Articles on employee innovation are a dime a dozen. They often start by telling us something like how somebody saved a company $10,000 a year by suggesting customers get half a pickle instead of a whole one on their sandwiches. While it’s great to reduce pickle waste and save money, in this article we’re going to show how employees created breakthroughs with life and death meaning to the business in some cases—innovations that get the number crunchers’—not pickle crunchers’—hearts pumping. And, we’ll reveal four secrets to their success.
These breakthroughs are sometimes in-the-moment acts, but they can also have longer term ramifications for the business. One that’s become part of Zappos lore describes an innovative in-the-moment response to a Zappos customer who showed up at a hotel without the shoes she had just purchased and intended to wear on that trip. When she called for another pair to be shipped, the Zappos customer service rep discovered they were out of stock with her shoes. So, he contacted a nearby mall where he located the shoes, paid for them, and sent them to her hotel without charging the customer a dime. CEO Tony Hsieh explains that four weeks of customer service training on how to fulfill the Zappos commitment to service, along with no traditional call center metrics like time on each call, allows employees freedom and support to give the kind of customer service everybody is raving about. And raving fans have become the marketing arm for the business—the longer-term outcome of in-the-moment innovations.
A more strategic, procedural innovation occurred with employees at a community clinic trying to improve patient experience. They came up with an idea for helping patients get critical maintenance medications refilled temporarily when a prescription ran out. Frequently, patients on maintenance medications would lose track of when they needed to refill a prescription and would run out of pills before scheduling an appointment with their doctor. Staff came up with a call-in system that allowed the patient’s doctor to easily approve releasing a small supply of pills through the pharmacy to take care of the patient until an appointment with the doctor could be scheduled. Innovations like this created a rare patient-centered experience that made the clinic a more desired medical provider in the community.
More publicized innovations have come out of Google employees such as adding language translation to Google Talk. It happened when employees at Google on the Talk Team and Language Team happened to work near each other and struck up conversations that led to the idea of a translation feature. Imagine that! Employees dedicated to Talk and Language actually conversing! Of course, that’s just one of the many employee ideas floating around Google generating one new project after another.
Now, for the secrets…
Secret #1: Communication
One principle innovative companies apply well is communication. These innovation examples occurred in an environment where people talked about the work freely and openly to each other or with customers. That’s how many of the their ideas took root. Knowing what the customer is experiencing coupled with a front-line understanding of what it takes to do the job puts core staff in the driver seat for coming up with the best ideas to serve the customer better. Leaders in these organizations know this and promote innovation by encouraging—not stifling—casual communications to solve problems and improve customer experience.
Secret #2: Freedom to explore
Instead of tying employees down to fixed tasks that don’t allow room for free thought or flexibility, these businesses encourage employees to be on the lookout for opportunities and to step out of the box to make customers happy. Even in companies with a structured program for innovating, coming up with ideas and trying them out occurs outside of formal processes because innovating is part of the workplace culture and supported by leaders.
Secret #3: Support for risks
If employees are coming up with ideas and trying them out, they inevitably will fail from time to time—think Thomas Edison and his light bulb experiments. Failing is a risk employees can’t afford to take in most companies. They’ve seen too many employees thrown under the bus when they tried something new and it didn’t work out. Thank goodness Edison didn’t have that problem or we would still be spilling wax all over the carpet trying to find our way to the dinner table every night. In innovative companies, it’s okay to goof. Goofs are considered part of learning which is integral to innovating.
Secret #4 Peer appreciation
Most truly innovative workplaces find they don’t depend on incentives to get employees to make suggestions. It’s peer appreciation more than a dangling carrot that motivates the employees to create these breakthroughs. Ideas and innovations are publicized throughout the business unit and to fellow workers. Employees get recognized both individually and as teams, and, most importantly, they recognize each other in company publications, meetings, and events for their great ideas and especially for those they develop into useful innovations.
This level of innovation that reaches beyond saving a few bucks by cutting down pickle slices happens because managers support a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ environment. Leaders respect employees for their great ideas and insights and manage by these four principles to produce the culture that supports them. So, before rolling out the next big program to get employee ideas, consider these four secrets that have allowed organizations to create self-sustaining cultures of innovation that makes both employees and customers happy.
TRYING IT ON FOR FIT:
Begin the process of supporting innovation by applying the four principles above through the following: 1) Urge employees to come up with ways to improve the product or service for customers (internal or external) by using questions like, “How do you think we could fix this or make it better?” Make it a habit to encourage employees to generate ideas and share them with the team. Enthusiastically support their efforts and give them resources whenever possible. 2) Encourage employees to test their ideas and further develop them. Give employees time and flexibility to work on them. 3) Congratulate employees on trying new things. Use questions to help them learn from failures, and encourage them to keep trying. Don’t punish failures. 4) Acknowledge new ideas and employee experiments in team meetings as well as in larger group events and publications. Support employees reporting their ideas in meetings instead of doing it for them.
Kevin Herring is co-author of ‘Practical Guide for Internal Consultants’, and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.