Innovation tends to thrive in an environment where there are less bureaucratic restraints and an appetite for calculated risk. However, without a structured management system in place, experimentation can go awry and great ideas risk falling by the wayside. This is where accountability and autonomy can provide the essential framework to support the innovation process to its full potential.

One of the greatest barriers to successful innovation in the workplace is an inability to get ideas actioned and implemented. A hierarchical structure in which the decision maker is difficult to find and in which there is a lack of transparency with the overarching innovation goals, is often cited as the key issue. For actions to be executed, deadlines need to be set, visibility of key strategic objectives needs to be in place and the freedom to make decisions at all levels within the company needs to be encouraged. Enter autonomy and accountability, the building blocks upon which your innovation strategy can be elevated to the next level.

Innovation and autonomy

Autonomy is defined as a condition of self-government or freedom from external control and influence. It is important to clarify that here we are not just applying the term to individuals but also to teams and groups. The people within your organisation should be the driving force behind your innovation strategy and this is not just applicable to senior staff members. According to a survey by McKinsey, 94% of senior executives say that people and corporate culture are the most important drivers of innovation. An autonomous workplace culture is about giving both individuals and teams ownership of their ideas and the freedom to make decisions.

94% of senior executives say that people and corporate culture are the most important drivers of innovation.

Not to be taken as an opposition to collaboration, autonomy is about uniting teams as self-functioning units in which they have space to try, fail, learn and succeed. Innovation is inherently about pushing boundaries, taking risks and stepping outside of a safe space. If senior members of staff are administering too much control over this process then creativity is stifled and teams are not given the required space to generate new and exciting ideas.

Innovation and accountability

Innovation is typically associated with experimentation, creativity and positive change. On the other hand, accountability is all about responsibility and can carry unfair connotations of liability and even guilt where failure is involved. It may therefore seem strange to suggest that one should support the other. However, it is exactly this combination that can help mediate the complexities and barriers present in the innovation process. Innovation needs creativity to start but it also needs structure to work; accountability provides the necessary framework within which ideas can thrive.

Accountability is about accepting responsibility for both failures and successes. Crucially though, it is not about creating a blame culture where failure equals liability and punishment; on the contrary, it’s about empowerment and learning. In pushing the decision-making to a lower level, an organisation will encourage collaboration, motivate staff and therefore facilitate a greater innovation output.

Breaking down the hierarchy barrier

Currently many organisations operate with a traditional, top-down hierarchical structure in which decisions can only be made by senior staff. Given that these people are usually overworked and exceptionally busy, ideas tend to stall at the implementation stage, failing to ever make it to fruition. Supporting teams to take ownership of their ideas makes them accountable for the decision process and serves as valuable motivation to make the idea work.

Teams need to be accountable for their decisions to help moderate what is otherwise an ‘anything goes’ process.

This does not, however, take responsibility away from senior members of staff altogether. In order to establish a culture of autonomy and accountability, senior staff must be seen to approve and encourage the approach. Innovation should be wired into the overarching business objectives within your organisation and the relevant funding and resources should be readily available. Without top-level accountability, it is unlikely to filter down into the rest of the organisation.

Stamping out a ‘maybe later’ culture

Ultimately, including autonomy and accountability in your innovation strategy is about preventing a ‘maybe later’ workplace culture. Without the appropriate ownership of ideas, the process of implementation becomes long, convoluted and stagnant. To summarise, our primary tips and recommendations to support your innovation strategy with an appropriate workplace culture are as follows:

  • Encourage both individuals and teams to operate autonomously, giving them the creative space needed to generate ideas, make decisions and establish a solid implementation process.
  • Create a workplace culture of positive accountability in which employees feel empowered to accept responsibility and have the confidence to try and fail.
  • Ensure that senior members of staff are all aligned to the same innovation strategy and that the key business objectives are transparent across the organisation.

Innovation should be about creativity, discovery and change but teams need to be accountable for their decisions to help moderate what is otherwise an ‘anything goes’ process. With autonomy comes independence and with accountability comes urgency; it is this combination that provides the perfect motivation to propel ideas forward.

By Jessie Moore

About the author

Jessie Moore is an innovation consultant at Idea Drop, a smart and intuitive idea management software designed to capture the brightest ideas from within organisations. Working closely with the founders, Charlie de Rusett and Owen Hunnam, the team live and breathe innovation. Idea Drop’s global client base spans Fortune 500 engineering companies, UK police forces and SMEs across 61 countries and 318 cities.