Organisations today are concerned with how they can mobilise the collective creative power of their workforce to solve critical problems and identify potential winning innovations.  Will this challenge be greater now that the world of work has changed dramatically due to the current pandemic?  Many are turning to technology solutions to help support and encourage more innovation across the organisation.  But what are the fundamentals of involving the wider organisation to achieve successful innovation in 2020 and beyond?  This article sets out the basic rationale and building blocks for employee innovation.


What does any organisation want from innovation?  How does innovation add value and, therefore, what is the best way to set up our organisation so that this value is realised?

Well, if we had ten commentators in a room, there is a good chance that we’d get at least eleven different sets of answers to these questions.  From an organisation health perspective, successful innovation will see sufficient new ideas introduced, and successfully implemented, that enable the organisation to continually meet its short, medium, and long-term objectives.  This is not to say there aren’t other benefits that can accrue from successful innovation.  Improved morale, job satisfaction and enhanced team-working, for example, are also valuable outcomes when an organisation is able to deliver tangible innovation results.

For most of us, the environment within which we operate changes ever more rapidly.  New customer needs, new competition, new technology, new legislation, and – as we are experiencing now due to the Coronavirus pandemic – new ways of working and interacting.  Continual change in our environment inevitably means that we need more, faster innovation if we are to continue to be relevant.  What has been successful before isn’t likely to be as successful in the future.

Additionally, innovation needs to be worth the effort.  Viewed as an organisation process, innovation needs to demonstrate return on investment (however this is measured) and must itself be subject to the requirement for continuous improvement – how can we do it better and faster, with better quality results, more cheaply, and more efficiently?

Organisation enablers

When thinking about how to organise ourselves to bring about the innovation results described above, we would do well to consider some widely held views and factors that enable and support faster, more effective innovation.

Collaboration might be top of many people’s lists for innovation enablers.  It’s well recognised that we need more collaboration to help identify and solve problems and to design and implement solutions, often across departmental and organisational boundaries.  People must be willing and able to work together easily and constructively to achieve this.  The need for collaboration also means that more diversity is likely to be brought to bear on the innovation effort.  More diversity means more perspectives, more angles, and more potential solutions – and often more unique solutions for that matter.

Another organisation innovation enabler is the personal experience of all employees.  Every minute of every day, people across the organisation come face-to-face with customers, with end-users, suppliers, competitors, products, work processes, problems, and opportunities.  They see things going wrong, they see the reactions of others, they experience frustration, they get positive and negative feedback, they see trends, they get asked for help, they themselves ask others for help, and all of these experiences are potential inspirations for improvement and innovation.  People on the coal face are much more likely to see things that directors and senior leaders cannot see and are often much better placed to identify the real problems and useful new ideas.

Assumption 1 – People want to be involved

So, an underlying assumption of this drive for more employee involvement in innovation is that they will want to be involved.  The thinking is that if we ask people for ideas then they will be only too ready to come up with the next big thing.  It may not be as simple as that of course, and it’s not at all clear that many employees are interested in anything more than getting through the working day.  A 1995 survey of 40 UK companies with active employee innovation schemes found that the average number of idea contributions per employee over 12 months ranged from 0.02 to 3.  In 2013, Marks and Spencer reported that 3% of UK staff contributed to its Big Ideas programme.  Neither of these statistics suggests wholesale enthusiastic engagement.

Assumption 2 – More people involved means more good ideas

On a different scale, when BP tried to crowdsource ideas to help them clean up the spill from the Deepwater Horizons project, they received responses from over 123,000 people around the world.  According to The Guardian, however, the technical experts who reviewed the submissions reported that this huge sifting and sorting exercise revealed relatively little by way of results.

In a Harvard Business Review article from December 2019, Oguz A. Acar wrote that his research showed people get involved in crowdsourcing type programmes for different reasons, and that the quality of ideas submitted varies according to those reasons.  Acar identified the motivations for making contributions as follows:

  • Intrinsic motivation – related to a desire to creatively solve problems
  • Learning motivation – a desire to grow knowledge or expertise
  • Prosocial motivation – a desire to impact positively on others
  • Social motivation – a desire to be part of a community
  • Extrinsic motivation – a desire for financial reward or recognition

Interestingly his work found that there was a correlation between better quality solutions and either intrinsic or extrinsic motivations.  Learning and prosocial motivations had a negative correlation with idea quality, and social motivation had no obvious correlation either way.

Further, Acar suggested that organisations should design their crowdsourcing innovation initiatives to promote and facilitate both the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of potential contributors.  Clearly this might involve providing financial incentives for idea submission – especially good ideas.

Also, however, Acar reasoned that intrinsic motivation could be enhanced by making it easier for contributors to understand the problem or challenge including the constraints and rationale for setting the challenge in the first place.  Without this full context, then people will be unable to make reasoned contributions that take proper account of the most important factors involved in the challenge.

Build it and they will come

Whether this is a quote or a misquote from the film “Field of Dreams” organisation leaders clearly have to build the right conditions if they want to attract more of their people to the “innovation ball game”.  The gap seems clear. Organisations need and want more good ideas, faster and more often, contributed from as wide an employee distribution as possible.  On the other hand, it seems that, left to their own devices, employees may be reluctant to get involved, and when they do, may not be appropriately motivated, or informed, to submit truly useful ideas.

To us, there are a few fundamental steps that organisations can take – but rarely do – that will make a significant positive difference to the quality and quantity of ideas submitted by employees and also to the proportion of the workforce that make these submissions.

The first is that organisations should make it clear to all staff that improvement and innovation is an expected requirement for the job – whatever the job.  In our opinion, most organisations don’t do well enough in holding individuals accountable (in the positive, productive sense) for what they do to improve their own performance or that of the business process, unit, or function in which they are employed.  In our work, we encourage organisations to promote qualities like pro-activity, risk-awareness, and future-focus amongst staff in order to ensure they continually look for improvement opportunities.  We are prone to say that we “outlaw” the phrase “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and instead suggest following the motto that “the good is the enemy of the best”.  Once employees at all levels align themselves with the need for constant improvement and innovation then they will be more inclined to look for ideas and look for help to make their ideas work.

The second step is that organisations could do much more to train, develop, and support employees to be more innovative in the workplace.  There are well-defined skills involved in the start-to-finish process of improvement and innovation – and they are not often found naturally with any one individual. Innovation requires confidence and nothing will impair confidence more than a feeling of incompetence – of not knowing how to go about the task at hand.  If organisations want more “intrapreneurs” then they should be prepared to invest in the skill set that goes with the label.

The third is that organisation leaders need to do a better job of issuing meaningful challenges – innovation missions if you will – that truly engage and motivate more of the workforce to get involved.  These challenges should ideally relate clearly and obviously to the organisation’s high-level objectives, mission, and values, and in this way set the scene for what “good” looks like when it comes to new ideas.  These challenges need to strike a balance between accessibility – the ability for more people to easily understand what it’s all about – and providing enough detail that would allow people to conceive potentially useful ideas with no requirement for further explanation.  This would help satisfy the intrinsic motivation seekers identified by Acar.

As well as setting challenges at the macro-organisation level, this might also mean sponsoring challenges at departmental, functional, or even team levels – anywhere where a more focused, “localised” challenge makes sense in the context of the overall organisation objectives.  In some ways this could be thought of as a “trickle down” of the innovation mission.  Perhaps the ultimate measure of success would be when individual employees can use the challenge process to ask for help with problems or opportunities they face?

And finally, leaders need to think harder about the incentives that they build into employee innovation programmes.  For those whose motivation is mainly extrinsic then the rewards for innovation should be directly related to the results that their ideas deliver.  This isn’t easy as, in any innovation programme, not all good ideas end up being implemented.  Even for those that are, the realisation of measurable results may take a long time from the initial submission of the idea, and may include much more cost than was originally envisaged.  These factors need to be effectively accommodated, however, if we want financial incentives to have any real positive effect.

Solutions for the post-Covid world

Platforms like smartcrowds are clearly designed for crowdsourcing innovation.  They are founded on the enabler requirements set out at the beginning of this article i.e. the ability to tap into the personal experience of the entire workforce (and beyond) and make it easier to achieve much greater levels of collaboration.  Smartcrowds also helps resolve the ROI issues of employee involvement in innovation by making the whole process transparent, making communication and collaboration faster, easier, and more efficient, and by more effectively coordinating disparate individuals and groups as they progress the implementation of new ideas.  smartcrowds enables organisation leaders to communicate and re-iterate priorities, to set and re-set innovation challenges and to more easily access the wisdom and insight of a much wider constituency than they otherwise might.  The technology makes feedback loops faster (often instantaneous!) and encourages the growth of virtual “neural networks” of different brains connected to challenges and ideas adding a depth and richness to the understanding of the field in question.

Crucially, at a time when employees are often much more separated and isolated from one another, smartcrowds effectively socialises the whole innovation process, informing and educating on challenges, issues, ideas, and developments.  This way, innovation can become the “new normal”, reinforcing the requirement for everyone to engage in never-ending improvement effort.  This same socialisation, as pointed out earlier in this article, is in fact the core motivation for some to make an innovation contribution in the first place.