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Smoothie operators: learning lessons the innocent way

Innocent drinks engages its people through empowerment and transparency, and gives them the chance to try new ideas without fear of failure.


Innocent drinks started life as a small scale venture in 1999: just three friends — Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright — selling smoothies at a London music festival.

It didn’t stay that way for long. These days, innocent employs 350 people across Europe. What it does hasn’t changed: it still makes smoothies but its range is bigger and includes smoothies in little bottles and big cartons; smoothies and juice for kids; a range of not-from-concentrate juice and coconut water and bubbles; plus lightly sparkling fruit juices. Its products are currently available in 15 different countries.

To continue on its upward trajectory, innocent relies on constant innovation from its staff. Indeed, the company says innovation is an “everyday behaviour” and that its employees are actively encouraged to suggest ways to improve the business, be it through new products and business streams or better ways of working.

The trouble was that ‘normal’ business innovation – cross-functional teams with steering meetings – didn’t deliver breakthroughs; so, instead, the company has decided to approach things in a different way. The first is through its policy of recruiting entrepreneurs. Innocent says that it wants to engage with employees who can offer ‘entrepreneurship’, make a difference and change the way things are done. Secondly, the company empowers all its people with a ‘just go with it’ motto. This means that if an employee is 70% confident that their idea is going to make a difference, they can try it without asking for permission. Thirdly, innocent wants to generate ideas, large and small — and all of the time — to improve how individuals do their job and so positively impact the business.

Employee-led innovation

For example, in 2003, Adam, one of innocent’s marketing managers, wanted to help raise money for charity with an idea called the Big Knit. Essentially, this would involve putting hats on smoothie bottles and donating money for each one sold to Age Concern.

Adam’s pitch included getting volunteers to knit the hats by hand, but the rest of the business had big concerns. Who would knit them? Where? How would the hats get on to the bottles? The general consensus was that there was no way this idea could work. But the consensus was wrong. In the first year of the Big Knit, Adam got over 3000 hats knitted by grandmothers up and down the country. By year two, this number had increased to 20,000 — and now innocent is nearing a million hats in the UK alone. It’s also taken the idea to Europe.

Then there was an idea from Giles, who was working at innocent in production. His idea for simplifying planning/forecasting reports had a huge impact on the business, with fulfilment rising from 97.5%. to over 99% and wastage dropping from 2-3% to 0.2%.

Reinforcing engagement

It’s not just empowering people through ideas. Innocent also believes that transparency encourages employees to get involved in the business at a deeper level. So every month its board holds a company-wide meeting, revealing key finance figures to employees with everyone encouraged to ask questions and give feedback and, most of all, understand how the business works. Employees are also motivated to try new things, knowing that not all new ideas will be a success. When the inevitable happens, the company gets together to talk about the lessons that can be learned, with members of management talking about the mistakes they’ve made, to demonstrate that everyone really is in it together.

Engagement is a central part of innocent’s culture. At its London headquarters, seating is allocated randomly, including management, so that everyone interacts and gets a broader understanding of different roles. Because senior managers are visible, employees are more comfortable approaching them with ideas, suggestions and feedback.

Finally, a survey is conducted across the whole company to understand employee frustrations as well as gauge how motivated and excited employees are with the business.

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