Most would agree that innovation is critical to being competitive in today’s marketplace, but how does one encourage and nurture innovation? Here are five ways to enable your employees to give you their best ideas:
1. What gets measured and rewarded gets done, so think carefully about what you want done
I’ve seen dozens of awards and recognition programs designed to encourage innovation, but the majority had one fundamental flaw: They only rewarded successful ideas, not the idea in and of itself. On the surface it may be difficult to see how this is a design flaw, but think about it: For innovation to be a part of the behavioral norm of the culture, the very act of generating ideas needs to be the encouraged behavior.
2. Replace barriers with qualifiers
If you want to encourage innovation then you need to make the process easy yet productive. There’s a balance to be stuck here. I’ve seen processes that require an employee to complete applications half an inch thick, including offering ROI and NPV calculations. These sorts of hurdles do little to encourage innovation. On the other hand, the quintessential “suggestion box” often becomes a dumping ground for grousing. The process should be simple, straightforward, and accusable to everyone, regardless of their areas of expertise; yet should also require the employee to critically consider the idea and its value to the organization.
3. Embrace failure
We’ve all read the quote by Thomas Edison to the effect that he didn’t fail 1,000 times but instead discovered 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. The story is told to illustrate the nobility of what has become known as the “successful failure.” When it comes to innovation, successful failures are the currency of the realm. This means that even if an idea fails to take off, we need to reward it. Otherwise, we cut off the flow at the source.
4. Make it safe to report problems
An executive asked his team to report any and all customer complaints or problems. The team came back and said that they had six. The executive said that wasn’t enough, that he wanted at least 15 the next time. Was he nuts? Did he want his team to reduce their level of service to generate more complaints? Not at all. He wanted them to dig deeper, to up their game, to work harder to raise the expectations of their customers. And most importantly, he wanted to establish an environment in which problems were not things to be avoided or swept under the rug, but rather as opportunities to improve their services.
5. Enable your people to just do it
Simple, no-brainer ideas can be delayed—sometimes indefinitely—by the machinery of the process. When your people come across low-hanging-fruit opportunities that expose the organization to minimal risk, they should be empowered to take action.