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Keeping Your Creative Edge

“Keeping Your Creative Edge”

Stoke innovative fires to ensure long-term success.

You can’t keep growing a company without a steady infusion of innovative ideas.

Early on, you think you’ll never run out of ideas to feed your business. But that can change as you become increasingly involved in daily routines and tasks.

Consider, too, that when your company is young, systems tend to be informal, and ideas flow freely. But as the company grows, you delegate tasks and responsibilities. Separate divisions or departments form and become autonomous. You and your people — whom you may have comfortably termed "a family" — gradually lose daily touch with one another, which can interfere with innovation.

How do you keep reinventing yourself and your company by generating creative ideas?

Let your people speak

According to corporate creativity expert Alan Robinson, 80% of creative acts in a growing company originate with an idea from a front-line employee — and probably come as a complete surprise to you, the CEO. Why? Because you don’t really know — you haven’t asked — what your front-line people are thinking. Instead, you probably expect your best ideas to come from the inner circle, your management team; you regularly solicit their ideas. But you need a good system to capture that valuable 80% of great ideas that will come from the ranks.

Safety first

If you expect creative input from employees, you must put them at ease about speaking up. Here’s how:

  • Clue in your management team. Employees need to know that management wants to see their ideas and will act on whatever proposals are feasible and in the interest of growing the company. Make sure your managers convey this message.
  • Never penalize people for their ideas. No idea-generating system will work if employees fear retribution or punishment.
  • Make it easy for everyone to speak up. Even shy people are more likely to express themselves if they know they won’t be ridiculed. Emphasize that every idea must be treated with respect. Tip: Ask everyone to bring at least one idea to read out loud at staff meetings. People won’t laugh at others’ ideas when they know they’ll have to present their own.
  • Give credit where it’s due. Few people will share if they fear that a supervisor will steal the credit. Providing a forum for employees to "go public" with their ideas — at a staff meeting, for instance — helps ensure that the right person gets credit.
  • Implement the best ideas. You want a continuous influx of innovative ideas, but that won’t happen if people see their suggestions enthusiastically discussed and then quietly filed.

Use a reward system

You’ll get a higher volume of good ideas if you express your appreciation with more than just a pat on the back. At Grapevine Canyon Ranch, Pearce, Ariz., employees receive instant rewards for presenting a "great" idea at weekly meetings.

This fast-growth guest ranch models its idea-generating system on I-Power (a continuous improvement program developed by Martin Edelston, founder of The Boardroom Inc.). Every employee attends weekly meetings where each person reads aloud at least one idea for improvement. "If the idea is judged a 10 (great), the meeting chairperson tosses chocolates to the individual. That’s the instant reward," explains president Eve Searle. "A" ideas (good ones that could help move the company forward) are rewarded with $5 cash; "B" ideas receive $3. Some great ideas — such as offering a free day’s stay with a five-day booking and free room upgrades during off-season — have led directly to increased business for the ranch.

Some other examples of rewards include gas cards, vouchers for a hotel room and breakfast, and amusement-park tickets. Remember: This is not a contest, but a system for generating ideas to improve the company.

Information exchange

Sharing information with employees will give them a greater stake in the company and encourage them to open up with their own creative ideas. Example: Chairman and CEO Edward J. Shultz holds a monthly meeting for all 300 employees of Toledo, Ohio-based Dana Commercial Credit Corp. Individuals stationed in other countries join in by phone or videoconference. Ideas are shared, and people are rewarded for the best brainstorms.

Shultz also allows people to ask questions — submitted anonymously — on any topic at the meeting. "If someone has a concern about a policy, for example, I want them to be able to get that burr out from under their saddle," says Shultz, noting that disgruntled employees won’t care enough about the company to share good ideas. "You have to build trust by being completely open, answering any questions and allowing people to challenge everything you do."

When employees see you as engaging and accessible, you’re setting the stage for creativity in your corporate culture. "I’ll go toe to toe with anyone in the company who wants to talk with me about anything," Shultz says. "It keeps you young. You get young people … who challenge what you do every day. Talk with them — and be prepared to defend your position. I’m always interested in what they have to say. It’s an opportunity to improve how you operate."

Tap your customers

Customers can be a key source of new ideas. Shultz estimates that 80% of his company’s innovative ideas, including new products, originate with customer suggestions.

Action: Customer-satisfaction surveys, suggestion forms and follow-up phone calls are productive, but take them to the next level. Have senior managers meet with their counterparts at the offices of your best customers. Agree that your common objective is to critique one another’s performance. What could each of you do to make the relationship more satisfactory?

Your customers’ unfulfilled needs can be transformed into new products and services — if you treat those customers as a source of ideas.

Final pointers

Managers and supervisors can render their teams creative — or not. Tie promotions and bonuses for managers to the number of ideas they draw from their people. Make idea generating part of their job descriptions, and establish a system to track how well supervisors are listening to employees.

Remember: The same system that results in small ideas can also generate big ideas to help grow your company.

Writer: Kathleen Conroy