We live in an era when technology can be leveraged to help surface innovative ideas from anywhere and from anyone within an organization. Exposing and translating these ideas into tangible actions that improve a business or customer experience, may be your most important task as a leader.
With the goal of helping others tap this potential wealth of innovation, lately I’ve been thinking and writing about the steps business leaders should take. Whether its rethinking old assumptions about the costs of spurring innovation, or finding ways to “slow the game” for knowledge workers so they can engage with their work in a deeper, more meaningful way, those of us charged with leading organizations have a significant role to play in cultivating environments for success. Ultimately, though, the rubber meets the road in your team’s ability to understand and embrace the opportunity to translate innovative ideas into meaningful action that positively impacts your business.
But it won’t happen at your company without the participation of both strong managers and driven employees. Leaders must do everything they can to encourage people to generate more ideas, then get behind them. Change is happening fast and you’ll need to be ready to move quickly. Or be ready to join the growing list of companies who talk of amazing potential but never quite live up to expectations.
The technology to drive innovation is better, more affordable, and more understandable than ever. It’s important that you give your people the tools they need to succeed. Give them more time to think and learn, to see the bigger picture and collaborate with their co-workers to drive change.
If you’ve hired well, your teams should be able to take it from there. To help them get going, I’ve drawn up a roadmap of sorts. It’s based on my own experience and conversations over many years with employees throughout Smartsheet.
From Ideas to Action – Five Key Steps
Turning good ideas into great outcomes is a five-step process that can be applied in any work culture. Employees that identify those ideas often find themselves in a better spot at the company — a key player on their team. They may be asked to lead or assist in implementing their recommendation, further demonstrating their value to the team. Such contributors typically rate highly among their peers, get recognition from customers, and get promoted more quickly. Both the business and the employee win.
Step 1: Observe
Innovation can’t happen without curiosity. The best innovators are people who are seemingly always aware of their surroundings and on the lookout for things that can be improved. They ask: What can I do better? How can friction be reduced? Does this experience feel more dreadful than delightful? What can we do better as a team? Curious people put themselves in the shoes of customers, shareholders, stakeholders, or fellow employees. They strive to understand what people need, and whether they are getting it. Those observations should be recorded so we can think about them later. But it’s not yet time to look for solutions. That’s coming.
Leveraging technology to “slow the game” for employees – allowing exploration and observation through deeper, richer engagement with their work – is a critical “stage setter” that you as a leader can facilitate.
Step 2: Ideate
This is the start of the creative process — translating observations into ideas. Ideas can spawn in the moment — or days later. Some observations live on the ‘back processor’ for some time before sparking an idea. Why is a project structured the way it is — is it really the most effective approach? What obstacles impede efficiency or improvement? Which processes are dependent on other processes? It’s also a good time to examine objectives and key results (OKRs). Are they meaningful? Actionable? Measureable? Here we should be surfacing as many ideas as possible. Some of them won’t lead anywhere, but we want to have a significant backlog from which to draw.
So far so good. But too many people actually stop here. They believe that the “Eureka!” moment is an end unto itself. But it’s not. The next three steps are where true innovators begin to separate themselves, add value, and get recognized as an agent of change. It’s when ideas start to become real.
Step 3: Research
Ideas gain steam from supporting evidence, which can come through A/B testing, challenging long-held assumptions, reviewing anecdotes and speaking with customers, or simply checking down with ones teammates — “are you seeing this happening too?”. New information strengthens the foundation on which ideas can stand. It builds support for an idea and confidence that it can be implemented. Without research, ideas are more easily dismissed as radical or impractical. They usually won’t make it down the home stretch.
Step 4: Recommend
Even a high impact idea can require the support of many others before it takes flight — especially if it needs financing or team resources. An innovator often needs to find an opportunity to present the idea, get people on board, and build momentum.
Encourage people to not relegate this step to a hallway conversation or a quick comment to their manager. A succinct presentation or written explanation can help drive the story with conviction, which further enrolls people. This is the time to share the idea’s journey and describe why it matters Without that information, you risk your idea being perceived as coming from the proverbial left field.
Alongside a recommendation, it can also be effective to surface ideas that were investigated, but not developed. It demonstrates that this recommendation carries more weight. Showing forethought and intent by selecting the ideas with the highest merit will exhibit critical thinking and increase confidence among the audience.
Should all ideas go through such a process? No. Small, low cost, lower impact ideas should simply be done. Now. As the cost, scope, and potential value of an idea rises — and competes for resources (of which there are a finite amount) — the more one should embrace this approach.
Step 5: Execute
With the groundwork laid and the team on board, it’s time to deliver the goods. The innovator, who should be driving the project, creates the action items and assigns them to the team. Publishing the action items for the whole team to see will apply clear pressure to get them done. Smartsheet is a great tool for tracking progress as the project moves forward.
This five-step process is actually a cycle, which could include a sixth step: Measure and Repeat. Success is not a static experience; it’s a dynamic process of curiosity, creativity, and execution, continuously building upon itself.
This framework is based on one I developed several years ago, and the process really hasn’t changed much in recent years. What is new is the explosion of opportunities – often enabled by technology – to generate and act on ideas; not to mention the increased competitive pressure in virtually all industries.
It’s more important than ever to empower people to drive improvements throughout our businesses. Some will be large and require more managerial input and support. But others will be so simple and inexpensive, thanks to the proliferation of new technology and tools, that company leaders might not even need to budget for them.
Our ultimate goal should be to unlock the potential of every employee to make a difference. When it comes to increasing any company’s innovation, efficiency and productivity, I can’t think of a better way to do it.