How To Get The Really Good Ideas Flowing

Who says you can't make inspiration happen? Here’s how to draw out the great thinking that exists within your company’s ranks.

Yeah. We know. To get to great ideas, you have to create a culture that values them.

But you can have the best culture in the world and your people aren’t going to spontaneously combust into fireballs of Da Vinci-level inspiration. You’ve got to work at it.

And, frankly, much of that work isn’t terribly difficult, although some of it is counterintuitive. If you’re ready to harness the power of great ideas in your organization, try these tips.

Be structured.

All of that talk about “blue skies” leads us to believe that zero-parameter instruction is fertile ground for great ideas. It’s not, says Marian J. Thier, president of ExpandingThought, Inc., a firm that specializes in innovation and creativity. But Thier says creativity and innovation love structure. If you’re trying to solve an operations or product issue, say so. Give clear parameters and then let people work on solving them.

“It’s better to say, ‘I need 14 ideas on how to bring a product to market faster.’ If I just go to you and say, ‘It would be nice if our products came to market faster,” you’re going to spend all your time trying to create the structure around how you can do that,” she says.

Start small.

Don’t expect people to come up with revolutionary ideas starting tomorrow. Instead, ask them to come up with the solutions that are bugging them now, even if they’re small, says management consultant Dean M. Schroeder, coauthor of The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power of Bottom-Up Ideas.

People are often better at problem-finding than coming up with solutions. Use those problems as idea activators to get a collection of possible solutions from employees, he says. This will get your team conditioned to come up with ideas.

Train your managers.

If the supervisors in your organization don’t know what they’re doing, they could quash all of your efforts to harness the power of good ideas. A good portion of effectiveness boils down to communication. Teach them how to recognize when employees are trying to make contributions and come up with solutions and to recognize that with praise and positive feedback.

Also get to the heart of why the employee came up with the idea in the first place--especially if the solution he or she developed won’t work.

“Start talking to them about the solution and other ways it can be solved. This way, you help them get better at the process instead of just dismissing the idea, which can discourage further contributions,” Schroeder says.

Bring outliers into the conversation.

Too often, leaders go to their creative rock stars and overlook those who do not appear on their radar screens, Thier says. Look for people who don’t regularly contribute and have conversations with them. Get a feel for how team members are comfortable communicating their ideas and establish a way for each to contribute in the manner he or she prefers.

Make it part of the job.

Schroeder says that contributing new thinking and ideas should be part of everyone’s job description--and performance reviews. If you’re not contributing, you’re not fulfilling your duties, which may affect your reviews and raises. Creating that expectation ensures that every employee knows that idea generation and communication is a universal value in your company.

Capture them.

It makes no sense to devote time and energy to encouraging and cultivating ideas if you don’t have a way to capture and review them. Schroeder suggests keeping a public idea board in plain sight so employees can see each other’s contributions and possibly even improve on them. That may also spur a bit of competition to come up with more or better ideas, he says. Senior managers should set times to periodically review appropriate ideas and recognize employees for their contributions.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Xu]

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