Innovation and growth are fundamental to any successful institution.
Indeed, we’ve seen institutions stagnate without new ideas and revised practices. The digital age has only accelerated the rate at which businesses and organizations must iterate and innovate.
Consider that we live in a time when people take more photos than ever before. If Kodak had made different strategic choices and positioned themselves to capitalize off digital image sharing, they might not have had to declare bankruptcy in 2012. That was a dark time for the company (It was certainly not a Kodak moment.)
Ideas—good ideas—are essential. This is true on a macro level for the fate of companies, but also on a smaller scale for the smooth functioning of departments. Does your organization have the capacity to capture and implement good ideas?
If you are in leadership, people will approach you with their big ideas. This can be a blessing and a curse. For every outstanding idea, there will be dozens of unproductive suggestions. It’s important to encourage innovation without drowning in a endless suggestion box. How do you separate the gold mines from the squeaky wheels—and respond to both? There are six principles that should guide you.
Be accessible to people with ideas. You should visibly value each person you work with. One of the ways you do that is by listening. Being approachable and respectful is one of the most important things you can do for the strength of your team. This is key for day-to-day interactions and will soften disappointments. People will respond better when you decline their suggestion if they feel genuinely heard.
Discern the Point
It is important that you hear—and address—not only the idea, but the emotion behind it. Are they sharing this suggestion with you because they are frustrated about a problem or excited about an opportunity? Heed what they mean, not just what they say. Ask questions and restate what you hear them expressing. Adept use of listening and paraphrasing will help you cut to the heart of the matter.
Sometimes people have no intention of improving an institution. They are actually complaining or blaming under the guise of offering a suggestion. If people chronically externalize blame—whether to the system or to their coworkers—remind them to take the direct steps within their control. Imagine someone comes to you and suggests you implement an employee-accountability system. Is that actually necessary?
Or do they need to have a single—albeit uncomfortable—conversation with one negligent coworker? Some employees will even preemptively complain about a situation to forestall blame that might fall on them. Ideas are not ways to offload work onto others. Ideas are opportunities for everyone to work together to make the organization stronger.
If someone comes to you with an idea for an improvement, it might be a good indicator that they are the best person to implement it. They have noticed an area that needs change, showing attention and aptitude. By making agents of change diffuse across an organization, you multiply your opportunities to innovate. You cannot make all the changes needed at an organization on your own. Enlist others to spearhead efforts they are passionate about.
Sometimes the change individuals are seeking isn’t possible for a variety of reasons. No one enjoys being told no. By explaining the broader context of why something can’t currently be implemented, you demonstrate that you understand where they are coming from. Remind them of the overall vision of your organization and their place within that mission.
Sometimes your denial will be temporary, not definitive. If someone approaches you with an idea that is relevant, but not timely, ask them to bring the idea up again at a specific time.
If a colleague has an idea that turns out to be a productive change for your organization, thank them personally and acknowledge them publicly. Depending on the scale of the project, this might be as simple as praise at staff meeting, or it might merit a ceremony or award. Make a habit of recognizing small and large contributions. This gives everyone in your organization a chance to see a good idea carried to a successful result. By recognizing innovation, you encourage it.
One final cautionary note: one of the fundamental flaws in the way individuals and organizations interact with ideas is that they get stalled out in the consideration or discussion phase. The more you can tighten the timing between idea and action, the better. That does not mean rash judgments.
The action you might take might be to dismiss the idea, do more research, or implement a small scale trial. By taking action you keep bad ideas from cluttering up your office—and attention—and likewise prevent good ideas from being wasted.