Written by Rachael Quinn, Technical Director and Paul Marsh, Associate Director, Intelligent Transport Services, WSP UK

Often when we are asked to think of examples of innovation, our first thoughts go to those disruptors who have created a breakthrough technology or app, such as Dyson, Apple or Uber. But innovation isn’t just about developing new products. Distinctive operating practices, managerial methods, and even business strategies can be innovative. At its heart, innovation is a concept that’s intertwined with creativity – using imagination or original ideas to create something new.

Why innovate?
Put simply, we innovate because the world doesn’t stand still. There has never been a greater opportunity or imperative to enable resilience. 
A changing world – whether it’s dramatic shifts such as climate change, or subtle developments like people’s changing work patterns –  affects the goals, priorities, structures and ways of working for and within every organisation. Across the highways sector, we need to continuously change so that we remain aligned with the needs and expectations of our clients and their customers.

Creating a culture of innovation
Innovation is not a ‘nice to have’; it’s a must. To be innovative, organisations need to foster a culture of trust that empowers people to test new ideas and to accept, and learn from failure. When this culture has seeped into every level of an organisation, it becomes second nature rather than something that you can switch on and off.  This is much easier to say than it is to do - so what can we do to help create it? 

- Challenge your perspective

One way of encouraging innovation is to reframe questions and problems to find a different perspective. For example, can we learn something from Apple’s culture of innovation and entrepreneurial leadership that enabled an environment where new ideas could be debated, challenged and tested without fear of failure?

- Conversations are gold

The power of conversation should never be underestimated -  whether making coffee in the kitchen, walking to catch a train, in meeting on Skype, or in a myriad of other day to day situations. How often have you returned to your work feeling inspired or with a seed of an idea, or perhaps with renewed direction after being questioned on your assumptions? Conversations are so powerful, not only can we use them to build relationships, make an impact and get different perspectives, we can join dots that we might not have seen before.

- Get the right mix of people

Working with others creates opportunities to push boundaries and create a diversity of thought, ideas and experiences that helps us to develop new solutions and outcomes. The right mix of people isn’t just about internal colleagues, it’s about how we increase our empathy, trust and engagement with our clients, stakeholders and customers. Collaborating with these groups across the product or service lifecycle gives us the ability to test and explore what may work in practice.

As much as we try, building a culture that enables innovation doesn’t come easy, and it’s up to all of us to build it and keep it going. Getting the right perspective, people and relationships in place takes time, but getting it right really can lead to great things for our clients, their customers, society as a whole and ourselves, both now and in the future.

Read the other articles in our leadership series