March 13, 2023
Building Cleo

Introducing: Firebreak Weeks

Collaborate. Innovate. Create. Fell explains our approach to innovation at Cleo.

Why a lack of time is stymying innovation – and what businesses can do about it

Stories of great innovation often come from unlikely places, and not always from the people formally tasked with creating new products and solutions.

Take the London Tube Map, for example. In the early 1930s, the map looked very different to the one we’re used to now – it followed the real-world geography of the city and, consequently, everyone found it pretty difficult to navigate.

The enduring, iconic design that we know and love today was created by Harry Beck, an engineer at the London Underground, who knew that there was room for something better. While drawing an electrical circuit diagram, Beck came up with a new idea for a map that was based upon the concept of an electrical schematic - on which all the stations were more-or-less equally spaced. As it turned out, this approach was much easier to design and much easier for customers to follow.

Harry Beck’s story shows us that innovation can come from anywhere within an organisation – which is why it’s so important to foster a culture where new ideas are encouraged and nurtured.

But there’s one problem. Finding the time to challenge the status quo and come up with something that genuinely breaks the mould can often feel like an impossible ask. We tend to get stuck in our day jobs and struggle to create opportunities to think outside of our contracted tasks. At this point, innovation stops and even the most exciting companies find themselves standing still.

Introducing the firebreak

Battling time limitations is a challenge I've faced throughout my career, particularly in my current role developing sophisticated AI tech to help young people better manage their finances.

At Cleo, we decided to do something a bit different and take a new approach to fostering innovation – one that really does encourage everyone to get involved in making things better.  And in this article, we’re sharing learnings from our experience, providing insight into how all organisations can benefit from an approach like ours.

Three times a year, we shut down business as usual and give tech-focused team members an entire week to step away from their day jobs and take a fresh look at how the company operates. We call this a firebreak – because it puts a break between our thinking and the day-to-day pressures of working life – and allows us to get creative and think out of the box.

Of course, like all organisations, we have to keep customer service up and running – and make sure the bills are paid – but aside from core functions like these, employees are given the freedom to tackle any problem they think needs to be fixed, or any new opportunity they think worth exploring.

Crucially, there’s no requirement to produce world-changing ideas. Getting employees to focus exclusively on big ticket items can often be counter-productive, as it piles on the pressure, leading to an embarrassment-aversion mentality, and generally serves to block, rather than enable creativity. In our experience, we’ve found that some staff members want to tackle organisation-wide problems (for example, last year, I ran a project to automate how we assign tasks within the development stack), while others want to address micro challenges that are causing them or their team members to become less productive.

The first few days of a week away from the day job could even focus on admin – encouraging team members to sort out their filing systems and clear unwieldy email inboxes. This might not sound like innovation, but it’s an approach that might help bright new ideas to flow more freely in the time that follows.

We’re encouraged to work together too – submitting ideas and calling for team members to get involved in a project. It gives us the opportunity to work with colleagues from across the business and call upon different specialisms and areas of expertise. Multi-disciplinary teams can take a fresh look at existing problems and see our challenges through different lenses.

How to successfully build a firebreak programme

Creating a programme of regular firebreaks can give your team much-needed time to reset, re-evaluate, think, and make progress.

However, implementing an initiative like this is not as simple as it seems and many companies might need to make a cultural shift. Rather than setting rigid objectives and tasks for firebreak businesses must foster a culture where employees are empowered and trusted to make decisions about how to best use their time.

In our case, we decided that we wouldn’t compel any of our team members to report back on our successes, but instead allow everyone the time and headspace to get to grips with what makes our working lives challenging. Indeed, if you make it clear that people have to report back, they're likely to prioritise tasks or ideas that have clearly defined goals and outcomes, yet that isn't really the secret to innovation. Some of the best ideas occur when people don't necessarily know what the end looks like.

It’s also important for businesses to ensure collaboration is seamless – from having the right technologies to power teamwork across the globe, to breaking hierarchical convention so that ideas can be shared freely.

A new approach to solving old problems

I firmly believe that people perform best at work when they are driven by inspiration and encouraged to push their boundaries – and while innovation can come from anywhere, inspiration has to be led from the front.

Executives who can show that they value new approaches – like the regular firebreak programme - will benefit from more creative thinking across the workplace, and are more likely to arrive at inventive solutions to their biggest challenges.

For self-starters and highly motivated employees, a firebreak initiative can be a real game changer – and others will find a way to support and input into a wider team initiative. It’s also a powerful way to improve staff attraction and retention, showing employees that their ideas are valued and that they have a real role to play in shaping the future of the organisation.

It’s also a key part of a broader commitment to building a workplace where fresh ideas are encouraged throughout, and crucially, where everyone is afforded the time and space to think challenges through, without day-to-day pressures stymying creativity.

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