We have all seen corporate mission statements that posture “Innovation is core to our business” or “Innovation is in our DNA”. Companies want to be seen as being on the cutting edge of technology, bold enough to explore new and novel ideas and demonstrate that they are industry leading.
However, the term ‘innovation’ is used broadly and flippantly. Innovation is something we love to talk about it, but over and over again companies have struggled to organise themselves for innovation, and this is particularly evident for safety improvement.
WHAT IS INNOVATION?
The capacity to innovate is essential for a company to survive and thrive in times of uncertainty. As a result, innovation must be managed as both a process and an outcome, but before this can occur it must be understood.
Part of the confusion around innovation stems from the fact that, surprisingly, there is no unifying definition or theory of innovation.
Theodore Levitt (economist and professor at Harvard Business School) suggested that creativity and invention is about finding new things, whilst innovation is about doing and using new things. Mark Dodgson AO (Emeritus Professor – University of Queensland) considered innovation as the successful application of new ideas. Tim Kastelle (Director of entrepreneurship & innovation – University of Queensland) viewed innovation as “executing a new idea to create value”.
Whilst these definitions appear to be different, they all fundamentally agree on three key points:
01. Involves a new/novel idea
When considering safety innovation, companies would be forgiven for thinking its all about coming up with new and exciting ideas. Safety leaders are bombarded with innovation jargon that solidify this misconception.
Generating good ideas is arguably the easiest component of innovation and it seems to be the phase which companies put the most amount of effort into, as it is easily measured (Kastelle & Steen, 2011). In terms of safety innovation, this would typically materialise as idea capture tools, suggestion mailboxes, brainstorming and think-tanks and even the growing obsession with hackathons.
However, many companies believe that, through these artefacts alone, they are driving innovation, when in fact they are really targeting invention. Moreover, many of the tools and methodologies widely available to safety professionals and leaders target idea generation but neglect the other elements necessary for effective innovation. Capacities, like creativity, that are critical to the innovation process and play a major factor in the development of ideas, can then be counterproductive for the implementation and execution of those ideas.
This is why definitions matter, and the importance of separating innovation from invention is vital for an organisation’s safety innovation strategy.
Companies need to transition away from the mindset that innovation is strictly idea generation and move towards a deliberate strategy which visualises innovation as ‘idea management’.
02. Requires focused effort towards action
Ideas alone are just that, they are an unproven concept which requires careful selection, development and spread in order to provide value to an organisation.
Supporting the development of new ideas is difficult and time consuming. Organisations are limited with their resources and are typically under time constraints which impacts idea management. This is particularly evident when safety innovation is not considered a core element of the business and/or safety strategy. As a result, generating an abundance of ideas is a double-edged sword. If you have access to a large pool of ideas, that follow a normal distribution for potential to add value, there are two scenarios which could hinder your innovation potential.
Firstly, if the good ideas are not supported through a deliberate strategy where they are protected from conventional company thinking, resourced and funded effectively and cultivated to grow in line with insight – it may not survive. The idea will likely be starved and suffer from atrophy to the point of it losing its value or it will be killed entirely. In either case, the workers that contributed their expertise and effort to the generation of that idea will quickly realise that this mechanism is deficient and a waste of time. As a result, the pipeline of ideas will quickly degenerate in quality and frequency as the frontline loses faith in the process.
Secondly, if the idea selection mechanisms are too lenient, too many ideas may progress at once. This may lead to a scenario where the selected ideas are not funded or resourced effectively, leading to open projects that have stalled or have been mothballed, or worse, been delivered with questionable quality. Ultimately this scenario will damage the credibility and reputation of the safety organisation whilst leading to wasted effort and resource which could have been directed towards better opportunities to improve the safety of work.
To combat this, the safety organisation needs to have an appropriate mechanism to filter and ‘kill’ ideas which do not align with their strategy and risk profile, whilst implementing mechanisms to protect, fund and promote those ideas which have direct alignment.
Once selected, good ideas must then be developed through a careful process where they are prototyped, tested and iterated in a continuous improvement cycle.
Idea management cannot be left to chance, it must be curated through a deliberate process. The same rules that apply to managing everyday safety tasks and projects cannot be applied to bringing an idea to fruition.
In fact, your safety organisation may be presented with a goal-conflict where competing priorities in day-to-day safety work will prevent the appropriate attention being directed towards developing and disseminating the idea. The new idea will have to compete for your time, budget and resources and will often be ‘cannibalised’ by your core safety work when unanticipated internal and external pressures arise.
03. Must create value for the end-users
The idea of value is elusive, as the amount and nature of the value lies within the eye of the beholder – what is valuable to one person may not be valuable to the next. Therefore, it is critical that we as safety innovators must first know who our customers are, and deeply understand their pain points and desires around their work.
Safety professionals often implement new products, systems and processes without this framework in mind, resulting in a misalignment between our customers imbedded values and the value proposition of the idea.
If you do not align the value proposition of the idea with your customer, you will impact the adoption of your idea, its advocacy through the organisation and your credibility within the organisation as safety professionals. Furthermore, safety professionals may perceive that problems exist where there are none; they can advocate for changes to be made, in the name of improvement, to established and proven systems that don’t add value but reduce it, by introducing further complexity into an already complex system.
This is not unique to the safety profession, and sometimes the wheel does not need to be reinvented if it adequately performs the task it was designed for. Aspiring innovators have been attempting to build a better mousetrap for decades. Since the first patent in 1894, over 4,000 new patents have been filed for new designs of mousetraps, with several hundred applied for each year, all of which claim to be ‘better’ than the original design. However, there is only one used to this day (and made any money) and it continues to add value since 1894.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SAFETY IMPROVEMENT AND WHAT CAN BE DONE?
We all agree that innovation is important and determines an organisation’s ability to survive and thrive in uncertain times and even thrive if certain conditions are met. This is supported by the McKinsey Global Innovation Survey which found that approximately 84% of executives agree that innovation is critical for their business. However, the same survey also found that only 6% were satisfied with the outcome of their innovation performance.
In the safety profession we tend to hold the same values around the importance of safety innovation. However, we may be contributing to the dissatisfaction of our executives in terms of delivering on the promised outcomes of our strategies – not to mention the impact we have on the safety of work in our organisations.
As the nature of work becomes more complex, the potential for harm in our organisations also increases, with fatality rates plateauing and even increasing in some industries in the past decade.
We need to understand the complexity of innovation and how it can be utilised within our profession to deliver greater value for our industries and organisations.
If you wish to drive greater safety innovation within your organisation, there are 5 things which will assist your company to build its capacity to innovate the safety of work.
1.0 DEVELOP A TARGETED AND PURPOSEFUL SAFETY INNOVATION STRATEGY
Traditional safety improvement activities alone are too reactive to drive the safety of work. We can no longer focus our learning effort, and the subsequent investment in safety improvement, purely from incident investigations, hazard reports and lagging metrics – those mechanisms look to the past and only tell a portion of the story.
We must take a more deliberate approach to be more proactive in generating the future we wish to have, rather than responding to when something goes wrong.
To deliver this future, a dedicated and effective safety innovation strategy should be developed, supported and resourced effectively, to provide action across the three innovation phases: ideation, execution and spread. Through this strategy, organisations will have access to a proven framework to increase the chance of successfully executing proactive and valuable safety improvements that have a measurable impact on the safety of work.
2.0 HARNESS THE DIVERSE CAPACITY OF YOUR NETWORKS
Through harnessing the combined intellectual and historical capacity of your networks, you will gain their collective wisdom and insight into emerging issues. Through this newly discovered insight, you will be able to better anticipate and proactively respond to emerging issues within your organisation.
By engaging more with your frontline workers and supervisors, and cultivating a network of trust, you will gain greater insight into the ‘real’ issues, from the people that are exposed directly to the risk. You will gain actionable data that can be converted to a solution which will make a difference.
By growing your external networks (e.g. other safety professionals, different organisations, regulators, other professions etc.), you will gain access to a greater diversity of thought, through different ecosystems, each with their own issues and solutions. Having this exposure is essential for breaking out of a traditional mindset which starts to cultivate within companies and even industries.
3.0 ALIGN YOUR SYSTEMS TO WORKFORCE NEEDS AND VALUES
Understanding that workforce’s needs and values may not always align to your systems and processes is crucial for any safety professional. Having an established and systematic process for identifying where these gaps exist and empathising with your workforce to co-design a more aligned approach is critical for safety improvement.
By employing a more human-centred design approach towards safety improvement, your organisation will increase the chance it will be executed effectively and adopted at a higher rate.
We need to apply a ‘user-experience’ mindset when understanding the true issue that we are trying to solve. Understanding who the customer is, and what is valuable to them, in terms of the ‘gains’ they wish to obtain and the ‘pains’ they wish to mitigate, will result more positive work outcomes.
4.0 TARGET YOUR LIMITED RESOURCES TOWARDS PROVEN VALUE
We only have a finite number of resources, be they human, budget or time. It is necessary that we dedicate our resources towards investments that add the greatest amount of value to improving the safety of work.
Your safety innovation strategy should by supported by a dedicated and adequate budget, which is separate from normal OPEX expenditure, to drive greater experimentation and fund successful ideas through to completion.
We have seen a drastic shift in the profession towards critical risk management which is a very positive step towards directing resources towards controls that mitigate the loss of life. Your innovation strategy has the potential to augment this process by ensuring that idea generation and selection is filtered via a range of acceptance criteria (e.g. alignment with critical risks). You must be ruthless in your idea selection mechanisms to ensure good ideas are funded adequately, and ideas that do not meet your selection criteria are acknowledged for the effort and subsequently removed.
5.0 DRIVE ENGAGEMENT THROUGH DEMONSTRATABLE SUCCESS
Progress is infectious – with each improvement rolled out, and the value realised, the process legitimises and rewards the effort.
People have always been the solution to the problems we face since the dawn of time, and there is a symbiotic relationship between empowering your workforce through trust and autonomy and effective innovation.
If you build psychological safety within your workforce, you will provide them with the permission to ‘fail safely’ which is a precondition to effective safety innovation.
Building your organisations capacity to innovate the safety of work is a deliberate, difficult and time-consuming endeavour. If executed successfully, you will have an empowered workforce who systematically drives their own proactive safety improvement through a culture of creative experimentation, learning and trust.