I recently gave a creative problem solving workshop to a group of scientists who all worked for the same outfit. It was a lively session. In addition to learning structured creative problem solving (Osborn-Parnes-Basadur framework) we did some short bits of ideation around new business concepts. This was more as a sampler than it was a real session. It wasn’t the goal of the session to reinvent their business, nonetheless, in a short time there were some relevant business growth ideas with potential on the table.
An executive with the company remarked after the session that “nobody ever comes to me” with new business ideas. Talking more with this man a reason why emerged: He never asked. He assumed his employees would know he wanted their ideas.
Keep in mind that this is a successful business, in fact, a growing business. It’s easy to understand why there was never an ask. Innovation is what people think about when things are not going well. If you’re growing do you need innovation? As an executive, if you’re growing, you think you’ve done innovation.
From an employee perspective, when folks are focused on the task at hand — operations — who’s taking time to think about new business ideas? People always have ideas but they quickly put them aside and out of mind because they are “out of focus”. It sometimes feels wrong to be thinking in an innovative way. This is reinforced by middle managers who harp on people to stick with laser like focus on those essential projects. They in turn are often pressured by upper management for quarter by quarter bottom line results.
If you’re trying to get an innovation culture going, and get folks thinking and pitching ideas, one of the first and simplest things you can do is simply make it known that you Want Ideas. In other words, ASK. If you can be specific with your question to the group, great, even better, but it starts with just opening the door. Let your people know that you want ideas. Maybe you want new business ideas, sales ideas, product improvement ideas, process enhancement ideas — tell them what you want — and start tracking what comes back. Maybe have a monthly “pitch hour” where anybody can come in present an idea. I can promise that you’ll be surprised by both the ideas and who shows up to pitch them.
Anyway, just ask for ideas.
It’s a start. It may be the first rung on the ladder, but your have to start somewhere.
I could further suggest Not to Make It a Suggestion Box sort of thing. Suggestion Boxes are unfocused and often result in gripes disguised as ideas. Something like a quarterly ask of a focused question to the general employee population makes sense. It would be another good basic step towards establishing innovation culture and regular innovation cycles.
It’s sad to think that some executive doors are really closed to new ideas. And, sometimes it’s probably worse than just closed. There’s an invisible sign on the door that says “Beware of suggesting ideas — you risk respect, job, salary, and lifestyle.” If that’s your culture you’ve got a long way to go.
Asking is the first step, and, be prepared to give feedback and/or take action. If you don’t take action the message you’ll be giving is, I asked for ideas — but I really don’t want ideas.
So ask already.