Martin Bailey argues that it is time to reap the benefits of unlocking the imagination of your staff

There are many well-known innovators who, through the ages, have contributed considerably to the world as we know it today. Thomas Alva Edison, for example, patented numerous inspirational inventions, the most triumphant being the practical and longer-lasting electric light bulb. By the time Edison died, lights lit entire cities.

It isn’t just well-known innovators who are inspirational, though. We all have an element of innovation in us that can inspire those around us. It’s how we extract and share it, on a daily basis, that can really make a difference to the way we work.

So, in terms of innovation within the construction industry, where are we today? Historically, our industry has been seen as overly conservative, low in innovation and essentially a difficult place in which to innovate due to the complexity of the supply chain. In fact, construction was recently highlighted in a National Statistics report as being one of the industries least likely to invest in innovation.

I would argue that this perception is no longer valid. Indeed, there has been a real shift in the industry over recent years, with the sector as a whole becoming more receptive to change and keen to make innovation happen. Construction is a unique environment and by definition is a creative industry, so let’s relish the fact that no single project is the same as another and that this, by its very nature, breeds innovation and innovative, practical problem solving.

First of all, we need to get to the bottom of what innovation actually means. Essentially it’s about a new way of working. Not being the first to do something, but in fact, being the first to do something better. It’s about opening up new areas and opportunities for others. It’s about new value, not new things, sharing knowledge across industries, learning from different sectors and adapting innovative techniques.

Innovation, in the simplest terms, is key to a business’ future as it supports the diversification of a business and makes us stand out from our competitors. It also allows us to cut waste, in every sense – something crucial in the current economic climate if we’re to remain profitable. Above all, innovation adds value.

To reap the benefits innovation can bring, we must encourage a culture of it among staff. This, I believe, is the first step to unlocking imagination within any business.

Innovation can take place at various levels, but ultimately it’s about people and culture. By gathering information from people, challenging what we do, leveraging people’s creativity and putting their best ideas into practice, we will ultimately improve our bottom line.

Good, innovative ideas can come from within an organisation, the industry that organisation operates in or even sectors outside it, so it’s important that we make a concerted effort to support and nurture innovative thinking, but also that we share it.

In order to reap the benefits innovation can bring, we must encourage a culture of it among staff. This, I believe, is
the first step to unlocking imagination within any organisation

What does this mean in practice? Those at management level need to take ownership of ‘innovation’ and instil it in the people they work with. Team effort will help create an open, consistent and encouraging culture, one that strives to continually improve how an organisation operates.

Also, get staff to think differently. At NG Bailey, for example, we hold regular innovation forums, which give our people the chance to voice their ideas. We bring together people from different levels and specialisms, and we share knowledge, encourage ideas and solve problems.

Senior managers then lend their support and turn any ideas that come up in the forum into reality. In addition to the forums, a more structured brainstorm always works well when facing a challenging problem.

We’ve also created an innovation ‘hub’, which is a dedicated space on our intranet. This is crammed full of case studies, links to valuable sources of inspiration, advice on where to go if you have an innovative idea and techniques to encourage the imaginative thought process.

Once the culture is right, setting innovation targets is important to track how innovatively an organisation is operating. But I believe this is secondary. Let’s first embed innovation in people’s minds.

These small steps will ultimately make a big difference in an organisation. People are key. They are the true innovators and the ones that will make things happen, so to allow people and innovation to flourish, a culture needs to be created that promotes a bottom-up process, rather than centralised.

There is no doubt that as an industry we have come on leaps and bounds, but let’s not rest on our laurels – let’s continue to improve. Let’s work together and grab hold of the challenge to breed an innovative culture, which will in turn deliver an opportunity for us all.

Originally published as "An innovative approach" in EMC Jul/Aug 2009