To come up with their best new ideas, most companies turn to an inexpensive and efficient source of innovation: their own employees. How can you unleash the creative spirit lurking in your workforce? Here are eight of the best strategies we've uncovered in recent months.
Three years ago, the five-person research and development team at pet-accessory company West Paw Design had a case of collective writer's block. A production manager named Seth Partain proposed holding a contest for the company's three-dozen employees. Everyone from salespeople to seamstresses were encouraged to spend an afternoon designing and producing prototypes for new products. Following an end-of-day vote, a winner was crowned at an award ceremony. By making employees feel a part of the idea-creation process, West Paw Design set up a new pipeline of product development. Read more.
"The five last bastions of thinking are the car, the john, the shower, the church or synagogue, and the gym," Joey Reiman, CEO of BrightHouse, told Inc.'s Leigh Buchanan. Note the absence of office from that roster. So, to allow for that crucial "think time," in addition to nearly five weeks' vacation, BrightHouse's 18 staff members get five "Your Days," in which they are encouraged to visit a spot conducive to reflection and let their neurons rip. Read more.
What happens when your employees are too shy to pipe up? That happened at Solar Systems, an El Canjon, California, company that installs solar power systems. So CEO Mike Hall decided to use an online survey tool to allow employees to review their peers idea submissions – and set a prize at $500. "We knew we had people who might be shy about submitting ideas," he says. "We gave them a forum that encourages everyone to share." Read more.
Another innovation booster at BrightHouse is the company's annual event known as March Fo(u)rth. On that date, each employee is encouraged to do something he or she has never before attempted – say, skydive or give a large presentation. "If we're known for anything, it's possibilitarianism," says CEO Reiman. Read more.
La Jolla Group, an apparel company in Irvine, California, recognized in 2007 that it faced a shortage of designers specializing in surf fashions. So CEO Toby Bost came up with the idea for a contest – a contest to earn employment in his company. Now, each September, a handful of teens compete in a runway fashion show judged by audience members who text message a vote for their favorite designer. The winner of the fashion show receives an internship at La Jolla Group, a $4,000 scholarship, free clothes, and a mention in Teen Vogue. "I knew that we couldn't keep going on by pinching designers from each other's backyards," Bost said. "We needed to manufacture long-term talent by targeting students early and focusing them on a design career." Read more.
A few years ago, a college student spending the summer programming at Fog Creek Software, came to his boss, Inc. columnist Joel Spolsky, with an idea: What about running job ads on the company's blog? The site was popular in the programming community, and the student, Noah Weiss, proposed hosting relevant classified job ads could open up a new revenue stream. It did: more than $1 million came in. Spolsky decided a reward was in order. But what? Spolsky offered the student an equity stake—if he were to return to Fog Creek as a full-time employee. Read more.
InnovationLabs in Walnut Creek, California, thrives on being an outfit of outsiders. That's because the company has just four principals and pulls together a new team for each new project. Teams are comprised of referrals, including business professors, webmasters, scientists, and miscellaneous others. InnovationLabs allows these team members to work any way they like. "Some people are amused when they work with us, because we're so averse to telling people what to do," says managing partner Langdon Morris. "But we want our people to be creative about how they help clients be creative." Read more.
Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, says one of the keys to encouraging innovation is to let employees be as inventive as possible. "We encourage this by allowing our engineers and product managers in most of our divisions to devote 10 percent of their workweeks to new ideas," Cook says. "That's how we developed many of our products and features." Read more.