You may ask yourself, why do I need to think of ways to make front line employees more innovative? Most organizations have teams dedicated to innovation so why should I worry about whether my front line employees are being creative and innovative? The answer lies in the definition of innovation and in employee job satisfaction.
So what is innovation? It’s the process of creating a solution for a customer, which takes them from dissatisfaction with the current system to a future state where they are satisfied with the solution through an advance, improvement, or dramatic change. Since front line employees have the closest interactions with your customers and products, they are easily in the best position to drive innovation in your organization.
Employee satisfaction, or employee engagement, describes whether employees are happy, content, and fulfilling their desires and needs at work. Factors contributing to employee satisfaction include treating employees with respect, providing regular employee recognition, empowering employees, offering competitive benefits and compensation, providing employee perks and company activities, and positive management within a success framework of goals, measurements, and expectations. As we define the five ways to make your employees more innovative you will see the direct correlation to employee satisfaction.
First, how do we create a work environment conducive to innovation?
Frontline workers must know that leadership is on their side.
This can look like leadership being immediately responsive to employees, listening, and being fair minded. Additionally leaders will need to show there are no dumb ideas: provide helpful, constructive feedback and create a safe environment of collaboration.
Frontline workers must understand the big picture.
Leaders should communicate the mission, vision, strategies and performance measures for their organization and departments. Also, leadership should create a continuous communication loop that identifies ideas from the frontline and tells everyone what innovations are working and the status of the various projects and ideas.
With the environment and leadership practices in place to sustain a culture of employee innovation, we can get to the details.
The 5 Ways to Make Front Line Employees More Innovative
1. Listen to Employees
If you value innovation, then show your employees that you value their ideas, input, and suggestions. Did you know that 85% percent of the solutions to your current organizational issues already exist in the minds of your employees? It makes sense. The people that work with your products, market, customers, management systems, and business processes every single day are the ones best-suited to offer up suggestions for improvement. Front Line employees are great resources to suggest new products, new markets to capture, and new ways of doing business. It seems so simple, but most companies fail to leverage this remarkable knowledgebase of ideas.
2. Recognize and Reward
You should always recognize employees for their contributions. In fact, the most innovative companies are well know for recognizing the contributions of their people. This is an easy one but many companies and leaders overlook it. If you’re starting to collect input, then make sure contributor recognition is a cornerstone of the process. An easy way to do so is by creating a simple “points” or “gold-star” program.
Public recognition is also important. This will cost your organization zero dollars, yet it goes a very long way in motivating your people. The pride an employee feels when their idea becomes a winning endeavor for your company (and everyone hears about it) is high value stuff. An important factor is openness: anyone is eligible at any time. So throw down the gauntlet to your staff today. Let them know that, in connection with your new employee input initiative, you’ll be recognizing the top contributors. Do it consistently and keep this in mind: experts say that in order to make an incentive program stick, you need to be continually recognizing between 5 and 10 percent of the participants. Less than that and the rewards will not seem realistically attainable. More than that and the recognition loses its sense of exclusivity.
3. Conduct Executive Sponsored Challenges
In addition to collecting feedback or input from employees, there is a methodology that you can use right now to boost innovation by solving targeted, specific internal problems. Many companies have found success by running “executive-sponsored” challenges.
Today, call on one executive leader in your company. Ask them this question: “If you could solve one perplexing issue in your department right this very moment, what would it be?” Take their answer and turn it into a problem statement that you can share with your employees. If it’s appropriate to do so, broadcast it across as many functional areas as possible.
Put a time limit on the challenge to keep the urgency high – a personal message from said Executive would be helpful. This will increase the number of solutions and ideas you receive in very short order. You’ll find that the involvement of this top-ranking leader compels more employees to pitch and solve the problem. You can get this program going today, and more importantly, you can repeat it over and over again to solve any issue across the company.
Make your “challenges” occur weekly, monthly, or quarterly, depending on your resources and availability. It’s an effective way of gathering a steady stream of focused solutions around specific problem areas. Doing this consistently helps to keep employees innovating and solving problems at their peak.
4. Collaborate Across Departments
Every employee brings a unique skill set, perspective, and sphere of knowledge to their job. Due to this phenomena alone, you already have a diverse workforce that can help you solve problems very effectively. If your company is like most, you probably have very strong separation in place. What you need is an environment of free-flowing information between departments, groups, and business units.
To optimize innovation, you need to start sharing problems across normally disparate groups today. Try creating a “zone”. This would be a physical meeting place or virtual space like a message board where your employees from different areas can freely discuss and brainstorm around the business and technical problems they face. Encourage workers to earmark a small percentage of time every week for collaborating with others and helping them solve problems. You’ll find that by sharing these unique perspectives in one common “area,” innovation happens at a much faster pace than in organizational “silos”.
An interesting study found that when searching for a job, employees tend to gravitate towards companies whose products or services closely align with their own personal interests and knowledge. This even held true if that meant taking a position that is slightly out of scope for them. For example, you might have a purchasing manager that came to work for your aeronautics firm because of a personal interest in flying. That means you probably have people that could contribute to efforts in other areas (and most likely want to). In fact, about half of American workers say they feel they could help solve problems in departments other than their own. The just aren’t encouraged to do so.
An executive that we spoke with said that she always thinks about her employee’s strengths, personalities, and areas of interest when building a collaborative project team. She tries to avoid placing folks with a similar educational background or work experience together. This helps to avoid “skill-overload” in a particular area, with the team lacking perspective or expertise in another. This same wisdom can be applied to solving virtually every problem your company faces. If you want to get the most depth out of your workforce, then encourage collaboration throughout different groups and departments. As more problems get solved, and employees begin to feel less compartmentalized, innovation will increase substantially.
5. Institute a Projects Program Inclusive of Employees
At the majority of companies today, project implementation and R&D are typically closed-loop processes guarded by project managers, product developers, or improvement professionals. Have you ever considered opening up these processes just a bit? Assign a liaison from another area, whose subject matter expertise aligns with the objective. Make sure that you allow them to set aside the time on their schedule each week. They will need to attend development meetings, perform research, and provide deliverables.
Of course, it is essential to know something about your employees’ backgrounds, special interests, and subject matter expertise. Many companies don’t track this information well. However, since you’re now collecting a stream of ideas and input from employees (See #1), you can simply allow contributors whose ideas get implemented to stay involved as the project Champion.
These five techniques to make your employees more innovative may seem too easy and too good to be true. That’s because conceptually they are very simplistic, but they are also effective. The devil is always in the details. It takes some time and planning to institute a process that encourages innovation but you’ll reap the rewards tenfold .
You can begin to create a culture of innovation at the frontline level by listening to employees, recognizing and rewarding creative and innovative ideas, getting executives engaged in sponsoring challenges, allowing employees to collaborate cross-functionally, and in encouraging frontline participation in projects based on their ideas.