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Employee Innovation: 4 Tips for Mining One of Your Richest Resources


Innovation is the lifeblood of a successful business, yet it can be challenging for leaders to manage the “idea factory.” Well-meaning employees may propose new ideas that are beyond their area of expertise or simply too expensive to implement.

How do you keep your employees engaged in thinking creatively, yet guide their enthusiasm in realistic and productive directions? When an idea doesn’t pan out, how do you decline the idea without killing motivation?

Channeling the idea factory may be easier than you think.

1. Create a framework

If your company doesn’t already have one, create an official avenue to suggest ideas and set expectations.

Think of it the same way you’d go to one of your managers with a problem. You approach them with suggestions for how to solve the issue. Your company intranet is the perfect place to set up a submission form.

The framework could include a template that outlines what is expected for proposed ideas. Your template forces employees to think through their plans. For example, the idea generator (the employee) would specify the problem or issue, the steps involved in establishing a solution; and then identify the desired or expected outcome. More advanced ideas might include a budget.

Other information requested on the form might include a problem statement, process for execution, timeline, cost analysis and return on investment.

Decide who will be involved in evaluating new ideas. A suggestion that impacts the whole company may require input from all department heads while a single manager can evaluate a team-level change.

Explain ahead of time that not every idea will be accepted. You might say: “Every suggestion will be reviewed. Once all submissions have been analyzed, we will choose three to five ideas to implement.”

Also, be sure to communicate any parameters, such as a deadline or a dollar amount that must be saved, in order for an idea to be considered. You also may want to limit people to suggesting ideas they can contribute to within their own role. This helps prevent people from making unrealistic suggestions for areas outside their work group.

2. Follow up and communicate

Nothing kills employees’ motivation and creativity quicker than when their ideas fall into a black hole, never to be heard of again. Establish a feedback loop with a specific timeline, say once or month or quarterly, that lets employees know what happened with their ideas and why.

While giving feedback, clearly discuss why an idea did or didn’t work. Always focus on the idea and its merits, not the person.

For instance, an employee may not understand how a proposed change might affect the bigger picture upstream or downstream from their position or department. Or, negative consequences might outweigh the positive impact.

If an idea requires more study, or for more departments to be included, be ready to facilitate that. Make sure the employee has time to work with others or interview vendors as necessary.

By communicating with employees about what did and didn’t work about their idea, you help hone their future suggestions for change.

3. Don’t discount the incremental

Often, incremental change adds up to big change, so don’t discount the small suggestions. Say an employee designs a new form that shaves 30 minutes a day off a daily task. Thirty minutes, five days a week adds to up real impact, especially if that new form can be implemented elsewhere in the department or company.

By accepting and celebrating small ideas, or asking employees to further develop their concepts, you publicly recognize their contributions as valuable. Nothing motivates employees better than genuine appreciation from their boss.

4. Consider a campaign

If innovation and idea generation is new to your company or your department, you may want to launch a campaign to kick start your efforts.

An email announcing your campaign should be open to everyone in your department or company and include plenty of specifics. This initiative should set clear targets (the deadline, the dollars or man hours the company needs to save), an explanation of why you’re looking for new ideas, and what will happen to the ideas (the feedback loop). You may even want to declare winners and offer prizes for the best ideas through a company rewards program.

Follow-up emails should encourage participation and remind your team of deadlines and other parameters of your innovation campaign.

Ideally, continuous improvement will become second nature to you and your employees. When that happens, ideas will bubble up, get batted around and be implemented naturally, benefiting your company throughout the year.

Want more great ways to motivate your employees? Download our free guide: How to Develop a Top-Notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.