Eureka! How to turn all employees into innovators

4 years ago by in Innovation

Where does true innovation grow from? For many, an image of a nimble start-up in Silicon Valley will come to mind. As a company grows, the collective potential for great ideas grows with it, and yet this entrepreneurial spirit is too often stifled by the reality of looming deadlines and corporate bureaucracy.

Those staff with ambitious ideas are either too busy to develop them, or unwilling to sign away ownership of ideas they’ve spent energy creating. Managers have tried desperately to combat these issues and develop an innovative culture with cosmetic changes like open-plan offices or relaxed dress-codes, but a more pragmatic approach is required to truly foster creativity in your workforce and prevent million dollar ideas from withering inside cubicles.

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The first step to sparking creativity is for the company to be vocal about its support of new ideas. Whether true or not, it’s easy for employees to feel like they are discouraged from working on pet projects, and that management views them as distractions from their ‘real-job’. It’s important for the company to effectively communicate that they view these ideas as opportunities instead of nuisances. One way for organizations to show their support of entrepreneurial thinking is to introduce a program where employees are encouraged to submit ideas, at any stage of maturity, as potential projects. At Planet Innovation (PI) we did this through an initiative called the Eureka Club. With the Eureka Club, ideas are submitted by employees and displayed in the PI offices, for everyone to see and discuss.  This type of program helps generate an open dialogue for new opportunities, and encourages the notion that it’s ok to try solving new problems, and think beyond your day-to-day work.

Build trust by empowering the idea creator
Once a mechanism for encouraging new ideas is established, the next step is to draw out the best ones from the crowd. This however introduces another conflict: employees with mature concepts and a high potential for profit are going to be less likely to divulge their ideas, for fear of losing equity or control over something they spent significant energy creating. Therefore it’s critical that employees are provided with incentives attractive enough to convince them to develop the project in-house, while still maximizing profitability for the company. A great example of this at PI is the product Ingeni, a device born out of the Eureka Club. Ingeni is a USB aerial with smart software that allows consumers to monitor their home’s energy consumption by wirelessly connecting their PC to their smart meter. PI offered Ingeni’s creator, Michael Joffe, the opportunity to run the project himself as a spin-off brand, assuring him that he would have control over the product’s technical and commercial development. The product is now launched on the market at www.myingeni.com.

By allowing your idea creators to remain in control of their projects, the organization establishes trust with its talented employees, and prevents great products from walking out the door.

Competition creates entrepreneurs where none previously existed
Capturing and developing new concepts can successfully shine a light on great ideas and great thinkers, but if you really want to turbo charge your business and turn your company into a breeding ground for innovation you must create entrepreneurs where none existed before. To incite this behavior, PI created a competition where employees were challenged to submit their best ideas to the Eureka Club, to be voted on by their peers. The ideas that proved most popular would be developed at PI, with their creator given the opportunity to manage the project.

Of course, it’s not always viable for an organization to invest valuable personnel and financial resources on an undeveloped concept. With the Eureka Club, new product ideas were encouraged to be worked on outside normal business hours. The idea of experienced employees using their free time to work on someone else’s idea may seem crazy, but it worked and with some unexpected benefits.

Because the company has virtually no financial risk in the project, the volunteer team members are allowed to operate with very little oversight from management. This allows anyone interested in working on the project to do so and in virtually any capacity they want. Employees who are interested in learning more about the development process get to work on a project in a completely different role than what they typically would, expanding their skill set and obtaining greater knowledge about the many moving parts that go into commercializing a new product. Also by limiting the hours to outside 9-5, management ensures that no critical resources are being pulled off other projects, and that even the busiest employees have a chance to contribute.

Additionally, motivated young employees can accelerate their careers by taking the opportunity to work on a project that provides them more responsibility, influence, and exposure within the company. The result is a commercially viable project being led by an ambitious, motivated group of employees who are quickly learning to think not just as engineers, scientists, or designers, but as entrepreneurs.

I am a 25 year old mechanical engineer at PI, and by getting involved with the Eureka Club I was given the opportunity to head up the commercialization team for Project Loop, a GPS bicycle security system.  My colleagues and I have since worked through the breadth of the development process, from running customer research exercises and building the marketing plan to sourcing components and budgeting manufacturing costs. Most of the team had limited experience in many of these areas, but with a little coaching by our senior management team we were effectively running a start-up enterprise within our own organization.

One thing that has become apparent over my time at PI is that creativity cannot be counted on to reveal itself organically over time. Entrepreneurship must be proactively driven from the top down, by building trust with your workforce and understanding what it takes to bring the best out of them. By changing the way your bright minds recognize opportunities, you are investing not only in developing great ideas now, but well into the future. My own experience with the Eureka Club is still in its early stages, but I’ve already borne witness to a significant milestone with implications beyond the commercial success of our current project. As I sat with my colleagues and discussed ideas for new products based upon the work we had done in Eureka, I realized that we were no longer simply employees; we were becoming innovators.

David is an engineer with consulting experience in both the United States and Australia. His focus is turning creative ideas into innovative and commercially successful products.

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