How New Ideas Can Come From "Old" Companies

Innovation isn't just for tech startups


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When people think of innovation, they’re unlikely to imagine the tire factory in Nebraska, the hospital in Michigan or the municipal agency in Connecticut. Instead, the tech startup in Silicon Valley comes to mind.

While it’s certainly true that startups are innovative (disruption is the fabric of who they are, afterall), there’s a misconception that innovation can’t come from “old” or “traditional” companies. It’s a mindset that impacts those watching the companies from afar, as well as those who work there. Employees of established companies in traditional industries are full of great ideas, but may perceive they don’t have a decent way of expressing or implementing such thoughts.

A recent Gallup poll found that only 30% of employees in America are engaged in their work, and the number is worse - 13% - when you consider the trends worldwide. Low employee engagement costs billions of dollars in lost productivity (bored people get less done) and significant revenue in lost retention costs. A bad mindset around innovation can cause employee disengagement and turnover, not to mention put those companies at a competitive disadvantage.

But it turns out that “old” companies can also be innovative. They just need to have the right tools and processes to do so. In this post, we’ll walk through a few tips for “old” companies to consider in their innovation strategies.

1) Encourage employee suggestions with an employee suggestion program

Employees likely have amazing ideas. Saying that “anyone can share an idea” isn’t enough. Most organizations need a formal process for listening to employee suggestions in order to truly let their employees be heard and to achieve innovation through their impactful ideas.

Done right, employee suggestion programs are a great way to achieve this.

  1. Promote your employee suggestion program

This isn’t the field of dreams. If you build it, don’t assume they will come.

An Internal Communications Manager or Chief Innovation Officer needs to promote and lead an employee suggestion program to spark interest and get people to take action. If you’re going to do it, do it right, and make the promotion of the program a priority. The company email newsletter, a company-wide email, and physical signage around the office are all simple ways you can make people aware of the suggestion program and help it come to life.

  1. Timebox the employee suggestion program to spark a sense of urgency

People are busy these days. We can laugh at cat videos on our work computers during the day and answer email from our phones from our couches at night. The boundaries between personal lives and work lives are becoming more and more blurred, and we’re inundated with more technology than ever before. This means that people have a tougher time escaping the shadow of work even if they are not at the office, making them feel busier than ever.

This social trend impacts the potential success of formal innovation management efforts. Getting people to do yet another thing outside of their job description could be tough. But timeboxing the program to a few weeks to start can help.

In her TED Talk, Testing: It Will Set Your Mind Free, former Director of Analytics for the 2012 Obama campaign Amelia Showalter shared the value of convincing people to try new things by positioning the fresh idea as a test. You can get the same value from a short introduction for your employee suggestion program.

Also, short timeframes spark a sense of urgency. If you know you have six months to do something, you’ll forget about it. If you have six days, I’ll get it done right away.

  1. Think Small to Win Big

A common criticism of big companies, regulated companies, and companies with “traditional” cultures is that they move as slow as molasses.

Government compliance and accounting for the widespread impacts of an idea are necessary steps in the innovation process. Necessary or not, these steps are time-consuming and frustrating for employees and partners trying to push fresh ideas forward.

What’s the solution? Your first inclination may be to “think big” and deploy major cultural changes that eliminate the red tape.

But you should do just the opposite. Instead of thinking big...think small.

In terms of innovations, “Bagel Fridays” or “changing our printer ink” may never achieve the notoriety of other employee innovations like Gmail. However, these small impact ideas get the ball rolling. With small wins, you break the cycle of miscommunication and re-introduce innovation as a part of your organization’s culture. A gradual evolution where tiny wins build on each other is a more sustainable solution to innovation trouble.

  1. Use a Digital Employee Suggestion Program

Many suggestion programs begin with a wooden suggestion box on the wall or a Sharepoint form that’s passed around the office. While the intentions behind these programs are great, many of these programs fail.

Lack of adoption is a concern.Employees either don’t know about the box on the wall, or they don’t care to submit ideas to the box. An employee suggestion program can’t exist without employee suggestions!

However, with digital suggestion boxes, employee suggestion program managers can meet people where they are. Most people are online throughout the work day. A digital system is simpler to access and easy to remember than a box on a wall that may not even be on the floor the employee suggestion program manager works on - or even in her building. Notification features like push notifications or email alerts keep digital products top of mind and make them integrated part of work days.

For any new company initiative, management buy-in is a concern. Without management buy-in for suggestion programs, ideas won’t be implemented. This is especially important for regulated industries who have to incorporate the expertise of many different stakeholders, including legal, in anything their company does.

Digital suggestion boxes get management in on the action. Features like Vocoli’s Challenges help get management involved and get employees excited about participating. The Challenges feature allows managers to post a “request for a solution” to known problems the company is facing. This focuses feedback in a positive way and makes it solution-oriented. The problem is already identified. It’s easier for employees to think it over and get involved.

Additionally, most people are good with pointing out what’s wrong. Few are good at coming up with creative solutions to those problems. A wooden box on the wall only exacerbates this pattern, but the user-flow of digital suggestion boxes channel complaints into solutions. They provide a workflow specifically designed to encourage research and solutions, because without those details addressed in the suggestion, the user can’t hit “submit.”

Finally, it’s hard to judge if a suggestion program is working with an offline solution.Are people submitting suggestions? Are any of them nearly good enough to implement? With an offline approach, it’s nearly impossible to see how the program is doing because managers don’t have objective data.

Digital suggestion boxes solve this with analytics. Analytics help management evaluate new ideas and get a sense of the progress of the program. Data helps managers decide what ideas to implement and what ideas need further research. It also improves managers’ presentations of ideas during meetings, as comment volume can be an objective indicator of popularity.

All in all, a vital aspect of innovation is to reach out to employees and get their ideas. Employee suggestion programs are a highly regarded way to achieve this if companies are willing to take a chance. As it turns out, a chance is all it takes. Committing to smaller changes or a short term suggestion program is a great way to ignite interest and get employees involved without feeling like the company is going through an overhaul.

What innovation tips do you have for traditional companies? Let us know in the comments.


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