button in the morning and you haven’t got that contagious energy every single day, then you’re doing the wrong career. Okay? There’s the right career out there for everybody.
And then my last piece of advice would be you’ve got to listen to yourself. You’ve got to listen to those things in your head. You’ve got to listen to your friends and family around you but you’ve got to really listen to yourself. If it isn’t right, it’s not right. The world is full of opportunities, there’s seven billion people out there, there’s some fantastic jobs and fantastic careers. There’s businesses which have yet to be invented yet that you can go and do. But often it’s a gut instinct and it does come back to listening to what’s in your head. Don’t let it sit there for years.
Often, people have those ideas about their careers and they let time drift. They let time go past suddenly a year, five, ten, twenty, thirty years have gone past and they’re retiring, and they’ve just got a list of regrets. So, I think you’ve got to get clarity on your “why”. Why do you operate? You’ve got to push yourself every single day. Realise it’s a privilege to be employed as well – don’t take it for granted. And then thirdly, you’ve really got to listen to yourself and don’t let those thoughts in the back of your head about your career just sit there for years, if not decades; just act now.
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