By Bill Clements
Innovation is often synonymous with consumer electronics – smart phones, high-definition televisions, tablet computers and miniaturized MP3 players. But forward-thinking entrepreneurs understand that innovation is crucial to every company.
To be sure, a survey by the National Science Foundation shows that, while innovation is more common among manufacturing companies, it occurs across all sectors.
Of course, many large companies have the resources to devote an entire department to research and development. But small and medium-sized business owners also can yield innovative results by simply tapping into their most valuable resources – their employees. The people who work closely with the products, services, clients and vendors on a daily basis, and who know the inner workings of the business, are filled with great ideas.
It is not uncommon for senior management to gloss over employee suggestions out of fear or lack of additional funds. But imagine the possibilities if just one suggestion could have helped to save thousands of dollars or even revolutionized the business. According to a survey by Right Management, 57 percent of employees say they regularly make suggestions in the workplace. In fact, 27 percent claim to offer more than 20 suggestions every year.
Companies do not have to break the bank to be innovative; a slight change or improvement can make a big difference, especially to a smaller business. As organizations re-evaluate their business plans, promoting innovation should be a priority.
Here are several ways small and medium-sized businesses can help foster an innovative environment:
Build it into the culture
To help employees embrace a new concept like innovation, it needs to become part of the company’s culture. This includes adding it to the company’s mission statement, incorporating it into recruiting efforts and applying it to training and development programs. Companies can also take it a step further by tying innovation to compensation and performance reviews.
Executive involvement can help to send the right message. Company leaders must be the driving force behind innovation if they want employees to accept it. Regular communication from management can help energize employees and show that their efforts are noticed. Employees are less likely to go the extra mile if no one appreciates their endeavors. When management is providing constant encouragement and support, employees are more likely to want to contribute more and work harder to help the company achieve its goals.
Encourage creativity and collaboration
Successful innovation requires companies to be flexible and allow employees to think creatively. According to Gallup research, 58 percent of respondents who said that their organization is committed to building the strengths of each associate also said that their employer encourages new ideas that defy conventional wisdom.
Additionally, Gallup Management Journal’s survey found that 75 percent of respondents who stated that their organization is committed to building the strengths of each associate also said that they have a co-worker with whom they share ideas, which is often a key first step to innovation and creativity.
Promoting teamwork can help employees come up with new ideas that benefit everyone. Giving employees opportunities to express themselves at a departmental meeting or by participating in a monthly think tank can break down barriers and spur innovation. While some guidance may be needed, avoid setting rigid boundaries that stifle creativity. Giving employees a little freedom to experiment is beneficial to the creative process.
Reward new ideas
Whether employees receive a monetary reward or verbal recognition, any acknowledgement is better than none. Especially during tough times, employees want to be noticed for their hard work. Recognizing employees for their out-of-the-box contributions is not only motivating and inspiring, but it can also help retain valuable employees down the road. Simple rewards, such as gift cards, monthly drawings or lunch with executives can instill a healthy dose of competition that can make work more interesting, challenging and fun.
Failure can lead to success
For innovation to occur, employees need to feel that management is behind them all the way. Valuable lessons can be learned from mistakes. Instead of dwelling on the bad, employees should be encouraged to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward. Failure can serve as a powerful motivator to help drive employees toward finding innovative solutions.
Small and medium-sized companies that want to move beyond the economic downturn and maintain a competitive edge should champion an innovative environment. It can mean the difference between losing or gaining clients, improving productivity and retaining top performers who might otherwise leave. As an entrepreneur, remember the risks you took when you first started your own business. Harness that same drive and determination to help energize your staff and reposition your organization for long-term success.
Bill Clements is a district manager with Administaff, the nation's leading professional employer organization (PEO). Administaff serves as a full-service human resources department that provides small and medium-sized businesses with administrative relief, big-company benefits, reduced liabilities and a systematic way to improve productivity. The company also provides an array of additional products and services designed to improve business performance, including software solutions for time and attendance, expense reimbursement and performance management, as well as recruiting, background screening and retirement services, among others. The company operates 51 sales offices in 24 major markets. For additional information, call 800-465-3800 or visit Administaff's website at http://www.administaff.com.