CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–There are plenty of great ideas inside any organization. But many also get lost in the shuffle. What can you do?
According to a team of researchers writing on Harvard Business Review’s HBR.com, four researchers noted thatstudies have revealed encouraging creativity can backfire if employees lack the resources, support, or mechanisms to develop and implement their ideas.
“Indeed, when managers urge employees to invest extra effort in creativity, but then reject their ideas (often because they are single-mindedly focused on productivity and efficiency), employees become frustrated and their creativity wanes over time. As a result, innovation can stall,” wrote Ella Miron-Spektor, Dana R. Vashdi, Teresa Amabile, and Vered Holzmann.
Instead, as part of the researchers’ “quest” to discover how employee creativity can be unleashed and sustained, the team said it collected data over a nine-year period by one person at a manufacturing company, Elop.
“Unlike traditional suggestion systems, the Elop system is a holistic process for managing the full life cycle of creativity, designed to ensure that ideas don’t get lost and that employee motivation to offer ideas is encouraged, not dampened,” the researchers said. “It begins with idea generation but doesn’t stop there. It also includes help with idea development; substantive, fair idea evaluation that is transparent to everyone; public recognition; and implementation of the most promising ideas.”
Among the lessons learned at Elop, where idea suggestion has soared:
Barriers to Creativity Must Be Removed
“(Elop) focused on removing organizational and psychological barriers such as fear of making mistakes, poor management attitude, lack of relevant resources, and stifling bureaucracy,” the authors said. “Even though many employees had good ideas, they were sometimes afraid to speak up because of their low status in the organization and because they believed that their ideas were not mature enough and therefore would not be implemented. When they did offer ideas, they often failed to explain the potential value of those ideas to their managers. And they were understandably reluctant to invest the extra time and effort needed for developing ideas in their after-work hours.”
The company developed an intranet platform on which employees would submit their ideas by filling out a simple form; all information on the platform would be visible to everyone in the organization. “The transparency of the system enables a fair assessment of ideas, based on defined, known, and shared sets of parameters.”
The New System
“Under the new system, midlevel managers, who receive all forms from their direct reports, are responsible for presenting all of their employees’ ideas to senior management and for gaining the necessary resources for developing the accepted ideas,” the researchers said. “ Thus, employees don’t have to worry about selling their ideas, yet they get credit for their ideas and the necessary support and resources for ideas that are accepted for implementation. Just as important, managers are motivated to seriously consider the ideas, working with employees to refine and improve the ideas before presenting them upward — because managers are evaluated based on their ability to do so fairly. One of the most important aspects of the system is that employees receive feedback on every submitted idea.”
“In most organizational suggestion systems, employees are rewarded solely based on the quality of their creative ideas,” the authors noted. “The holistic approach at Elop recognizes employees for their level of effort, not just the outcome, and thus promotes learning. Every submitted idea earns the employee ‘creativity points,’ which are awarded by an expert panel. The panel grants more points for original ideas that pushed employees out of their comfort zones and ideas that can benefit many people in the organization. Everyone who submits ideas receives small symbolic rewards (such as a certificate or a pen, with a personal note from the manager). Employees say that the feedback and recognition builds their confidence and motivates them.”
“The results at Elop are nothing short of astonishing,” said the researchers. “From 2007 to 2014, Golan’s employees generated over 5,000 ideas, with an exceptional implementation rate of more than 70%. (Simple ideas were implemented at a much higher rate than complex ideas.) These results are even more impressive when you consider that Golan’s division had about 430 employees, 81% of whom submitted ideas; that’s an average of more than 14 ideas per participant. The new system doubled the number of suggested ideas and participating employees; in the old system only 37% of employees submitted ideas, with an average of fewer than six ideas per participant. By 2015 the ideas generated through this system had saved the company millions of dollars, improved efficiency, and dramatically changed the organizational culture.”