How to Foster Innovation among Your Employees

When it comes to innovation, engagement is both a chauffeur and a passenger — that is, it both drives and is driven by innovation. Indeed, innovation is a key engagement driver. Employees want to create, be current, evolve, contribute new ideas and approaches, and work for the market leader.

Here are some tips to help you convert your thoughts on innovation into action:

  • It starts at the top. Your leader and his or her leadership team need to become champions of innovation. Frequent and consistent companywide communications must highlight innovation and recent successes and encourage employees to challenge the status quo.

  • Establish a “why not?” campaign. Go big with posters, training, and supporting communication, all focused on helping leaders and employees recognize when they lapse into “because” thinking. Make it fun! Encourage your employees to catch others saying “because” and correct them with the appropriate “why not?” response.

  • Expand your definition of diversity. Diversity is not simply about some Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge to eliminate discrimination in the workplace due to gender, age, or race. Instead, it's about one's thinking style, culture, heritage, generation, tenure, organizational level… the list goes on. Diversity is about inclusion, and inclusion leads to innovation.

  • Budget and measure innovation. The old adage “You get the behavior you measure” is certainly true with innovation. Are you establishing an innovation culture by budgeting for innovation? Some companies earmark a percentage of total profit or revenue or a set number of hours per employee per year. Regardless of your metric, reporting on progress and highlighting successes are essential.

    Don't shoot down those who innovate and fail. A key ingredient of innovative cultures is the acceptance of failure. If your employees are afraid to fail, you'll never build a culture of innovation.

  • Establish a task force to oversee innovation. Populate your team with left- and right-brain thinkers from both the full- and part-time staff, including recent hires. (Remember: The “architects of the present” can rarely see what needs to change!) Also, make it a point to include Millennials (also known as Generation Y); they have great ideas on leveraging technology, using social media as a branding and communication tool, and the direction we're heading with mobile technology.

    Give the task force a budget to oversee and manage, and ask them to report on progress. You may even go so far as to establish your innovation task team as a permanent part of your organization, with one- to two-year rotating terms. Finally, consider instituting an idea process to encourage both guests and employees to suggest new ideas.

  • Look outside your own industry for ideas and talent. Many firms continue to run in the same race as every other firm in their niche. That is, they do external benchmarking only against other firms within their same sector. If you want to come up with an innovative idea that is the first of its kind or is disruptive to your competition, you need to see what other industries are doing.

    Don't be afraid to hire people from outside your industry. You want to surround yourself with people who think differently from you!

  • Provide an “innovation box.” I've never been a fan of suggestion boxes. In my experience, they tend to become clogged with complaints, often of the pettiest sort.

    A better approach is to use an innovation box — a feedback mechanism geared toward soliciting specific suggestions for innovation: How can we improve our proposal system? How should our technology evolve? Should our billing be centralized? What can we be doing better in terms of customer service? Are there new markets we need to penetrate? What technologies are we missing?

    An innovation box establishes a direct connection between the individual's contribution and the welfare of the organization as a whole. It further funds trust, and a sense that the individual is being heard. And perhaps most important, it provides a means by which new ideas — the fuel of a company's future — can flourish. This is engagement at its best.

  • Follow the 125 rule. Some experts claim that to foster a culture of innovation while avoiding bureaucracy, you must prevent your chain of command from exceeding 125 employees. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, keeps his profit units as small as possible to keep them fleet of foot, to foster innovation, and to encourage entrepreneurial drive.

  • Build a career lattice. Most people think of careers as being a ladder — something you climb up. But enlightened organizations understand that engagement increases in cultures that support job rotation — that is, not just up, but across, like a lattice. The advantages are many:

    • Continually promoting people upward is expensive; employees often look for more money as they advance in their careers.

    • There are only so many promotional opportunities. Employees are far more willing to accept a lateral move if they feel they're learning a new skill that will help their careers.

    • A job lattice increases not only engagement, but innovation as well. People who have been in the same department often struggle to develop new ideas, approaches, and process improvements. A career lattice minimizes job stagnancy and complacency.

      One company formalized this process by adding an “innovation light bulb” to our intranet home page and made it clear that we were looking for proactive, well thought-out ideas on how our employees could help the company innovate. Everyone who sent in an idea was recognized for it and rewarded with a small gift card.

      A committee, including members of the senior leadership team, reviewed all suggestions and responded to all submitters, letting them know if their ideas were or weren't implementable (and why). The cream of the crop were sent to the company's CEO. Many of these ideas made their way into our policies and processes, and even new and enhanced service offerings.

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