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MANAGEMENT: Time for employers to innovate and give employees time to think ahead

You do not have to be Dilbert to shake your head in disbelief at some of the corporate inconsistencies that seem glaringly obvious to everybody – except the senior executives who condone them.

Customer service is a favourite breeding ground for those acts that would be hilarious if they were not so darned serious. For instance, only a corporate mind could come to the conclusion that it would be better to have a computer answering the customer help-desk phones rather than a real live human being. After all, how could a gentle-voiced, concerned-sounding person make a better job of diffusing situations that are potentially damaging to the company’s reputation than a computerised system that tells callers to put themselves in categories, and then go through the whole process again at various stages until they presumably hang up in desperation?

But innovation has the potential to give customer service a run for its money. After all, it is the thing of the moment, so it is only natural that it should give rise to some wonderful inconsistencies. One of the most obvious stems from something it shares with customer service: people, or, rather, the shortage of them.

When you call up a company and the first real person that actually answers snarls down the phone at you like they are having a nightmare day, consider how many calls they have had to answer in the last hour – and how quickly they are supposed to dispense with you and move on to the next caller. It is the same thing with innovation. These days, every chief executive worth their salt will be stressing how innovative their organisation is. Not that they will produce much evidence for this claim in the way of new products or work procedures. They will just expect you to believe that they have signed up for the innovation thing, like they have the shareholder value one, the customer service one, and the rest. But they will also let slip that – due to the strength of the pound, the cunning of the competition or whatever – they have also had to let go a few thousand people, on top of the similar number that went last year and the year before.

Spot the inconsistency there? Okay, there are countless examples of how one person can come up with something amazing that whole teams of people could not – which maybe proves that you do not need legions of people to be innovative. But it helps to have time – to think, to try things out, even to just sit and daydream.

It is time that so many people in the corporate world lack today. This is not an attempt to wade into the work/life balance issue – though it is worth mentioning that the old adage ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,’ is surely applicable to innovation. Innovation requires a spark. It does not matter how many techniques carefully tested by leading management consultants you have at your disposal. The most important thing is engaging the imagination of individuals. And that does not happen if they are all so busy dealing with the here and now that they cannot be bothered to think about tomorrow.

There is a rallying cry in even the most staid and traditional organisations for everybody to ‘Think outside the box.’ But how do organisations expect their employees to do that while they fill the box with ever more tasks because – thanks to the redundancy programme on which they are engaged – they are running out of people?

‘Lean and mean’ is a great notion and it was certainly a necessary antidote to some of the nonsensical inefficiencies and overmanning that preceded it. But, while companies need to be vigilant about costs, it is probably fair to say that the idea of paring operations down to the bone has gone too far. Certainly as regards innovation it has.

Go to any really innovative organisation – let it be IDEO, the award-winning product design consultancy, or everybody’s favourite, 3M – and you do not see employees scurrying around like they have no time. Yes, they are animated. They may even be operating to a deadline. But they are not harassed – and that’s a big difference.

In fact, the message is clear. Relax the controls a little. Stop thinking about short-term profits and the bottom line quite so obsessively and you may encourage attitudes and behaviour that boost the top line. After all, if employees feel that they have a future with an organisation, they may be encouraged to think of ways of making that future brighter, rather than contenting themselves with scuttling about. They may also have the time to do something about it. And they may even have some fun – which is widely acknowledged to be pretty essential for innovation, but conspicuous by its absence when talk of job losses is hanging in the air or departing staff are left un-replaced. So, rather than focus on redundancies, perhaps companies should permit a little redundancy – that would be a much more value-creating option.

Roger Trapp is management editor of The Independent On Sunday. Return to the Financial Director website

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