Over the last few years in my role at Fidelity International, I have been looking to understand more about our approach to innovation and how we respond to change in the global marketplace. Over that period, I have also spent time talking to a number of other companies about the thinking behind their innovation models.

Any conference or seminar you attend these days seems to be focused on new methodologies, strategies and, most of all, new technologies. We are constantly hearing about AI, Robotics, Big Data, Cloud, Agile feedback cycles, ideation and innovation. Rarely though, do we talk about our people or why we really need to innovate.

Survival Anxiety

Publications, presentations and organisations are looking at current and future market trends and asking: What will be the next client demand? How will they expect to interact? How can we automate? Whilst it’s vital to understand where we want to go and what our customers will need to create an effective innovation strategy, it is imperative to understand why you need to innovate – and to identify the threats to your organisation if you don’t. You want to try and introduce that very human trait of ‘Survival Anxiety’, albeit at an organisational level. By undertaking this threat analysis, it becomes easier to quantify both the need for change and where your company is most exposed.

Survival anxiety comes from a fear of what happens when your current world is disrupted. It creates a realisation that, in order to survive, we must constantly adapt. In the annals of corporate history, we have seen behemoths topple where the threat of disruption has been met with complacency. Clearly, none of us want to follow suit, so the language we all use has changed. Buzzwords have come to the fore and, across the land, organisational rhetoric is now loud and proud about the need to change and progress.

But what really happens when everyone gets back to their desks and BAU pressures continue? The answer: often, nothing really changes.

Due to traditional incentive structures, management often remain focused on the immediate pressures of delivery, while staff continue to focus on the task at hand. The need for change and innovation is therefore often pushed into tomorrow’s ‘to do’ pile. There will be the odd flurry of activity with suggestions of “let’s have a Hackathon!” or “we need your ideas on X” but once this initial activity is over and pats on the back have been proffered, brilliant ideas and concepts can often be lost as it’s simply too hard to find the additional time or sponsorship to progress.

Why does this happen?

Why this happens is probably not revolutionary. My view is that most companies still fail to engage or rally their collective staff behind organisational ambitions, so the threat or opportunities posed at a corporate level are really seen as somebody else’s problem by those who work there. What is important to the company is sometimes disconnected from what’s important to the individuals who work there.

For decades, we have been complicit in creating an industry focused on the ‘9 to 5’ culture, with complex hierarchies and people isolated at their workstations, completing the daily tasks in front of them. We’ve conditioned people to simply do the job at hand without ever really risking putting their heads above the parapet. Objectives are created to be ‘specific’ and ‘measurable’, while dates or targets are set, which quickly become set in stone – inflexible to changing pressures or opportunities. This is nobody’s fault. It is simply the way we have been educated. Nevertheless, it has stunted our natural curiosity and created a palpable fear of failure.

So, where does this fit into the overall narrative? Well, the problem is, that a person’s survival anxiety is very personal to them. It’s an instinct to keep their job if or when cuts take place. Their focus can often be to ensure that they simply protect what is theirs, outperform the person in the next cubicle, work to task, hit their targets and keep their head down.

Creating worker engagement

If we are serious about innovation, it’s worth assessing how engaged our people really are with the organisation and how far they are empowered to act. We have to start thinking about how we reverse a psychology created through years of working to task and centred on orderly targets. We must find a way to remove the age-old fear of taking risks created by traditional management approaches. We need to get people to buy into a wider vision, where they are excited and engaged about finding new solutions for their organisation.

How have we tackled this at Fidelity?

The honest answer is a combination of patience and a continued reconfirmation of our values and client focus, coupled with a clear vision of how everyone can play a role in our success.

We are fortunate, in that innovation has long been part of Fidelity’s heritage and continues to be at the core of what we do. Indeed, we have a growing global capability that takes the best ideas from our staff and looks for new ways of innovating and utilising cutting-edge client solutions. In recent years, we have explored the use of new, breakthrough tools and technologies across our business. We have changed our environments but, most importantly, in recent years we’ve really challenged the one factor that is often overlooked in the buzz around innovation – our culture and behaviour – especially around mindsets and the empowerment of our people.

An ongoing journey

This is very much a journey we are still on and it has not always been easy. As a company, we have become more transparent about our challenges and opportunities. We’ve opened a range of channels, including an ideation platform, communities of practice, and formalised programmes of work, to engage our staff and ask for their help to resolve challenges at an enterprise level. The rhetoric has moved from ‘task-based’ and ‘plan-driven’ to ‘directional’ and ‘empowering’, giving our staff the freedom to become part of the wider solution, outside of the confines of the BAU role.

It may sound obvious, but asking your staff to raise and discuss ideas on how we can improve as an organisation provides remarkable insight… after all, these are the people who know your company best; they work there every day and see the issues and opportunities, first-hand.  Asking for their input creates a company-wide dialogue that can be built upon. From experience however, in order to create this continued buy-in, it is imperative to respond and back any great ideas right through to the delivery stage. In demonstrating the early shoots of change, you can slowly cultivate a broader engagement.

Changing mindsets

This engagement doesn’t happen overnight and, before you can expect to see the potential game-changing ideas come through from your team, think firstly about how to draw out the ideas that matter most to your staff. Change the dress code, remove partitions or make changes to the physical environment… if it’s raised, even change the lift music! By taking these small steps and showing that the organisation is listening, buy-in and belief will start to grow and mindsets will start to change.

At Fidelity, our aim has been to create a culture akin to a smaller organisation, where people can really see the value they can add and have the opportunity to learn and take on initiatives that push them way beyond their comfort zone – without the fear of getting it wrong.

As an organisation, we have had to learn that, to get where we want to go, we first need to have the opportunity to experiment and learn through trial and error. After all, none of us could ride a bike the first time we tried. It has been a winding journey, one that we are still on, but fast-forwarding to present day, we now have self-driven and self-forming teams, tackling issues outside of the daily norms, with people across the organisation coming together to ideate on new concepts and rekindling a curious energy that they may previously have lost somewhere along the way. We even have an internal TEDx event that runs on a global basis. This was conceptualised and delivered by our graduates and young leaders, offering a great example of what can happen when people are inspired, engaged and empowered to make a difference.

My overall point is this: you don’t create success by mandate alone; you firstly need remove the barriers and unleash the creativity of your people. It is the energy, enthusiasm and imagination of your team that binds together with the relevant skills, knowledge and technology to achieve your desired outcomes.  If you manage to get this right, differentiated innovation begins to happen.