Posted by: Bill von Achen | August 20, 2010

Let Employees Lead Your Innovation Efforts

Whether it comes in the form of leveraging new technologies, or introducing breakthrough products and services, or radically restructuring processes and systems to provide better service, most entrepreneurs rightly see innovation as providing their companies with a competitive advantage. But how do you create a culture in your organization in which innovative ideas are routinely being generated, and not merely the by-product of a one-day executive retreat?

Not surprisingly, your company’s best source of innovative ideas and solutions are your employees. Because they’re on the front lines every day, your employees have the most accurate and up-to-date information about your business, your products and services, and your customers and clients. They know from first-hand experience what’s working and, even more important, what’s not working and what can be done to fix the problem. And, at a time when contributions are measured job by job, most employees are more motivated than ever before to find ways to make your company more competitive and more successful.

So what are the best ways to tap into the innovation wisdom of your employees? One approach is the formation of so-called “innovation communities,” in which a group of employees from different areas of the company band together (sometimes with the leadership of a senior manager) to tackle a problem of strategic consequence.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Who Has Innovative Ideas? Employees,” J.C. Spender of ESADE and management consultant Bruce Strong talk about their experiences in working with innovation communities, and identify several key characteristics of successful innovation communities, including the following recommendations:

Create the space to innovate:  Make sure that participants in innovation communities have the mental space within which to work, including enough flexibility in handling their primary work responsibilities to properly engage with their group.

Get a broad variety of viewpoints:  Getting people involved from different functions, locations and ranks not only ensures the contribution of a variety of perspectives, but also paves the way for company-wide buy-in to the innovations that result.

Create an ongoing conversation between senior management and participants:  For truly innovative ideas to take hold, the dialogue between employees and senior management needs to start at the beginning, and employees must be encouraged to “speak truth to power.”

Participants should be pulled to join, not pushed:  Employees can’t be forced to be innovative. Participants in innovative communities should be enthusiastic about the opportunity to work on big-picture problems, and not motivated by tangible rewards.

Put unused talent and energy to work:  Innovative communities can be an effective way of putting underutilized resources to work. And, because innovative communities are focused on a specific problem, no one is permanently committed at the expense of other responsibilities.

Collateral benefits can be as important as the innovations themselves:  Innovative ideas and solutions are only part of the benefit from working in an innovative community. Improved communication, better cross-department relationships, and individual professional growth are just some of the other benefits.

Measurement is key:  The “proof is in the pudding,” and innovation communities are successful only to the extent that they produce demonstrable, measurable value.

You can view the complete text of the Journal article by going to our Resources page at, and clicking on the article title under the heading “Innovation.”

Tell us about your experiences in leveraging the innovative ideas of your employees. Post your comments here. Thanks!

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