Want a Fresh Start in Innovation? Ask. Cultivate. Value. Reward.

Ask. Cultivate. Value. Reward.

Ah, January, the beginning of the New Year. The holidays are over, everything that happened in 2013 is the past, and we’re already almost into the second month of the year. Now is a time of reflection, new beginnings, and looking onward. A magical time of year for businesses as they now start anew.

While some may not see this similarity, for me, the New Year is like Spring Training in baseball. Everyone looks at the upcoming year with high aspirations and lofty goals for how they will perform. The signings during the offseason, the conditioning they did to prepare, and everyone coming back 100% healthy can invigorate a fresh outlook. For businesses, the start of the New Year is similar in that it comes with aspirations for high performance in the upcoming year, how they will grow, and how they will succeed in their market.

The challenge for both is execution.

What learnings from the past year will they try to use so they are not inhibited by the same types of roadblocks? For businesses, this is an opportunity to examine their innovation efforts and how to do better in 2014. Below are a few quick tips on how to make your innovation efforts even better in 2014.

1. Ask Your Teams How to Improve
In the latter end of last year and first couple of weeks in January, you probably spent a good portion of time reviewing 2013 performance and what 2014 should look like. The reality is that while many of the things you had set out for in the beginning of last year may have been achieved, there are probably a number of areas that did not do so well and need attention this upcoming year. Added reality, your business and/or the market may have changed, which also might be impacting how to focus your efforts for the upcoming year. While there will always be primary goals and metrics, i.e. profit, market growth, customer retention, etc., there are so many other factors that will contribute to your success.

As Lorri Freifeld writes in 10 Ways to Be a Great Leader, “Great leaders understand that being able to see things from a different perspective allows them to discover hidden opportunities, find the best solutions to problems, and innovate almost effortlessly.”

Many companies across the world have already started engaging their employees to help answer these questions. It is not so far fetched anymore to recognize that managers may not have all the answers and that so much can be learned by engaging the people that have day to day interactions with both your organization and your customers. By opening the conversation up, you get exposure to potential issues like what challenges your customers are facing, what the competition is doing that may be a threat, what internal processes have become a bottleneck, etc. Teams from Sales to Product to Customer Service to Operations have valuable insight into to how you are really doing and how you’re perceived in the market. Don’t be afraid to ask your teams where you need to improve and how you need to get better. By opening this to your community, you get a perspective that you may not typically have access to.

2. Focus on Culture
Most HR managers will tell you this is a really good market if you are a job seeker. Especially in the tech space, there is more demand for skilled candidates, and based on this high demand, recruiting can be both time consuming and costly. As Jim Collins would say, “you need the right people on the bus.” But once you find them… how do you keep them on the bus? According to a recent study in the UK, 41% of employees are currently looking for new jobs, with the #2 reason cited as Job Satisfaction. In the US, Gallup’s annual State of the American Workplace report identifies that 7 in 10 American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work, which leads to reduced productivity.

These trends can largely be attributed to the culture of their companies and whether they feel their contributions are valued. As we wrote in our blog, Why Innovation Programs Fail, management must create an environment that values feedback from their employees. It’s imperative to establish a culture of openness: an environment where it’s safe to share and where participants trust that their ideas are being honestly considered. In companies all over the world, people are busy during their workday. Busy people with ideas are willing to give an innovation program a try, but if they don’t see decisions being made or evidence that people are listening, they won’t waste their time continuing to contribute.

How much time are you allocating to improving the employee experience? Your employees are both your most valuable and costly resource. Make sure you are listening.

3. Value Contributions: Measure in Performance Reviews
Any company that has implemented an innovation program knows that the program will live or die with the contributions of their employees. How do you get people more involved?

One way would be to take the beginning of the New Year as a real opportunity to revamp internal programs like your employee review process by taking into account and measuring contributions employees make to your innovation efforts. Not only will you make people more accountable to their participation but, more importantly, you’ll send a signal that contributions in innovation are critical to both management and the company as a whole. How you measure—and compensate—for the performance of your employees directly correlates with what the company values and with the behaviors you want to drive.

We’ve discussed in past postings at Kindling that many companies that have tried to implement employee feedback programs have failed, often because of a lack of executive sponsorship. But by using employee contributions to innovation as another gauge in the evaluation of your employees, you’re telling the community how important innovation is to the company’s success, how their voices are valued, and, more that that, that employee contribution has full sponsorship at the executive level.

4. Reward People with More
As mentioned, employee engagement is necessary for a successful innovation program, so naturally you want to reward for impactful contributions. You want to incentivize contributors and recognize employees that make the biggest impact, though monetary rewards don’t always drive the right behaviors and aren’t always financially feasible due to resource constraints. Another way companies have found to increase job satisfaction and incentivize is by giving employees more opportunity for professional growth. By promoting or giving more responsibility to the people that are active and have provided value to the innovation program, you show both them and their peers how important participation is to the organization and how valuable their contributions are.

By giving people more responsibility, they become more engaged in the innovation process and more motivated to help it succeed.