Engaging Your Employees in Innovation

Engaging Your Employees in Innovation

Written by Joel Shapiro, Ph.D.

Everyone can be involved in innovation:

Not all improvements are world-historical acts of bravery and genius. You can start at any level. Get your employees to start where they are—engage them in whatever they are ready, willing, and able to do—and then work up the chain to bigger and better improvements.

Levels of improvement:

Improvements range from petite and tactical to strategic. Knowing this helps you be more nuanced and flexible in helping people get started and also in helping them work up to their maximum potential. Three core levels of innovation:

  1. Small improvements
  2. Continuous improvement
  3. Strategic improvements / innovation

Small improvements can target anything in a person’s job: improving a result, lowering a cost, making a process more efficient, improving a skill, or thinking of a better way to work together as a team. You can also challenge your employees to come up with better ways to implement and live your core values. Everyone on your team can be encouraged, engaged, empowered, and coached to make these kinds of small improvements.

Continuous improvement is all about making small improvements in succession. Regular improvement should be part of everyone’s job. We can all be looking for ways to do a better job and add more value to our team and company.

Strategic improvements are innovations that generate huge results or contribute directly to the execution of strategy. All businesses need people working on innovations that improve their competitive positioning in the marketplace.

It is part of your job as a leader to engage your employees in the challenges and opportunities of your business. Make your employees part of the solution by engaging them in important work.

Every stage of the planning cycle:

There are lots of opportunities to engage your employees in innovation in everyday work. You can engage them in innovation throughout the project lifecycle. Projects usually start with discovery, then move to planning, and then to execution and project sustainability. You can engage employees at any and all of these stages. For example:

  • You can engage them in the execution phase: “Help us do this.”
  • You can engage them even earlier in the project, in the planning phase: “We need to do this: help us develop the plan.”
  • And you can engage your team even earlier—right up front in the discovery phase: “What is the nature of this problem; how big is it; who is it impacting; what kind of solution is necessary?”

The principle of engagement is this: the earlier and deeper the engagement, the earlier and deeper is employee buy in and commitment to the project. If employees help you assess the problem right up front (before the plan is made), they will have a much strong understanding of what they problem is and why it needs to be solved. In other words, you can use this engagement practice to build buy in and motivation much earlier in your projects.

Lots of ways to contribute:

The above diagram also shows that innovation requires many different kinds of contributions. There are many different ways to engage each member of your team, e.g.,

  • Identifying and assessing gaps, needs, and new ideas
  • Bringing good process to improvement projects
  • Lending a hand on improvement projects
  • Questioning the status quo and playing devil’s advocate
  • Creating solutions and inventing new ways to do things
  • Helping with execution, etc.

Innovate alone and in teams:

People don’t have to innovate on their own. Help your teams innovate. Introduce team innovation practices in addition to individual practices. Every team can be empowered and coached to improve and innovate as a team—on team innovation projects.

Ideas from everyone and everywhere:

Many people think being creative is a personal trait, and that you either have it or you don’t. This is not true. There is a certain amount of innovation going on in all perceiving, thinking, speaking, and acting. Check out Rollo May’s book The Courage to Create. He argues beautifully that creativity is an essential element of human existence—part of who we are. Not recognizing your natural creativity makes it very difficult to tap into the creativity of which you are capable. In other words, people who think they are not creative don’t even try to create; but if you acknowledge that you are capable of some creativity, as all of us are, then at least you have a chance.

If you can’t get funding for training in “creativity”, the best way to develop your team is to get them involved in helping you make improvements. People learn by doing. Getting employees involved builds confidence, skill, momentum, and a track record of success.

If you feel you are not highly creative, or are nervous about creating new ideas out of the blue (it rarely happens that way anyway), start by borrowing ideas from everyone and everywhere, e.g.,

  • Look for ideas in articles, books, social media, conferences, other industries…
  • Interview customers—and analyze customer data
  • Interview internal customers and other stakeholders—and analyze that data
  • Ask for input from your employees; empower them to go out and look for ideas

Tap into everyone’s unique strengths:

You don’t need a fancy assessment to figure out what people are good at. Look at their track record. Who excels in what areas? Everyone is different. Help employees leverage their unique interests and strengths, e.g.,

  • Strategists can analyze changing trends in the marketplace
  • Idea junkies can look for good ideas from other businesses and industries
  • Process junkies can help improve process
  • Collaborators can bring out the best in people in collaborative projects
  • Change agents can drive continuous improvement and help with execution

But don’t pre-judge, typecast, or stereotype people. Many people can learn to contribute in more than one way. And most people don’t even know what they are capable of. Keep the door open. Give people chances. Invite them to the table.

Ask people for their help in a variety of improvement projects and pay attention to when they light up and what they do best.

What about you?

  • What kind of improvements do you make most often?
  • What are the biggest innovations you have ever made?
  • Where do you get your best ideas?
  • What are your unique skills and strengths in terms of innovation?
  • Who has helped you innovate?
  • What do you need from your boss and your organization to innovate more?
  • Who can you help innovate?
  • How are you going to drive innovation on your team?

Culture of innovation:

If you say innovation is important but don’t spend time talking about innovation and continuous improvement with your team, if you don’t spend time helping your employees innovate, if you don’t give them time to innovate…it’s not going to happen.

Joel Shapiro, Ph.D.  |  (403) 861-4233  |  JShapiro@AdvantureConsulting.com
Copyright © 2015 Advanture  |  All rights reserved  |  www.AdvantureConsulting.com

Hear more from Joel Shapiro by attending one of his upcoming CPA Alberta PD seminars:

  • Building Leaders at All Levels: a Comprehensive, Integrated, Robust Leadership Practice — Edmonton, February 4
  • Fostering a Culture of Candor: Honest, Candid, Authentic Conversations at Work — Edmonton, February 6