Everyone loves the origin story of the Post-it note—a blockbuster product that owes its success to employee ingenuity. 3M scientist Spencer Silver had developed an adhesive that didn’t bond tightly, but rather had a loose stickiness that didn’t appear to have a commercial application. Enter his colleague Art Fry, who was looking for a way to stick non-permanent bookmarks in his church choir hymn book. Fry immediately saw the potential of the adhesive, and championed it within the company. Within a year of its 1980 release, the company reportedly saw sales of more than $2 million. It now produces about 50 billion sticky sheets per year—and maintains a policy of encouraging employees to set aside 15% of their time to explore new ideas so the company can harness the next big one.
Every smart CEO wonders what multi-million-dollar ideas might be lurking quietly in employees’ minds, and many now have initiatives designed to tap them. Google champions its “20% time” policy, which encourages workers to spend one day a week pursuing innovation. Companies like PriceWaterhouseCooper and Kraft Foods have experimented with websites that harness employees’ ideas for innovative or cost-cutting new products and services. And then there’s NBC Universal, which in August announced a contest called The Idea that asks employees to come up with “new and innovative ways to move our business forward”—and then pitch them, Shark Tank-style, in front of a panel of judges. The idea is reportedly modeled on NBC’s hit show The Voice (the winner of the contest wins a trip to the show’s finale). A media report on the initiative prompted one skeptic in the Canadian Business newsroom to comment that the company’s innovation pipeline was broken: “it sounds like they have no idea how to speak to their employees—or how to harness their ideas.”
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NBC won’t comment on the initiative, so it’s impossible to know what sort of innovation it’s generated (at least not until they turn it into a reality show). But is it wrong to try to deliberately coax fresh ideas out of your employees—and is an initiative like The Idea a constructive way to build an idea-friendly workplace?
Kenneth Goh, a professor at Western University’s Ivey School of Business, says CEOs are smart to recognize that the best source of innovation could be their own employees, but offers a few tips on how to effectively harness their ideas. One of the most important ways is to focus on team collaboration rather than individual genius. “Innovation doesn’t typically come from one person,” Goh says. “It’s not solitary, it’s social—interactive. It happens when you communicate and interact with your colleagues and friends, especially when they’re outside your own domain of expertise.”
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Rather than placing a spotlight on an individual, as the NBC contest does, he suggests creating space for interaction by organizing your workspace to facilitate chance meetings and by supporting teamwork and developing communities with shared interests. Voluntary interaction is best, he says. “It’s always better if you aren’t forcing people to get together. And there needs to be a safe culture for playing around with ideas. You want an environment that encourages risk-taking and embraces failure.”
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But it also helps to pace yourself. Toronto-based entrepreneur Mandy Gilbert has tried to create an innovation culture at her recruitment and executive search firm, Creative Niche, and says she’s learned that sometimes you can end up with too much of a good thing. She and her staff were so keen on collaborating on great new ideas they established a monthly meeting to discuss them. But they quickly discovered that while employees had great suggestions, there were too many to act on—and some were simply too big to take on. “We were a little quick out of the gate,” says Gilbert, “and I worried about discouraging people by not seeming committed to their ideas. It just wasn’t sustainable.”
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Since then, the company has scaled down—monthly meetings are now quarterly, and each session covers only one topic that the group focuses on exclusively. The result is achievable ideas through “micro-innovation.” During a session devoted to effectively leveraging data, for instance, the company decided to create a microsite featuring salary indexes that’s proven to be a valuable marketing tool.
“We sometimes forget the value in asking ourselves and our employees, ‘is what we’re doing working?’” says Gilbert, who adds that she always makes a point of sharing ideas too—and makes a point of not filtering out the duds. “When employees hear that you’ve got good ideas, but also some bad ones, they love it.”