How to foster employee-led innovation: lessons from Dropbox

Most business leaders view innovation as a key imperative, but what many don’t recognise is that innovation doesn’t just happen through top-down investment in research and development. Rather, it involves people across the organisation identifying and acting on opportunities, and it manifests itself in a wide variety of outcomes, from new products and services to new business models and new ways of working. But in order for innovation from the bottom-up to be successful, it needs constant monitoring and championing from the top.

A believer in employee-led innovation, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”. But while alluring in principle, employee-led innovation is difficult to manage in practice. Staff may have great ideas about how products and internal processes could be improved, but the reality is that most of these ideas never get off the ground, and those that do tend to get stalled by formal procedures and governance processes characteristic of large enterprises.

Employee engagement

Innovation as a bottom-up activity is about doing things that go beyond the job description. However, this implies that employees take time away from what they are being paid to do, and many business leaders struggle with how to make it work without compromising efficiency. One of the most important concepts for businesses to understand in the new world of technology is that innovation isn’t just a one-time event – it needs to be embedded within the culture of a company.

The first step is to engage employees, because engaged employees will bring more creativity and motivation to work every day. But how does leadership take this one step further, and encourage staff to develop entirely new products, services or ways of working that impact the organisation’s long term success?

Lessons from Dropbox

Dropbox is a company founded on the principles of innovation, and it continues to make it part of its modus operandi. In his presentation at the recent CIO Summit in Sydney, Solutions Architect at Dropbox, Daniel Iversen, offered advice on bringing innovation into the workplace through employees, and at scale. He explained that with so many technological and cultural considerations, weaving organic innovation into the enterprise requires a lot of effort, and emphasised the need for top-down support to effect any change within the organisation.

Dropbox accelerates the innovation process with its annual ‘Hack Week’, a period of five days where teams all over the world work on a project of their choice. A vote is held at the conclusion of the week, and the best 10-15 projects are presented to the C-suite, where the logistics of bringing the ideas into the company are discussed and a strategy devised. A testament to the process’ effectiveness, Iversen announced that half of Dropbox’s innovation to date has come out of Hack Week, and many of these have become common product features, such as read-only shared folders, ‘Recents’, and file requests. As Iversen said, “Hack Week helps Dropbox become more innovative and agile, but it’s also a better way of retaining talent because people know they can make a change”.

Iversen’s advice to IT leaders was to look at what employees are doing to innovate. What new devices and cloud apps are they bringing in to the organisation? He explained that Dropbox got its start in many client organisations through the line of business as ‘shadow IT’. In fact, it is through this method that Dropbox evolved from a consumer startup to the global business supplier it is today. 500 million Dropbox users brought the unauthorised app into eight million businesses, causing it to become so pervasive that administrators demanded an enterprise-level version with security and management features. Iversen encouraged CIOs to understand that in bringing in new technologies and apps, employees aren’t trying to spite IT; they are looking for new ways to improve productivity and collaboration. IT leaders need to take advantage of what Iversen calls “shadow innovation” and use it to amplify success throughout the organisation.

Controlled creativity

Innovation comes from the bottom; strategy comes from the top. If employees have the time and resources, they will come up with ways to create efficiencies and foster collaboration, but it’s then up to business and IT leaders to advance them. Dropbox’s Hack Week initiative isn’t achievable for everyone, but it’s an example of embedding innovation within the culture of an organisation, and shows that innovation must be carefully structured and controlled. Life in the digital age is fast and agile – businesses need to be so as well.

If you’re a business or technology leader looking to drive innovation in your organisation, download our complimentary how-to guide: The age of innovation: When change is no longer an option

Tags Innovation, CIO summit, employee engagement, IT leaders, Shadow IT


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