The ability to generate, assess and rapidly deploy new ideas in any economic cycle -- a notion of sustainable innovation -- has become a critical capability in today’s environment. Emerging trends and new technologies can become market-dominant forces in a matter of months, and consumers have been trained to upgrade to new-and-improved features on a regular basis. Organizations need to approach innovation in new ways if they are to keep pace with rapidly changing market conditions. 

While innovation has traditionally been the domain of product managers, engineers and corporate R&D departments, some companies are taking advantage of new collaborative technologies to involve more employees in the innovation process. This notion of an idea-driven workforce is already proving itself to be a winner on many fronts. Not only have these companies identified new ways to cut costs, improve service and expand product lines -- they have engaged and motivated their employees in the process.

According to a Gallup Management Journal study, engaged employees are shown to be more profitable, create stronger customer relationships and stay longer with their company. Plus, the process fuels itself as engaged employees are more likely to contribute to future innovation.

Five Characteristics of Effective Employee Innovation

Driving employee innovation takes effort, as the concept of innovation can be intimidating to many employees. It's important to recognize that innovation includes not just the breakthrough blue ocean opportunities, but that process improvements, new procedures or even a modest change to an existing form can help create better customer experiences or result in new value.

Every employee within an organization is capable of innovation, and it’s the responsibility of business leaders to tap into the collective talents, ideas and experiences of their teams.

In order to find new ways to engage employees in innovation, you need to understand the five characteristics of effective employee innovation:

1. Cultivate Conversation & Collaboration

To be successful, organizations need to foster dialogues. Web 2.0 technologies provide for an interactive dynamic, one where employees can engage each other to brainstorm, build upon one another’s ideas, add comments and collaborate.

While such employee interactions can help develop a sense of community, the most successful innovation initiatives don’t stop at employee-to-employee communications. For a true two-way dialogue to take hold, management must also engage in the conversation to provide feedback, offer encouragement and help shape idea fragments into actionable opportunities.

2. Tackle Today’s Business Challenges

To generate quick, visible results one should focus people’s attention on current business problems, unit objectives and market opportunities.

  • Challenge employees to tackle specific questions. Problem solving allows employees to start from a common framework and build outward.
  • Ideas and solutions generated from such an approach are more likely to be implemented because they deal with an organization’s most pressing business needs.
  • When employees see that business units value their ideas on real problems, they will be more willing to engage in innovation going forward.
  • Shared problem solving helps build a sense of community and collaboration.

When employee-driven ideas match up well with established business priorities, existing business units may already have the staff and infrastructure in place to evaluate, build upon and execute these ideas.

3. Own the Problem -- and the Process

Employee innovation cannot happen on its own. To foster a culture of innovation, companies must develop and manage a process to take ideas to action, with success contingent on the involvement of four constituents:

  • Executive Sponsors: Executive involvement sends a clear message that innovation is a priority for the organization. Those who sponsor idea challenges should be recognized as individuals who have a vested interest in the problem and the wherewithal to act on new ideas.
  • Management Enablers: A designated team of business leaders should be assigned to each challenge to manage and champion ideas. This group will engage in dialogue with the employee community and take responsibility for identifying which innovations to pursue. They may pose follow-up questions and help build out promising ideas.
  • Administrators: An employee innovation program will require metrics, reports, communications and support. Program administrators may oversee the process, maintain any necessary technologies or web sites and facilitate end-to-end management. Administrators often have job responsibilities outside of employee engagement or innovation, but some companies may dedicate resources to this particular function.
  • Employees: Ultimately, the success of any effort depends on the ability to engage employees. Companies can make it easier for everyone to participate by providing multiple ways to get involved. Some employees, for example, will want to create ideas. Others may choose to comment on ideas, add to ideas, or simply vote on which ideas offer the greatest potential.

In addition to people, a well-defined process can help replicate and improve results over time. As a creative venture, however, administrators should allow different sponsors and enabling teams some degree of flexibility.

4. Cultivate Diversity and Inclusion

Find ways to bring people together who otherwise might not work on the same set of problems. In practice, such diversity leads to new insight, unique connections and innovative ideas that can help overcome the “group think” and “tried that before” mentality that often hinders innovation.

Diversity involves demographics (such as age, sex, ethnicity) but it also means diversity of thought and functional expertise. Cross-functional teams spanning multiple business units, levels and geographies will come at business problems from different perspectives -- giving all team members an opportunity to learn something new in the process.

5. One Size Does Not Fit All

One of the most important facts to understand is that every organization has an existing culture of innovation. Engaging employees in innovation may involve changing behaviors and existing mindsets for both employees and executives.

No two companies start from the same point, so it’s critical that any approach to employee innovation is designed and structured to fit a specific organization. Take the time to examine what barriers may exist in the business, such as siloed organizations; fear of failure; being afraid to take risks; innovation seen as someone else’s job; no one ever admits there are problems; not enough time to innovate; etc.

Before an organization launches a new online tool or innovation program, the concept should be tested in advance. A trial or pilot will provide opportunities to measure results, make modifications and address any barriers that arise.

See Part 2: The Idea-driven Workforce: Employee Innovation in Action

Editor's Note: Additional articles on Innovation Management include: