We often hear the question “What can I do to get my employees to contribute business-building ideas?”
Often, this question is from leaders who, in an earnest quest for ideas, have tried the “suggestion box,” the “town hall meeting,” and the “lunch with a leader” approach and seen minimal results. And, these are leaders with great intention — they understand that front-line employees can be the source of relevant ideas that can really move the business ahead, and they may even understand that engaging employees in the process of generating new ideas can be rewarding, can aid in retention and increase job satisfaction.
To that end, we’d like to share three tactics that are often overlooked, but can make a marked difference in the number of employees who participate in sharing ideas, the number of ideas they share, and the quality and actionability of those ideas.
1. Focus. The most common thing that leaders overlook when asking employees for ideas is focus. When we clarify the challenge or opportunity that we are looking for ideas around, folks are able to generate relevant ideas. A statement like “Submit your ideas to help grow our business” is too general, and difficult for most of us to generate ideas against. A clear, focused request will elicit more ideas. For example:
2. Follow Through. Nothing is more frustrating or dis-engaging for employees who begin to share ideas than to have those ideas seemingly ignored or filed away into a proverbial black hole. Employees of all levels want to know that their ideas were heard and seriously considered. When we collect ideas in a suggestion box, but never check it, or ask for ideas during a meeting, but then never mention them again, we communicate that employee ideas aren’t valued. Worse, employees might assume that we asked for their ideas simply to appease them, not because we ever had the intention to act on them. Idea sharing shuts down quickly when we don’t follow through. Consider establishing a committee and/or a plan to review ideas on a weekly or monthly basis. Share a list of ideas that were submitted via email or in staff meetings. Tell employees about the discussions you have around ideas they submit and how you decide which ones to pursue. If you don’t have the capacity to follow through, you aren’t ready to ask for ideas!
3. Celebrate! A common misconception is that, unless an organization is willing to “pay” for ideas, employees won’t be interested in sharing. While there are many ways to share compensation for ideas that drive volume or profit growth, simply celebrating and sharing stories about great ideas that started with one person is often exceptionally motivating. To get started, scour your company history for success stories that started with a single idea from an employee or group of employees. Share the story of what inspired the idea, and how it morphed and changed as it was developed and implemented. Talk up the results and the impact on the company.
Certainly, these aren’t the only tactics that can be used to drive employee engagement in generating ideas. More robust innovation programs leverage employees in idea generation by creating events to generate new thinking; work processes that integrate customer insight and inspiration from analogous business models or solutions; and a culture that encourages and rewards innovative approaches. But, Focus, Follow Through and Celebration are easy and inexpensive tactics that any organization can implement and begin to cultivate more new ideas from more employees.
Photo licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 via Flickr user: Hash Milhan