Over on Tim's Blog he made a post about being at Lotus 911/GBS for 5 years (Congrats Tim) and in that post he stated:
I've learned more, had more fun, been more inspired, and been witness to (and, occasionally, even integral to) more amazing innovation in the past few years than I even imagined possible.
This got me to thinking on just how does a company drive innovation and foster an innovative environment that makes people want to be a part of it? In my career I've seen both sides of the coin. Companies that squash innovation because they either aren't interested in hearing what lowly worker bees have to say. Or they are multiple contracts deep and the ideas that come up just never make it to the decision makers, even though that company welcomes the ideas and wants to pursue them. I've also worked in places that foster innovation and make it fun to come up with off the wall ideas and then go out and prove them. If it's a good idea it'll go forth and multiply/flourish. I'm sure you've seen examples of both in your career also, and usually the places that squash innovation aren't fun to work at and you don't really learn a whole lot because it's just a job.
However, there are companies out there that foster innovation and welcome ideas. When a truly awesome idea comes to someone they're usually excited to prove the theory or at least come up with enough information on their own to determine if the idea is worth pursuing. If it is, they'll then pitch it to whomever they report to and the idea will gain traction and move on, or it won't. I get that some companies don't really have the resources to pay someone to work on something that might not bear fruit. But, if you constantly go this route how do new ideas and groundbreaking discoveries happen? In my experience with that situation they don't. Which is kind-of the point.
So, how do small companies with limited resources go forth and innovate? The short answer is to just listen to what your employees are coming up with. If it's a good idea and they've shown that it can work, let them run with it and see what happens. You may end up with something truly ground breaking and innovative that just might turn a profit. Sure it's a gamble. But, highly motivated people usually find a way to do something that they want to do and are excited about. Going this route the person with the idea has a little more incentive to pull it off and make it work. WIN WIN for everyone! Not to mention that while the idea might not bear fruit today, it might tomorrow if it fits a future need.
I've been wanting to write this for quite some time now and always held off as I didn't want to burn any bridges for telling the brutal truth or maybe I felt that it just wasn't my place to be saying these things. But, after working in a place like GBS where we'll have off hand discussions that put forth an idea and then being set loose to prove that idea…. That's just a great experience and very fulfilling for me as an employee and a person with an active mind and a great curiosity as to how things work. I want everyone to experience that, as it's very rewarding, especially if you love what you do.
If you're a small business or manager ask yourself…. How can I encourage my employees to be more innovative? Usually the answer is to just listen to what they're saying and looking at what they have on their whiteboard. They probably already have a few good ideas that they just haven't pitched your way yet. Or better yet, host a contest to address a particular business need, you'll at least come up with a few different ways to operate that might save some money. I've found people are full of ideas. Some good, some bad, but bringing them out into the open might spark new ideas and drive even more innovation, excitement and profit, not to mention it's also fun and educational.