HUMAN RESOURCES

How to Tap Employee Ideas

Encouraging your employees' creativity can not only create an engaging work environment, but create new business. Seven experts share their tips on getting employees to share their ideas.
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The origin of the humble Post-It Note is perhaps the best-known story about a million-dollar innovation that sprang from an unexpected place within a company.

Spencer F. Silver was working for 3M in the late 60s when he developed a resilient adhesive that would make a piece of paper stick to a surface, but was still weak enough to let the papers be torn apart again. Silver pitched the product over and over again to people around the company for the next few years, but he never caught any traction. Until, that is, another colleague came along, took Silver's adhesive, attached it to a bookmark prototype he was working on, and the Post-It was born.

But 3M almost lost the idea that came from its own employee, even though Silver kept trying to convince his supervisors about its potential. Tapping your employees' creativity can provide you with a wealth of ideas that management may have overlooked, in addition to creating an environment where all workers feel engaged. But what's the best way to get them to open up? Seven experts in tapping employee creativity share these tips to get the best ideas from all parts of the company.

1. Use the Right Motivation. "Money is generally the worst. Pride in company, pride in personal accomplishment, and being able to meaningfully contribute are generally much more powerful and enduring. If you use exigent motivation like money, essentially what you're saying is, 'I'm going to pay you money if you find the cheese.' What happens is that employees will take the shortest route possible to get to the new idea. Innovation and new ideas often require a circuitous route. Brain science shows that the money just means less and less over time, so you just have to keep upping the amount. If you want to get ideas from employees, they need to understand the strategy of company. Only about 10 percent of employees can describe their strategy. Often times employees are asked to have really high quality in their work. Quality is actually sort of the enemy. New ideas and innovation are often sloppy. You have to embrace uncertainty. Innovation by definition is something that hasn't happened before." —Bruce Strong, partner, CBridge Partners, consulting organization for businesses and non-profits

2. Prove Great Ideas can Come From Anywhere. "It's easy for people to think that new ideas are the responsibility of the innovation or R&D teams and have nothing to do with them. By telling the stories of some great everyday innovations such as the Post-It note, Band-Aid or traffic lights, you can prove that game-changing ideas can come from anywhere and are not just the preserve of men and women in white coats. In our business, our employees are also representative of our consumers, which makes them exceptionally qualified to come up with the next big thing."
—Philippa Brown, employee communication manager, Tata Global Beverages, makers of Tetley Tea and Good Earth beverages

3. Keep Them on the Same Page. "Nothing is more discouraging to you and your workers than getting overly simplistic or misguided advice. You'll be quick to shoot down suggestions that don't take into account all the variables, which is also a huge turn-off for the contributors. So you have to spend some time explaining the situation as you see it, including the ideas you have already considered and rejected. At my weekly meeting, I'll sometimes talk about a problem for several minutes, in order to explain it as completely as I can, before asking for ideas from my people.  This leads to better, more nuanced advice, which leverages the knowledge that they have, and I don't."
—Paul Downs, owner of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers and author of the
New York Times online column Staying Alive about the struggles of small businesses

4. Ask a Relevant Question and Provide Feedback. "A great place to start is to look at your corporate objectives and pick a challenging business problem for which you do not have all of the answers. The best challenge questions are results-oriented, defining a specific outcome that is desired without limiting the nature of the solution.  Providing background information on the problem, its history, and any past attempts to solve it help to keep the ideas focused and relevant. You need to invest some time to thoroughly understand the ideas, ask clarifying questions, cluster them into similar groups, and decide which ones will shape your next actions. Some employees will be disappointed that you did not select their ideas, but if they see that you gave real consideration to all options and made a rational choice, they will be likely to come back and participate in your next challenge."
—Matthew Broder, vice president, external communications, Pitney Bowes Inc., provider of business solutions

5. Remember That Employees are Customers, Too. "We realized we could tap our own employees to gather feedback on new ideas before doing formal research and created an on-line employee community called "FOODii." We have used FOODii for many things, including idea generation, packaging guidance, and insights into cooking habits. For example, our Jell-O marketing team turned to FOODii to help find a name for a new flavor of Jell-O Mousse Temptations. Less than 24 hours after the request, the Jell-O Team had 110 naming options to consider. They selected the 10 best names and sent them on to consumers for further evaluation. The final name, Chocolate Mint Sensation, comes from one of the suggestions provided through FOODii. Our employees have a vested interest in our success - they want to be sure we succeed, so their feedback is particularly valuable."
—Julie Fleischer, director of consumer relationship marketing content strategy & integration, Kraft Food

6. Make it Fun. "The old suggestion box just doesn’t do it anymore and you can wait a long time to get more than a few scattered ideas from a web site. Make it social: Ideas come from the interplay and free exchange between employees. Create opportunities for employees to get together and brainstorm. The Japanese have long done this informally with their after-work get togethers (though sometimes those involve excessive drinking). It doesn’t really matter how it’s done, as long as it's done together. New ideas come from playfulness and humor. If fun is not a dirty word at your business, you’ll hear a lot more ideas every day. Nothing shuts people up faster than knowing if they offer an idea the boss or company doesn’t like, they’ll pay for it. Really good ideas almost never sound "normal." Imagine how the idea for Post-it notes must have sounded when it was first described—'you stick these little pieces of paper everywhere, then...'"
—Steven Farmer, W. Frank Barton Distinguished Chair in Business, Department of Management, Wichita State University

7. Keep an Open Door. "Great ideas don’t keep to a schedule. As a leader, make sure your door —whether physical office or e-mail inbox—is always open to employees. When an employee approaches you and asks "do you have a moment?" make time for him or her, even if it isn’t convenient for you. Keeping an open door builds trust and demonstrates an active interest in what employees have to say. Over time, employees will share their ideas as they appear, knowing that a willing audience is waiting to hear them."
—Jennifer C. Loftus, national Director and founding partner, Astron Solutions

Last updated: Aug 26, 2011

TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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