Industrial Companies: Look to Your Employees for Fresh Ideas

Employees for Fresh Ideas
Innovation and its inspirations aren't really as mysterious as they seem. The really great performance-enhancing ideas don't come from the research lab or the executive suite. They come from the people who daily fight the company's battle - those who serve the customers. Successful corporations that have developed a culture and reputation for innovative ideas have found ways to harness the creative energies and insights of employees across all functions and ranks. These companies have cultivated "innovation communities - work groups that tackle projects and problems in place of the traditional strategy to engage a team of expensive consultants. These groups provide the opportunity to give new shape and purpose to knowledge already possessed by those employees.

Companies establishing successful innovation communities share seven key characteristics and strategies:
  1. Creating the space to innovate. They designate time and organize effective meetings and communication mechanisms.
  2. Getting a broad variety of viewpoints. They deliberately cross horizontal boundaries to get input from all management (and non-management) levels, and they cross vertical boundaries to break down information "silos" and allow knowledge to spread among even unrelated departments.
  3. Creating conversation between senior management and participants. They require senior management to pay attention to what participants are saying.
  4. Pulling, not pushing, participants to join. They recognize that they can't force anyone to share the knowledge they have.
  5. Keeping development costs low by tapping unused talent. Participants usually continue to perform their regular roles even while working on the innovation project.
  6. Recognizing collateral benefits that sometimes equal or exceed the innovations themselves. Developing a "learning-organization" culture yields benefits that improve morale and company image.
  7. Recognizing that measurement is key. A company can sustain an innovation community only if it can produce demonstrable value. Successful companies keep track of how many innovative ideas make it from the communities' drawing boards to actual implementation—and measure the results.
Successful businesses - the superstars you read about in magazine - are invariably recognized as innovative organizations. One thing in common is that they tap into the collective brain power of entire business - from the "C" suite to the shop floor. We've caught glimpses of this principle inside top-performing industrial companies, too. When you walk through the front door of such companies, there is a calm efficiency that is downright palpable. Everyone seems to know his or her job, and they're discharging their duties with poise and confidence. Underlying many of these operations you'll find dozens - perhaps hundreds - of little ideas and innovations that have made the business run smoother. And a good deal of the ideas came from the employees - not the owner or the president. The business leaders were smart enough to recognize that the people who actually do these jobs know a great deal about the problems and challenges they face every day. The leaders have encouraged, recognized, and rewarded innovation from their employees, and it pays off in improved operations, higher morale, and a culture that consciously looks for ways to learn and improve.