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Play, puzzles and psychological safety foster creative innovation at QinetiQ

What have rabbit shaped cushions, themed breakout rooms and childhood games got to do with missile testing, unmanned robots and pilot training? They are all part of science and engineering firm QinetiQ’s strategy to embed creative innovation into its culture

QinetiQ flamingoesThe challenge

Pink flamingos, jigsaw puzzles, a ‘space’ room complete with glowing stars on the wall and a relaxation room with plants, free herbal teas and cakes…you could be forgiven for thinking you had just walked into a hi-tech company in California’s Silicon Valley or a media company off London’s Silicon Roundabout. But no, this is the unlikely setting of the UK’s rural Hampshire headquarters of British multinational defence technology company QinetiQ.

QinetiQ was formed in 2001 when the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) split its Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in two. The larger part, including most of the non-nuclear testing and evaluation establishments, became QinetiQ, which was privatised in 2002. In 2006 the company floated on the London Stock Exchange.

The company has a 25-year partnering agreement to provide the MoD with innovative and realistic tests and evaluation of military and civil platforms, systems, weapons and components on land, at sea and in the air. This includes everything from testing missiles and training on new warships to cybersecurity and bomb disposal robots. It also has a strong heritage in training – its Empire Test Pilots’ School, which it manages on behalf of the MoD, was founded back in 1943 and trains pilots all over the world, with 12 students since becoming astronauts, including Major Tim Peake.

Innovative and creative people need psychological safety. To create expansive thinking, you need to enable vulnerability through creating a safe environment and providing an emotional connection to the organisation

As an information, knowledge and technology-based company of more than 6,000 people with some 3,000 scientists and engineers in 85 locations, innovation is a key strand of business. However, when you have an ambition to grow international revenue to 50% of the business from 30% (there are now some 100 employees in Canada, 300 in Australia and a similar number in the US) and you serve mission-critical customers, it’s not enough to just be great at thinking innovatively to solve particular customer problems. The challenge is to come up with solutions for problems that have not already been identified and to innovate to advance your customers’ vital interests.

What QinetiQ did

As part of QinetiQ’s wider innovation approach and people strategy and to cement its reputation as a learning organisation, the talent and academy team started to explore ways to help employees think more expansively and collaboratively. This was led by Lisa Stevenson, group director academy and talent. Having begun her career as a sponsored student with BAE, she knew a thing or two about the defence sector. More unusually for an HR professional however, she had also left her decade-long international career at Thames Water International to build an English champagne and tea-house business in Argentina with her husband, learning about connecting people, before selling this and then later leaving an HR role to return to college as a fine art student. Combine this with a growing interest in the psychology of work and people and dealing with her own mental health challenges and it will be no surprise that she quickly realised what was needed was a creative space that took people into a different environment. A standard training centre was not going to cut it. And thus the QinetiQ Academy was born, something Stevenson believes is a first in the sector.

“Innovative and creative people need psychological safety; they need to feel safe to put ideas out into an environment. To create expansive thinking, you need to enable vulnerability through creating a safe environment and providing an emotional connection to the organisation. So we thought, how do we create an environment in this organisation in which it is safe for people to think outside the box?

“We are naturally good at thinking innovatively when our customers have given us a problem to solve. However, for us to truly grow and release our potential, what we also need to do is create environments that are more expansive and enable our people to create solutions to problems that people may not have identified before,” she explains. To do this, you need an environment open to conversations.

In defence and security technical innovation has always been at the forefront. But innovation is so much more, argues Stevenson. “Our customers are navigating significant, human challenges. The security of our world is more complex than ever before. So, people need to think about how do we work in different ways? How do we respond to challenges that are defining themselves all the time? Everything is reshaping and morphing. We knew we could do much more than just the technical innovation. It’s about the people innovation, and we are well placed here as we’ve already got the trust of customers on the technical side, so we wanted to replicate that trust by showcasing what’s unique about our individuals.”

QinetiQ Space Room

To visualise the academy, we created a collage with different zones, such as the Empire Test Pilots’ Room, the Space Room (above), the International Room and the Cyber Room. The idea was to pick themes from the business with which people could identify, effectively connecting each part of the business. There is also a kitchen and communal area with books and games together with work pods. Employees are encouraged to just turn up and use the area for work, to connect with other colleagues or to just rest their ‘left brain’ by doing creative activities and letting imagination take over. This is not something that necessarily comes naturally to a workforce based around critical thinking and process.

“We as a team are a bit evangelical about this,” says Stevenson. “For us it's a symbiotic and positive relationship that by doing right brain activities, at the very minimum we will reduce our stress and our abilities for our left brain to perform better in our jobs.” It’s also about empowering individuals and creating an adult-to-adult relationship with employees. “I’m fascinated about the fact that in many traditional organisations, there are signs everywhere: flush the toilet, wash your hands etc. Here we've taken away virtually all the signs unless it's a health and safety sign. The idea is to use your own judgment and interpretation you don’t need permission.”

To encourage people to visit the academy, the company ran formal training programmes for six months. “It’s taken a bit of time for people to orientate. We found teams visiting three times before they were happy to interact,” explains Stevenson. “At first they would walk around and ask questions, the second time they would bring someone from their department to have a look and then the third time they would come and actually sit and feel comfortable to work here.”

QinetiQ AcademyThe results

One measure of success would be that every one of the 1,000 people working in the Farnborough headquarters came through the academy for an hour a week – “it might be an hour to sit in the kitchen and have a coffee with friends, it might be for a formal meeting, it might be to sit and do a jigsaw puzzle”. The company is measuring footfall and there have been the classic early adopters, with some 20% of the leadership management population bringing their teams regularly, as well as those who only visit for formal training.

It is also measuring qualitative feedback on the environment, with an employee engagement app picking up positive comments and the fact that people feel the company cares for them. However, the team is keen to move the metrics away from footfall. “This is about a shift in the way people think and feel and measuring every single person that comes through the door is not necessarily a clear measure of that.”

One unforeseen outcome has been the effect on QinetiQ’s customers. The academy has become a favoured place for holding customer meetings and is a visible example of how the company is working in a different way. “We always wanted it connected to our work streams, but I didn't anticipate our business-winning community would be booking it out for days at a time for better conferences and that we would get the positive feedback from customers we are receiving,” says Stevenson.

It is also a positive showcase for candidates, particularly important in an industry where competition for science and technical talent is so fierce. But it is also good for people mid-career. “Many of our employees are at a mid-point in their career and lives, with long committed service and a lot of people looking still at 15 years of working life. There's something about the proposition of re-affirming our connection to the organisation and helping with the knowledge transfer we will require in the next decade, to protect our capabilities and provide meaningful legacies for our teams.”

It is also important that the academy is not seen just as an interesting and different space, it is integral to the wider people strategy as reflected by Michelle Cummins, group human resources director, “The academy is a vital part of our strategy for helping drive change within QinetiQ. It encourages our leaders and employees to try new approaches, in a safe space, that they may not be normally comfortable doing and challenging our perceptions so that we can create real culture change. It is at the heart of helping to drive our ambitions to create a high performance culture and recognise the benefits of diversity and inclusivity. The team have done a great job in driving it forward and as an organisation we recognise we need to be challenged and it is testament to their passion that the academy team were innovation winners at our QinetiQ recognition awards dinner this year.”

Some will see the academy as a brave move in an industry that has traditionally been more hierarchical, structured and technical. What is clear is that the thinking behind it fits so well with QinetiQ’s purpose to save lives, protect sovereign interests and deliver where others can’t. By creating a space where employees feel protected and psychologically safe, can explore ideas and reduce anxiety and stress, they will be able to deliver innovation that will really meet the challenges in today’s world. Maybe that's ultimately why it resonates with teams and customers connected to QinetiQ.

QinetiQ breakout room

Published 17 October 2019

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