A couple of years ago one of our team was involved in a supply chain project with a well-known multinational as they developed capability in opto-electronics.  Working with the Head of R&D, it was interesting to hear how management in the company are trained to support staff to contribute new ideas.

Recognised as one of the world’s most innovative companies over decades, the company in question has a strong philosophy and culture supporting innovation at all levels.  Managers are encouraged to believe that all employees have at least one good idea in them…but just that it might be the ninth or tenth one!  This belief then means that managers must be sensitive about how they respond to all ideas – even the bad ones.  The fear is that by responding negatively to a bad idea then the employee in question may not feel inclined to keep bringing new ideas forward.  In that case the great idea – the ninth or tenth one – would never emerge at all.

The Head of R&D explained the process through a fictitious example that really made the point.  He told the story of someone in his team who comes up with an idea for a concrete aeroplane!  As he pointed out, put in this position all your instincts are to respond – “…have you forgotten all about gravity then?”  Instead of instantaneous and damning judgement, the company’s training, however, is that you say “…let’s have a coffee.”  During the “coffee” the manager’s job is then to have the employee talk through the idea, and by only asking questions, have the employee figure out for themselves why the idea might not work.

So, what is the culture in your business?  Do you really believe that everyone can have a good idea?  If that’s true, are you sure your managers are responding the right way?  It might just mean suspending judgement – and possibly gravity – for just a little bit.