There seems no doubt that many more organisations are these days making significant efforts to tap into the creative potential of their employees.  New initiatives and policies like Employee Voice and other workplace innovation initiatives are designed to encourage staff to come forward with new ideas to improve performance and shape the way work is done.
This direction of travel is to be welcomed and perhaps more employers should think about how open they are to new ideas, especially those coming from the “shop floor”.  That said, it seems to us that even those enlightened organisations that do commit resource to employee-driven innovation can often make life hard for themselves by failing to provide leadership and direction for these efforts.

We have been working recently with an Irish company that had launched efforts to involve all staff in coming up with ideas for new products and revenue streams.  The response was encouraging in the sense that over 40% of the workforce contributed ideas – and many of them had contributed more than one.  The problem was, however, that very few of the ideas that came forward were really what senior management had expected they would get.  Some of the ideas were extremely creative and well thought-through – but just not ideas that the company could do much with.

“Did senior management tell staff what kind of ideas they had hoped for?”, I hear you ask.  Well, you’ve clearly guessed – no they hadn’t.  And now they were in a pickle.  A lot of people with raised expectations were feeling decidedly disappointed and unlikely to make the same effort again.

In an effort to rescue the situation, we worked with senior management to identify their strategic innovation priorities, and, critically, their constraints – the boundaries that they had to work within for new ideas.  As it turns out, a key priority for the company was to identify new products that could be manufactured at one of their factories to help them smooth out peaks and troughs in factory load.

When the innovation priorities and constraints were communicated across the company, thankfully some staff were still sufficiently engaged to contribute more new ideas that were much more aligned with what the company needed and with far higher chances of being implemented.