Business leaders often say that their company’s biggest asset is their employees. While that may be true, one also could argue that employees are often a company’s most underutilized asset. Why? Because while your employees may be excellent at what they do, how often are they challenged or encouraged to go explore ideas or projects that fall outside of their basic job descriptions? Encouraging employee innovation is not only smart, it’s fundamental to staying competitive in today’s business world. The good news is, within every employee lurks a minefield of new and innovative business ideas - they might just not know it yet. Use the following tips to tap into your employees’ undiscovered potential and unleash the innovator in every one of them.
Make It Okay to Fail
Innovation means trying new things, pushing the status quo and even taking risks. Inevitably, mistakes will happen; yet some of modern day’s greatest inventions were made by mistake, including X-ray machines, Post-It notes, microwaves and even chocolate chip cookies. Mistakes enable you to learn and grow. Yet, too many employees are afraid to try new things for fear of failing (and putting their jobs in danger as a result). Encourage your employees to take risks (within reason, of course), and let them know it’s okay to fail. In fact, celebrate it. Reward employees for going outside their comfort zone and trying things that have never been done before. Once you give employees permission to fail, great things will happen.
Create a Culture of Collaboration
There’s a reason Silicon Valley companies prioritize employee collaboration: The best ideas are often the result of different perspectives coming together. Yet all too often, employees work in silos, without much exposure to other teams or perspectives. Find ways to encourage collaboration across teams and functions at your company - from creating common areas and break rooms that bring employees together naturally, scheduling cross-departmental “lunch and learns” or using job rotation to expose employees to different areas of the business and spur innovative thinking.
Make It Easy
Sometimes what prevents a great idea from seeing the light of day is lack of clarity around how to submit it. Make it easy for employees to voice their suggestions and get them in front of the right people. Start by creating an open door policy where employees feel safe contributing new business proposals. Or use technology: Create a virtual suggestion box on your employee intranet where employees can submit their ideas - or add on to others’. Finally, send out regular communication to employees reminding them of the ways in which they can submit ideas (at any scale) and encouraging them to do so.
It’s also important to remove any roadblocks that are stifling innovation. In a recent Robert Half survey, 24 percent of business executives cited “excessive bureaucracy” as one of the biggest roadblocks to innovation at their companies. If employees have to go through several layers of approval to get their idea implemented, they may start to think it’s more trouble than it’s worth and simply give up. Look for ways to cut the fat and streamline the approval process and give employees the chance to see their ideas through quickly.
Another hindrance to innovation (cited by 20 percent of executive in the same survey) is that employees get too bogged down trying to complete other tasks or put out fires to devote any energy to innovating. Check in with employees to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed with their workloads and have both the time and energy to explore new initiatives. Allowing employees to have flexible work schedules or telecommute can help employees create work-life balance that enables them to focus better and put more energy into their work.
Tap Into Employees’ Competitive Spirits
Want to inspire action? Try a little friendly competition. Holding contests that incentivize employees can spur creativity and lead to new business ideas. Offer prizes for the most innovative ideas, such as monetary bonuses or paid time off. Or reward them with full ownership over their idea: Give them the support and resources to see their project through, from idea to execution.
Hackathons are also great ways to get the creative juices flowing at your company. These are usually day- or week-long events (with a competition element) where “business as usual” is put on pause. Instead, employees devote their time to developing a new initiative that may be completely outside their job description, but potentially could have a huge impact on the business. Again, having prizes on hand for the best ideas will increase participation rates.
Encourage Learning and Development
In order to innovate, your employees need to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Spring for employees to attend conferences, workshops or off-site classes. Not only will this build their skill set and introduce them to new ways of doing things, they will likely make contacts with whom they can exchange ideas and learnings.
Reward and Recognize Innovation
Recognizing and rewarding employees for their efforts can have a domino effect. Publicly recognizing people for taking the initiative to solve business problems in new and creative ways encourages others follow suit. Recognizing employees might seem like a no-brainer, but Gallup research shows that employees routinely feel their efforts go unrecognized. Meanwhile, companies with a culture of recognition tend to have higher levels of employee engagement and retention. In other words, if employees aren’t feeling appreciated, they are likely take their talents elsewhere.