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Michael Bush: Make Every Employee an Innovator

The way Michael C. Bush sees it, there are companies that cause disruption, and those that fear disruption.  

Says Bush, CEO of Oakland-based Great Place to Work, the latter type of organization tends to do things the way it’s always done them, even when the old ways clearly don’t work anymore. This type of company is hostile toward change, rather than seeing it as an opportunity, and has a culture in which workers feel that bold new ideas aren’t welcome.  

On the other hand, a disruptive organization is home to an “innovation by all” culture—a work atmosphere in which risk-taking is not only accepted, it is encouraged, according to Bush. 

“Everyone with a smartphone is an innovator. And companies and leaders have to have that point of view,” he says. “Employees need to be treated a certain way in order to help unleash their creativity. And employees will think more creatively and, frankly, work harder, based on the experience they’re having with the organization. Companies try to make it complicated, but it’s as simple as that.” 

At the i4cp 2019 Next Practices Now Conference, Bush will discuss how making every employee feel like an innovator spurs the type of fearless creativity that makes an organization a disruptive force in their industry and in the marketplace.  

Eliminate Friction with Transparency

Of course, the environment that employees operate in is complex and always changing. There are many factors that figure to reshape the workplace in the next few years. HR must assess how these changes will affect their workers, says Bush.  

“HR leaders need to work with their business partners to determine the impact that, say, machine learning is going to have on work, or the impact that artificial intelligence is going to have on work, or the impact that gig economy is going to have on work.” 

Artificial intelligence, for instance, could have a positive effect on the workplace, says Bush, noting that AI will ultimately result in a net gain in the number of jobs it creates. While this might be great news for knowledge workers, other employees might fear that they’ll lose their jobs and some of them will. HR leaders must step up and communicate these realities candidly in order to be a credible, trusted leader.  

“HR needs to be the voice of humanity, and maintain leadership’s credibility with the workforce,” he says, “by talking about what’s likely to happen. And if that means that some jobs will be affected, then HR should focus on what the company is going to do in terms of reskilling affected workers and getting them into adaptive learning environments. In other words, focus on what the company is doing to help them keep their jobs and thrive.” 

The leaders of organizations that thrive in the face of change aren’t afraid to occasionally fail—and to learn from and improve as a result of its failures.  

Research from i4cp bears this out. In The Three A’s of Organizational Agility: Reinvention Through Disruption, for example, i4cp identified “employment of tactics to increase risk tolerance and decrease fear of failure in the effort to drive more continuous innovation” as one of the five traits of agile leaders and organizations.  

In that study, i4cp found that high-performance organizations—defined as those that consistently outperform their competitors in the marketplace—were 2.8x more effective than their low-performance counterparts in terms of allowing employees to take risks. High-performance organizations are also 2.8x more effective at encouraging and rewarding innovations.  

Looking ahead, Bush views an organization’s willingness to take risks continuing to be a key differentiator in the years ahead. He also urges leaders and organizations to rethink the definition of innovation itself. (Bush’s Great Place to Work recently released its research paper on Innovation by All.)  

“Innovation is often misunderstood. People immediately think of technology when they think of innovation. But that’s not what innovation is for most companies. Innovation is employees feeling safe to offer ideas, and innovation is quickly testing out these ideas with less than 10% of the employees providing friction 

“We all want employees who occasionally think about their work and how they can make it better while they’re walking the dog, or while they’re in the shower,” he continues. “Because we all know that people have to give that extra effort to innovate. People enjoy their work and don’t struggle with balance when their work has meaning.” 

Bush offers suggestions to inspire employees to want to give that extra something. For example, he recommends frequently asking workers to share their ideas for projects and improving practices, making sure they’re informed of decisions that affect their work, provide frequent opportunities for collaboration, and proffering feedback as to how their ideas are being put into practice, or why they’re not being put into action.  

“Doing all of these things signal to employees that they’re being treated fairly,” says Bush, “and that they’re being encouraged to innovate.”