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Encouraging Employees to Innovate

“Encouraging Employees to Innovate”

You’ve got good thinkers in your company. You’ve assembled a talented, capable team. Now, how do you get them to get even more creative and brave? How do you cut new edges?


Innovation is critical not only to the development of your business but also to the effectiveness of your employees. By encouraging employees to be creative, you’re launching a powerful in-house think tank that can help your company achieve its goals.

Innovation is the application of creativity — bringing about change by using ideas. For more on creativity, see the Quick-Read “Stimulating Creativity.” New products are often the result of innovation. For more on new product development, see the forthcoming Quick-Read “How to Develop New Products.”

Employees who have management’s blessing to be creative will take the initiative to seek new ways of doing their jobs and more efficient approaches to using company resources. They’ll bring fresh energy to bear on long-standing problems, and they’ll be more inclined to come up with preventive solutions to keep minor glitches from seeding costly crises.

When they know they’re expected to be innovative, employees bring to the table ideas that can save your company money or lead to new products, services and other avenues of growth.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • How to encourage an innovative mindset.
  • Tips for responding to employee ideas.


Actions speak at least as loudly as words. In addition to saying, “We want you to be creative about helping us build this company,” you must prove that you fully support an innovative mindset. Here are ten ways to encourage creativity and make the most of your employees’ ideas:

  1. Give employees complete freedom to offer ideas. Let them know you welcome ideas at any time, in any form: in the suggestion box; by e-mail, voice-mail or memo; at staff meetings or during hallway conversations. This encourages people to share their ideas in the first flush of enthusiasm, so that good ideas don’t end up on the back burner where they may be forgotten.
  2. Similarly, give employees the authority to try new ways to do their jobs. Encourage them to share problems and ideas for solutions with maintenance and production-design engineers.
  3. Never brush off a suggestion when you’re too busy to listen. Instead say, “I’m putting out fires here, but I’m interested — send me an e-mail, and I’ll get back to you ASAP.” Then follow through promptly. Forgetting to get back to people is the surest way to discourage the flow of ideas.
  4. Always acknowledge an idea. Let employees know the status of their proposals.
  5. Consider the merits of each idea. What would be gained by implementation? Is the idea feasible? If not, let the employee know why.
  6. Promote risk taking. Encourage people to try even those ideas they feel are a little risky. Remember how many of your best ideas — such as creating your own company — succeeded despite the lack of guarantees.
  7. Don’t punish people for “bad” ideas. Avoid criticizing or penalizing employees for coming up with seemingly great ideas that don’t pan out.
  8. Let people be inspired by their failures. Tell your employees “I want you to feel free to fail and try again.” Discuss what went wrong, or why the idea wasn’t really feasible, or even why it might work well under different circumstances. Failure can be the ultimate learning experience.
  9. Welcome ideas from all levels of the organization. When creativity is a basic tool in your company, great ideas may come from unexpected sources. Someone who has never before offered a useful suggestion might come up with a revolutionary idea you wish you’d thought of yourself. Go with it — and give the innovator full credit.
  10. Encourage people to help solve chronic problems. If you’ve long been struggling with a particular issue, fresh perspectives could provide a breakthrough.


John Jacobs, owner of a company that designs and produces greeting cards, was desperate when he decided to draw on employee creativity to improve in-house communication.

“Almost every division was constantly griping about poor communication,” Jacobs explains. “Misunderstandings and miscommunication were so bad we actually lost a couple of major clients.”

Jacobs’ solution was to issue through e-mail an urgent call for ideas. He offered a $100.00 prize to the person who came up with the most creative (and feasible) idea to improve communication.

“The most innovative idea came from a clerical worker, who suggested a weekly news sheet to post on the bulletin boards around our lunchroom,” Jacobs says. “And this creative employee volunteered to take on the project!”

The news sheet is a single page reporting a maximum of six items. Anyone in the company can provide nonconfidential information they think others want or need to know. People also bring their questions to the editor, and she finds out who can provide authoritative answers. Questions range from, “What were the sales numbers in the western region last month?” to “When does our CEO start vacation? I need his go-ahead on this report before he leaves.”

Both the original question and the reply appear on the news sheet. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses of sources are included for those who want further information.

One recent news-sheet item asked people to e-mail their opinion of its effectiveness in improving communication. “Every single one of our 75 employees responded with favorable comments,” Jacobs says. “And all this started with one employee’s creative idea.” With morale and production “way up, we’ve regained our lost accounts and acquired several new clients.”

DO IT [top]

  1. Invite employees to bring their ingenuity to bear on persistent problems. Be clear and specific: “You know how much effort we’ve recently put into making this a great place for new hires to work. But we’re still losing too many within a year. I need you to come up with a unique strategy we can use to hold on to the best of them.”
  2. Provide incentives. Awards for “best ideas of the year” help spark creative thinking. More frequent rewards also encourage employees to come up with innovative ideas. Money isn’t always the most favored perk, though. Ask people how they’d like to be rewarded.
  3. Bring everyone in on the big picture. Schedule “planning our future” sessions in which employees offer their best ideas for developing the company. Open-book management — or at least sharing as much information as possible about the organization — will fire their creative drive to help grow your business.



Getting Employees to Fall in Love with Your Company by Jim Harris (AMACOM, 1996). Chapter 3, “Open Communication: The Power of Connection” and Chapter 6, “Emancipate Action: Free at Last, Free at Last!”

Building the Innovative Organization: Management Systems that Encourage Innovation by James A. Christiansen (St. Martins, 2000). Many of these ideas for encouraging new-product innovation will encourage job and task-level innovation as well.

Internet Sites

Building an Innovation Factory,” by Andrew Hargadon & Robert I. Sutton; Harvard Business Review, May 2000. How product-design firms stimulate engineers to find new product ideas. ($5.50 charge for access)

Change Leader,” Chapter 3 from Management Challenges for the 21st Century by Peter F. Drucker (HarperBusiness, 1999).

Practice of Innovation,” by Peter M. Senge. Leader to Leader (Summer 1998): 16-22.

Article Contributors

Writer: Kathleen Conroy