No one knows your product and business better than your front-line employees. Your team members who do the day-to-day, customer-facing work are in the best position to spot challenges or missed opportunities and brainstorm solutions. As a leader, you should look to them for valuable insights and innovative solutions — and encourage them to share them.
We asked members of Business Journals Leadership Trust how to incentivize your team to always be thinking about ways to improve and sharing these ideas with leadership. Their strategies are below.
1. Ask yourselves what your client is trying to achieve.
Our team often asks the question, “What job is our client trying to get done?” By looking at the world from this perspective, we spot opportunities. When we come up with a good idea, we work together to co-create it and have the goal of figuring out a way to “bonus” ourselves by creating something new that’s of value. – Linda Bishop, Thought Transformation
2. Establish a ‘flat’ corporate culture.
First of all, have a culture that’s flipped on its side and is flat rather than hierarchical. Second, actually listen to your great team members; that’s what you hired them for. Lastly, praise the hell out of them. People instinctually want to do a great job and improve your organization. – David Boroughs, The Demo Company
3. Embrace the entrepreneurial spirit.
Two of our firm’s five core values are that we are a meritocracy and we embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. We create a collaborative environment to promote thinking outside of the box. Often this entails getting outside of the office as well! We encourage all of our employees to add value and ideas to the team. – Cam Goodwin, HawsGoodwin Wealth
4. Empathize with your customers.
Great innovation comes from an intimate knowledge of customer pain points. This requires empathy for the customer. Employees are so close to a current product that they often fail to take a step back and put themselves in a customer’s position. To be truly innovative, spend a day in their life. Collaborate with them to identify and solve problems and feed the output into your development process. – Matthew Johnston, Design Interactive Inc.
5. Financially reward innovators for their contributions.
People work to support themselves and their families; they work for a paycheck. Have a system in place that rewards the innovator with financial gain. It lets them feel like they have some skin in the game. Make it more than a title — let them know that hard work and innovation lead to financial success. After all, that is what drove me going into business for myself. – Dustin Hopson, Synergeer Engineering
6. Provide autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Daniel Pink has a great book — Drive — on what he calls “Motivation 2.0.” In the book, he suggests that people want three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We give people flexibility on how to achieve tasks, but we also try to help them understand why we are doing certain things and what the objective is. That way they can help find solutions that better achieve our goals. – Jonathan Miller, Parsonex Enterprises, Inc.
7. Encourage every team member to be a leader.
We encourage every team member to be a leader, regardless of their job description. Leadership comes in various forms, and extrinsic motivation is the best way to access innovative solutions. We make sure that everyone is focusing on their expertise — their sweet spot — and their genius can flow naturally. – Rachel Namoff, Arapaho Asset Management
8. Shut up and listen.
To incentivize solutions, leadership needs to ask, shut up and listen. Mary Barra, CEO of GM, reportedly asked line workers to “Tell me something I need to know.” That practice gave workers an invitation and a reward for bringing both problems and innovative solutions to management. – Daniel Serfaty, Aptima, Inc.
9. Make it part of your culture.
Sharing ideas and solutions should be an integral part of every company’s culture. Employees at all levels should be encouraged, praised and rewarded for bringing new ideas to the table and helping to implement them. We emphasize this in onboarding. We grant awards, swag and promotions to employees who embody this cultural trait. – Zee Ali, Z-Swag
10. Build collaboration and feedback loops into your processes.
The culture your organization develops will be a byproduct of the processes and systems that have been put in place. Start by building collaboration and feedback loops into everything from the onboarding process to the manager selection process, the review process, weekly huddles and department meetings. Don’t just listen when team members come to you — actively require their participation. – Lara August, Robot Creative
11. Promote honesty and respectful conflict.
Promote a culture of honesty and respectful conflict. To lead this, you have to be vulnerable. Set the example that it’s OK to be wrong, it’s OK to question and it’s OK to disagree. Also, make it clear that the person accountable for the decision makes the final call. You can’t make decisions by committee, but you can make sure that you are truly considering what your team has to say. – Brent Foley, TRIAD Architects
12. Create space for brainstorming.
My goal is to always create space for brainstorming during weekly team meetings. I make sure to recognize a team member personally when we implement something they suggested. The overall success of the organization all boils down to how we make our employees feel. Know what motivates them. Is it a title? Money? Recognition? Speak their language. – Amber Duncan, Jackie
13. Operate with a people-first mentality.
Our leadership team makes it a top priority to hear the voices of each one of our team members. By doing so, our team encourages an open environment where each team member feels encouraged to innovate and understands their contribution to the company goals. Team members of all levels are welcome and even encouraged to meet with our directors to discuss new ideas. – Scott Scully, Abstrakt Marketing Group
14. Put the right people in the right jobs.
If you have the right people in the right jobs, they will usually innovate themselves just because they want to improve or grow the business. Being in that position, you want to make sure they know they are appreciated. You can give them “high-five rewards,” but you have to make the rewards worth it. Even if they do not like them upfront, gift cards come in handy all of the time. – Brandy McCombs, IBC
15. Make it OK to take risks.
We often talk about taking risks and sharing ideas. Our leadership continually reminds our staff that we’d rather hear 99 bad ideas and one good idea than never hear creative ideas from our team. We give our staff time: Wednesdays are “no meeting zones” so our team can focus on deep thinking and problem-solving. Innovation is rewarded with spot bonuses, team recognition and career advancement. – Lauren Parker, FrazierHeiby
16. Trust your team to control the process.
Pressure from leadership and micromanagement are the biggest creativity killers. Trust your team enough to let them fully control the process they are responsible for, and encourage them to share their ideas more often — even if they think they aren’t good enough. This will give them more freedom to think out of the box and come up with innovative solutions. – Solomon Thimothy, OneIMS