British firms need human ingenuity to face the productivity challenge, now more than ever before

6th December 2019 - Chris Strong

Chris Strong, director of skills and employability at IVE, gives some pointers on how UK businesses can address the ongoing stagnation in productivity that many industries are seeing.

Construction site manager

A version of this article was first published on November 29th 2019 by CIN News.

Be efficient, design think, adopt best practice, use new tech, be risky, innovate, drive change and perform highly… all so obvious. So straight forward in fact, that if you follow this checklist for a perfect systematised ecology of productivity, you can take your company and become a market leader just in time for the general election, or Christmas.

For some reason, as easy as it is to suggest these as the answers to our problems, the UK continues to experience a stagnation in productivity. When success is so straight forward, why is that so? Perhaps one reason is that businesses, great and small, do not have the opportunity to take the time-out to think and behave differently. Not only with what they deliver and what they produce, but in how they go about their every-day working lives. Subsequently there can be less motivation or confidence to properly explore ways to reach new markets or to ‘innovate’ the products and services on offer. This concerning situation is exacerbated by the sheer number of uncertainties we’re facing, like Brexit, or the swift progress of AI which, as stated in the Government’s Industrial Strategy, ‘will disrupt nearly every sector in every country, creating new opportunities and challenges for people, places and businesses to which we must respond.’

We know things are changing but where do we begin in adapting to that change or the next change in front of that one? PEST, PESTLE, SWOT…sweat – where do you anchor your bottom line in constant uncertainty? It can be easier to, cross your fingers, keep your head down and just get on with it as before.

The brutal truth is that as human beings, we crave certainty, we’re comfortable with the known, we distrust ambiguity and when things get tough we long for a magic bullet – the certainty of pastures new. For many of us, school and education demonstrated that to achieve is to know the right answer. Our leaders, must be unwavering in their certainty, their confidence in the next ‘right’ step. And so perhaps we’ve not been set right? To ride a wave of constant unknowns, where you don’t know the right answer until someone else, by miraculous revelation, innovates it first. It’s easier, although lazy, to be cynical of doing or thinking in a way that’s different to the norm.

Interestingly the World Economic Forum cites creativity, complex problem solving, originality, and emotional intelligence amongst the trending skills we need for our future workforce. Let’s unpick these a little:

We recently worked with the ECITB (Engineering Construction Industry Training Board) on a specific challenge that one of their leaders had been grappling with for some time. It was ambiguous, it had scale and layers of complexity. Importantly, it was authentic in that the problem owner genuinely did not know how to solve it – having tried numerous solutions, but none had adequately solved the problem.

So, what did we do?

  1. We played games, lots of games (with learning of-course). We did this to break down barriers and get into a mind-set where the world is full of endless possibility, where you can connect unlikely things, where our day-to-day constraints and stresses dissipate and we leave ‘risk’ at the door. N.B. This is not blue-sky thinking, please.
  2. The team had to respond to a range of unrelated problems with progressive levels of challenge whilst also testing out different behaviours (negative, sceptical, cynical or being disinterested vs constructive, empathetic, curious, and being attentive). Which behaviours would you want to encourage in your teams?
  3. We looked at how we can articulate problems, including assumptions that are made in the language we use and how certain words can mean different things to each of us. We looked at how we can explore a challenge or problem with a greater depth of meaning, interpretation and adventure, through a range of communication methods.
  4. Crucially when they returned to the real challenge, they had a different mind-set, specific problem solving tools and processes and whilst testing out different types of behaviour, they were able to explore and interpret the challenge in a different way to ever before.

In bringing this challenge to a collaborative and creative forum, the problem owner shared what the problem was, why it was a problem, what they had previously tried and sought a response through a constructive process with an enlightened team. This led to the realisation of what an ideal solution could look like, and an action plan to get there.

Instead of just hoping people fit in, or locking them in an ‘innovation room’, we should make the understanding or language of behaviour more explicit. Not just in words, but through lived working experience. And if we invest in taking the timeout to reflect on this experience and discuss how we can adapt our ways of working; we can then recognise and embed ‘best practice’. We can develop a culture more fit for innovation and ‘high performing teams’. We can shift problems to opportunities and create effective and resilient employees, even in these uncertain times. I appreciate this can start to sound a bit vague or idealistic. We’re dealing with people and much nuance, so the change needs to be grounded in conventional aspects of organisational management and leadership. That’s why we dive into organisational vision and values, principles of leadership and management, organisational structure, the way we handle collaborations as well as professional development, operational planning, transformation and change… There is a golden thread here, that at IVE we’re preparing to pilot through new apprenticeship curriculum, our response to the challenge or opportunity of apprenticeship standards. We’re looking at how leadership, management and supervisor training can be used to highlight skills, knowledge and behaviours that switch on the human creativity that drives Innovation and pays dividends.

Bear in mind, establishing an innovation culture, isn’t always about the next big product though. The change we see can be more subtle in appearance – it can be the person who is always having good ideas, actually putting them into action. It can be having the confidence to say ‘I don’t know’, but by this time next week we will be one step closer’. It can be the change from just doing what you’re told verbatim, to picking up the phone and making something happen. This kind of culture is driven by people at all levels, enabling innovation big and small to be accessed through those closest to the problem. It’s also a high trust ‘empowered’ culture, but with the same or greater accountability.

In establishing this kind of culture with our clients, we’ve realised that seizing opportunity, is both individual and accumulative. We’ve shown that creativity is powerful, but needs structure and rigour. And where we find organisations where innovation thrives, they’ve learnt to embrace the unknown and that failure does not mean defeat, it means try again in a different way.

IVE is a progressive training company that places human creativity at the heart of business productivity and innovation. For more information on our training, visit our Hothouse page.

For information and quotes on our training for business, please contact SharonL@weareive.org

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