13 November 2012

Innovation has become an essential ingredient of modern business. But how does it happen and what can be done to encourage it?

It's easy to agree that innovation really matters whatever business you're in, but how does innovation really happen? And what can be done to encourage and support staff in making it happen even more? These are some of the questions tackled by Gary Holpin, founder of ThinkUP - a small team dedicated to innovation at the Met Office.

"I've always been interested in innovation, and my day job involves coming up with new product concepts," Gary explains. "ThinkUP began when I was looking for product ideas and I asked myself: how can we come up with great ideas when we need them? Is there more we can do?"

The Met Office has innovation at its core, pioneering advances in weather and climate science since its inception over 150 years ago. Today it continues to embrace new technologies from solar panels powering supercomputers to embracing new platforms such as social media.

Recognising that continued improvement must be at the core of any highly innovative organisation, Gary and a small group of like-minded Met Office staff decided to dedicate some time alongside their day jobs to learn what makes certain companies so innovative. The team visited several brand leaders including Google and Vodafone to research the aspects of their businesses that makes this possible.

The conditions for innovation

Gary and ThinkUP found that as well as treating innovation as a priority, many companies use certain 'magic ingredients' to increase their staff's creative potential and opportunities for innovation, including:

 - A working environment that encourages informal collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

 - A way for staff to share and build their ideas with other staff and managers.

 - The opportunity and support to work on new ideas unrelated to their day jobs within the working day.

 - Encouraging behaviours that give ideas a chance to grow rather than killing them too soon.

 - Encouraging staff to constructively challenge the ways things are done, and take the initiative in finding better ways.

 - Developing an understanding of how to tap into the creative abilities we all have, but many of us have forgotten how to use effectively.

Thorough this learning, the team set about implementing simple proven strategies to further accelerate the full creative potential of Met Office staff for the benefit of our customers.

"The exact mix of ingredients varies from company to company," says Gary, "but it's possible to identify a number of recurring themes, at the Met Office and elsewhere and these are backed up by academic research."

But the continuous drive for innovation at the Met Office is about more than direct business growth, he says. "Research has proven that companies that prioritise innovation are not only more successful, but their staff have greater job satisfaction."

Gary has found some companies particularly inspiring. "Visiting Google was great because as soon as you walk through the door it's obvious that they've achieved their success through making it easier for their staff to be innovative, like giving all engineers one day per week to work on a pet project chosen by them and not their managers," he says.

"Vodafone was also really interesting. They've embraced new technology to enable their staff to work anywhere, which means people aren't at fixed desks or stuck in meeting rooms all the time - they can work anywhere they need to, with the people they need to work with."

How is this research influencing what happens at the Met Office? "We realise that for people to engage with innovation we need to understand what works for us as an organisation," he says.

"We have a lot of learning from outside, but it needs to be relevant to us so we can support the innovation we already have here. Our focus is also about individuals. We realise that innovation and creativity comes from individuals feeling confident and free to explore their creativity and develop their ideas.

"We also recognise we have many different types of people here who work and innovate in different ways, so we need to respect those differences, understand them and tailor the tools and support we provide to their particular requirements."

This autumn marks an important step change in ThinkUP and innovation at the Met Office.

As Gary explains, "Many of the behaviours, tools and techniques that have been shown to support individual innovation in organisations - and which ThinkUP has successfully introduced and germinated at the Met Office - are now to be adopted as standard practice by the organisation as a whole. We're delighted that the Met Office has seen sufficient value in what we've started, and wants to embrace new innovation techniques and approaches."

Some ideas that started out as ThinkUP projects have since grown into real products, and are now beginning to generate commercial revenue. For example, an online forecasting system called Weather Windows is already helping airport operations staff make more confident weather-sensitive planning decisions. Another, albeit smaller, success was a new line of Met Office T-shirts designed by a Met Office employee which have generated new commercial revenue and some positive press coverage.

The seeds of change

Since 2009, the ThinkUP team has trialled a range of tools and techniques with a focus on supporting creativity and innovation.

Idea Street
An online ideas platform developed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for increasing public sector innovation. It gives staff a place to voice their ideas and comment on others'. The owners of the most promising ideas are encouraged to take their ideas forward.

The ThinkUP Academy
A one-day introduction to creative thinking and innovation, designed to equip staff with the basic tools for being more creative in their day-to-day work. The scheme has been so successful that several high-profile customers and partners, including staff from Wrigley, EDF and BIS, have attended the course.

The ThinkTank
A relaxed, dedicated work space to aid creative thinking, developed by ThinkUP. The team also works with property management and technical teams at the Met Office to ensure planned changes to the working environment meet with innovation best practice.

ThinkUP has developed close links with EDF, the University of Exeter, the BIS innovation team and the South African Met Service, to name but a few, to share experiences and research with others working in the field of innovation.

Coming out of a "Hack Day" run independently from ThinkUP is an app called Growers' Nation that determines what produce to grow and when, given the soil type and current seasonal conditions, has achieved similar success. In fact, it recently won the global NASA space apps challenge in the Galactic Impact category.

As Gary puts it, "We don't care where and how innovation happens, we just want to help Met Office staff by supporting them or suggesting tools and techniques that they may not previously considered. ThinkUP sees any innovation across the Met Office as a positive thing for staff, the Met Office and most of all, our customers."

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