work smarter not harder

Pushing Boundaries Through Clever Innovation

Ideas tabled by team members can be the key to improving processes and driving product improvement but how can an organisation create a culture of innovation? 

Is laziness the mother of invention? If you’re a fan of social media memes, you may well have seen a picture of Bill Gates, captioned with the words: “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job, because a lazy person will find an easier way to do it.”  

Despite a lack of hard evidence that the Microsoft Founder actually uttered these words, the quotation has sparked a flurry of articles exploring the possibility that laziness might just be a catalyst for innovation within organisations. The theory is that lazy team members will always be looking for ways to reduce their workload. Consequently, they will find new and smarter ways of doing things.  

Regardless of whether the lazy = innovation equation stands up to scrutiny, what we can say with certainty is that every company stands to benefit from fostering a culture in which the status quo is always challenged. The question is, how can you foster an innovation culture?  

We Don’t Have to Work So Hard 

Well, the first thing that must be said is that – counterintuitive and provocative as it sounds – there is a certain amount of truth in the Gates-attributed quotation.  

Many organisations do have working processes that could be streamlined or improved. Team members work hard – and are often celebrated for doing so – and they get results. The problem is that because the status quo delivers results, inefficiencies become embedded in the system. Then along comes a “lazy” person who says: “You know what. We really don’t have to work so hard to get this done.”  

There’s some evidence to support the view that this might be the case, although we’re not necessarily talking about laziness as most would define it. Back in 2016, Professor Todd McElroy of Greenboro College in the US published research suggesting that most human beings have similar amounts of energy, but it is deployed differently. Some rise early, go to the gym and work solidly for eight or ten hours. Others sleep late, take long breaks, and prioritise thinking time. They have a need for cognition, as the researchers put it.  

McElroy said those in the second group tend to focus on problem-solving rather than hard work for its own sake. In that respect, they could be innovators within your organisation. The ones who can help you to work smarter, not harder. They see how things could be done better but with a lot less effort.  

The underlying message is innovation within a business does not stem exclusively from senior managers and visionaries within the C-suite but from team members at all levels. There may be a range of motivations – from a desire to finish “on time” every day to frustrations around inefficiencies – but employees working at the coalface are often best placed to propose and deliver improvements that will deliver better product quality and higher productivity.  

And with that in mind, it makes sense to encourage all employees to play an active role in questioning and improving working practices.  

Fighting the Fear  

It might not be easy. Recent reports found that fear can put the brakes on efforts to create an innovation culture. For instance, managers fear losing control. Employees worry that actively engaging with innovation initiatives could have a damaging impact on their careers. They sense, perhaps, that trying and failing to improve working practices will reflect badly on them.  

Added to that, there is the fear of a negative reaction. If you put your head above the parapet and suggest changes that run counter to prevailing practices, you may be subject to criticism or ridicule. To counter these fears, reports show says organisations , where innovation is incentivised and encouraged, tend to do better.  

But there is a fundamental question to be addressed. Businesses can incentivise and empower employees, but if team members are starting early, working late and struggling to stay on top of the tasks at hand, they may not be particularly inclined to be particularly innovative. Yes, you can say there is an incentive to improve working practices and cut workload, but maybe, in reality, there isn’t too much time to think about how.  

Organisations can help by looking at their workplace culture. A study by the Journal of Research in Personality found a number of reasons why employees find it difficult to cope with work and stay motivated. These include poorly designed working environments without quiet spaces; long hours; culture; low levels of engagement with working processes and poor wages.  

Employers can take steps to address all of these issues. For instance, quiet spaces give team members an opportunity to gather their thoughts. Equally important, is a shift from a working-for-the-sake-of-it culture to an ethos that encourages a focus on the best way to achieve the desired outcome can ultimately boost productivity. 

Empowerment can also deliver results. In a separate report focused on the pharmaceutical industry, McKinsey looked at the benefits of making all employees – not just managers and highly technical staff – responsible for quality. The report finds that giving all employees a degree of ownership of process and outcome drives innovation and improvement. Although the report is specific to the drugs sector, its principles can easily be applied to other industries.  

Team members have the knowledge and experience to drive change. The challenge for employers is to create conditions that will allow staff to address their frustrations and come up with solutions. The reward is improved performance coupled with higher levels of motivation and staff retention.