Sep 06, 2016

    Help staff to see things in a new light

    WITH Singapore's push towards becoming a smart nation, business leaders are looking for ways to encourage employees to be more innovative.

    However, innovation is difficult to define from a business point of view, and even harder to instil retroactively.

    Fundamentally, it is about people and how they behave.

    Building an innovative work culture means that everyone in the organisation needs to think how to do things differently or more effectively for improved outcomes.

    It also means encouraging individuals and teams to challenge the status quo.

    It is easier to create this type of culture from the beginning.

    This is why start-ups and small businesses tend to be more innovative than their larger counterparts.

    Having begun my career in a start-up, it is obvious why this is so.

    For start-ups, you are competing with larger players who have bigger budgets, more experience and established networks.

    If you cannot be innovative enough to create improved products, services or processes, your start-up will not survive.

    Of course, larger organisations can also work on becoming more innovative.

    However, it requires behaviour change and commitment from everyone. Here are some strategies to boost innovation in your organisation.


    As innovation is about doing things differently, it flourishes in an environment where people are willing to take risks and try out new ideas.

    Some, if not most, of these new ideas will fail while others could become successful.

    You need to reward the individual or team for taking the risk itself, and not just reward them if the new idea results in a positive outcome.

    Encourage teams to learn from the risks that fail, try to understand why it did not work and build from there.

    Taking risks can be daunting, especially when the stakes are high.

    In these cases, start with smaller, measured risks that can lead to incremental improvements.

    You can later scale up.

    The management, on the other hand, needs to think on how to remove roadblocks that impede risk-taking behaviour.

    At Zendesk, we see failures as the mothers of innovation, and encourage teams to openly share both successes and failures.

    At regular townhall meetings, product teams discuss their "fail moments", sometimes in a serious manner, other times in a light-hearted way - but always in a constructive manner.

    Don't take failure too seriously. Instead, learn from it.


    Innovation does not just occur in a laboratory.

    Encouraging innovation must be done across departments, with a top-down and bottom-up approach.

    Middle management tends to be where a lot of behaviour is reinforced, so look for the right middle management that has the leadership skills to encourage the right behaviour change.

    Discuss the type of behaviours that are important to foster innovation within your organisation, and what employees in each department and level should try to do.

    Follow through by bringing in new metrics and key performance indicators for innovation.

    A bottom-up approach is often effective as teams on the ground usually know what needs changing.

    New employees are great at questioning existing processes, policies and habits that stifle innovation.

    Another good strategy is to look at the needs and problems voiced by customers.

    This is not as easy as it sounds, as some employees in larger companies will have little chance to interact with customers.

    At Zendesk, we have a weekly "serving party", where employees who are typically distanced from the customer (such as designers, engineers and marketing staff) get the opportunity to serve customers through live chat or via e-mail.

    Not only does this help staff understand customers' problems better, it also gives them a chance to test out innovative new features of our products.

    Every company can create its own projects or initiatives to encourage innovation.


    When my start-up, Zopim, was first acquired by Zendesk in 2014, I was worried that there would be a huge culture change for me and my team.

    Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Even though I moved from working in a 30-man team based mainly in Singapore and the Philippines, to a 1,000+ strong team, based across the United States, Europe and Asia overnight, the corporate culture was still very much like a start-up.

    Product teams operate in groups of around 10 people.

    Each team has a head, who acts like the "start-up chief executive", as well as the necessary staff to carry out the project.

    The head will communicate the sense and purpose to the team so everyone is going in the right direction.

    Each team will have a strongly defined charter, to prevent overlapping with another team's area.

    The hierarchy is flat and everyone's contribution is welcome. All staff - from the newest intern to the founder - are comfortable talking with each other.

    Having a team that trusts and motivates itself is great at encouraging innovation.

    However, if you want to benefit from innovation, you need to make change happen.

    Every day.

    The writer is the general manager of Zendesk Message, a software from Zendesk that helps businesses message customers at scale. Zendesk is a company that builds software for

    better customer relationships.