How Does Your Company Treat Employees' Ideas?
by Tess Julian, CEO of Catalyst Exchange
How would your colleagues answer this question?
If you get a range of different replies to this question, then maybe you should take another look at how you’re engaging your employees in your innovation system.
People-based innovation relies on people and their desire to participate. Just putting in an ideas system, no matter how good or how expensive, isn’t going to work unless employees have:
- real opportunity
- genuine motivation
- ability and confidence
Sure, you might have a state-of-the-art ideas management system, just a click away for every employee, but does that equate to opportunity?
No. Opportunity means that you have the chance to improve the things that mean a lot to you. Real opportunity means that your ideas are taken seriously. So what to do?
- Invite people to participate in campaigns that are important to them specifically. For example, ask production workers how the processes they use could be improved; ask customer-facing staff how they could improve customer relations and so on.
- Give feedback to everyone about every idea. You can do this by opening ideas to comments from all on the ideas management system, a sort of internal crowd sourcing, or you can have supervisors chat to idea generators about their ideas. You can have a reply function within the ideas management system or you can have idea leaders, or catalysts, who follow up with individuals and help them develop ideas so that they can be implemented and add value.
- Make ideas management systems easy and accessible. Don’t have an online-only system if half your employees don’t work on computers. Also, make sure that ideas are easy to enter, easy to comment on and easy to monitor.
- Make sure everyone feels that they can contribute. Not everyone will have bright ideas, but there are lots of aspects to innovating, and most people will be able to contribute in one way or another.
I’ve heard many employees simply say “Why would I bother?" when asked for ideas. When you probe a little they’ll tell you that any time they’ve had an idea nothing’s come of it, or the company doesn’t value ideas people, there’s nothing in it for them, it all takes up too much time and it’s just not part of the job description.
So how can you motivate employees to participate in people-based innovation?
For a start, the company management at its most senior level has to be genuinely committed to:
- using ideas
- rewarding ideas people
- making a people-based ideas system work over the long term
Once the commitment is there it can be made visible in a number of ways:
- Establish a meaningful system that recognises people who come up with ideas that are valuable. Don’t use monetary rewards because that breeds competition, when you’re actually trying to foster collaboration. Instead, get a respected senior manager to personally thank the ideas person, award them with a certificate, and offer opportunities for development, such as attendance at conferences or training, or visits to innovative organisations.
- Include participation in innovation in performance management, promotion and recruitment processes so that it is explicitly stated that participating in innovation is valued in your organisation.
- Make sure that the CEO talks about how important it is to be part of the innovation process. Make the participants important, the sort of people others aspire to be.
- Showcase ideas in action so that employees can see that their ideas are actually used. Nothing is more motivating than success.
Many employees duck for cover at the mere mention of innovation. It conjures up images of play dough and Post-it note brainstorms, activities that feel a long way away from most people’s everyday work lives.
But with the proper tools and environment most people will surprise themselves with the sheer number of ideas that they can come up with. However, it’s not just quantity it’s also quality. You need to be able to take an idea, develop it and mould it into something that will really add value, and that requires some skills and tools.
Here are some tips:
- Put in place an innovation process for generating and developing ideas. We use a three-step process... See Think Do. It should be in the ideas management system and also reflected in the performance management system.
- Provide training for employees so that they develop skills and learn tools to use the process and develop confidence in their ability to contribute.
- Create ideas coaches to help people use the process and think through ideas.
Even though technology is a great enabler, innovation needs people. If you don’t have the culture in place that provides real opportunity, genuine motivation and the ability that creates confidence, there is no platform available that will engage your employees over the long term.