Organizations know the best ideas come from employees across levels and organizational hierarchies. The story behind the creation of scotch tape and post-it notes have been passed down from one generation to another as compelling reasons to invest in surfacing and building ideas. Ideas may result from curiosity or sheer laziness, either way, they are immensely useful.
You only need to take one look at the number of hackathons, incubation cells and idea generation forums to realize the potential of these goldmines. Yet very few organizations have yet to tap into the minds of their employees.
Organizations who do this well, without doubt, are leaders in the industry. Yet, one wonders if there exists a way to increase the effectiveness of these mechanisms?
Where to Begin Harnessing Ideas
The first step to harnessing ideas is understanding how to treat them. Ideas in their early days are a lot like premature babies; expose them to the world too early and they die a premature death. The success of an idea depends more on the support it receives vs the strength and validity of the idea alone.
The probability of ‘devil’s advocates’ and naysayers nipping the idea at its bud always looms large and I can guarantee that we all know instances where great ideas never saw the light of the day because someone criticized it too early. With proper nurturing, ideas bloom into miracles. Buds of an idea, like premature babies, deserve to go into an incubator.
However, let’s start by battling a popular myth – only great ideas deserve incubation. There exists more than one kind of idea that deserves to enter an incubator. While we all look for great groundbreaking ideas, one needs to accept the fact that innovation usually takes place incrementally.
Eureka moments that lead to new products and services are few and far in between. Saving the spotlight for those alone prevents organizations and teams for recognizing what is truly valuable – the little ideas that sum up to big ones.
Creating a Culture of Innovation
This is where HR plays an important part. We have long been the guardians of culture and with changing times, the pressure of creating a ‘culture of innovation’ is now larger than ever.
Our own profession has found innovative ways to address this need, some more effective than others are. What I am going to share below are a few tenets one should keep in mind while fostering a culture of innovation.
1. Tell Them Where to Go
The first question that comes to mind when someone comes up with an idea, is ‘what do I do with it?’ The dilemma that most employees face is figuring who is the right person to take the idea to. The first impulse is to share it with the manager or colleagues, which is great as long as one of them is in a position of influence, knows what to do next, and is supportive of the idea. This is not a combination easily found and the first barrier one needs to eliminate. The organization can tackle this by creating portals or forums where employees can share ideas that have not found acceptance elsewhere (manager/team). This needs to be more than just a point in time hackathon as ideas are generated throughout the year vs at a fixed date.
2. A Judgment-Free Environment
Create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and feedback. This is paramount. It is essential that ideas are not judged as good or bad/feasible or non-feasible too early in the stage. Many forums allow others to up-vote or down-vote an idea or provide comments that are not necessarily useful. In addition, several forums come with terms and conditions on what kind of ideas be submitted.
This goes against the principle of how ideas must be treated. What ideas need at this stage is nurturing and not judgment. That can come later in the process. The first thing an employee faces when submitting an idea should not be opposition.
3. Build Bridges
Organizations that truly have a culture of innovation are excellent in connecting people who can come together to bring ideas to life. They build spaces, either physical or virtual, that allow and encourage ideas to collide and spark into something surreal. Great things aren’t built by one person alone. One way to build bridges is via incubation cells. However, this may limit the advantages to a select set. Portals are another option that allows a much larger population to interact positively on ideas. Idea management is catching up in the industry with countless vendors providing fantastic solutions.
4. Celebrate Failures
Last year I came across a group that has chapters across 318 cities and 86 countries dedicated to celebrating failures and learning from them. In their own words –
‘Each month, in events across the globe, we get three to four people to get up in front of a room full of strangers to share their own professional failure. The stories of the business that crashes and burns, the partnership deal that goes sour, the product that has to be recalled, we tell them all.’
Organizations do a very poor job of celebrating failures, especially when focusing on building a culture of innovation. Ideas that failed have more to teach us than ideas that were successful. Dedicate time to celebrate and discuss these ideas.
5. Know When to Abort Ideas
This is probably the most important part of working with ideas. It is agonizing to cut the cord once a significant effort has been invested. Often those working with the idea are too close to it to realize when to plug the idea.
Sometimes great ideas die due to lack of proper inputs, lack of resources, or senior sponsorship. Sometimes ideas are put on hold or discarded when they fall to the bottom of a stack rank. How does one decide when to pull the plug?
When every person who stood for your idea withdraws support and no longer invests in pushing it forward, the idea must be aborted or kept aside for later. Even if your organization seems to have inexhaustible resources, sometimes it is necessary to do so.
Building a culture of innovation is not an easy task, yet when done well, forms the lifeline of the organization. I am curious – how are you fostering innovation in your organization?
Ankita Poddar is an HR professional based out of India. Identified as one of the emerging young HR leaders in India in 2016, Ankita's experience as an HR Business Partner gives her the opportunity to work closely with business leaders, innovate and execute on the behalf of customers especially in areas of people analytics, employee engagement, rewards and recognition, and performance management.