how to promote employee innovation

9 Expert Tips to Engage Employees in Innovation

The days when employee innovation was the result of luck are long gone. Today, senior managers put considerable efforts to establish formal mechanisms to promote innovation, employee efficiency, creativity, and growth. Even though there are many types of innovation and ways to stabilize it in the company, the main leverage has always been in front of us.

People drive change. Learning how to promote employee innovation and starting to make necessary cultural fixes can become your greatest asset in the future. I’ve asked senior managers with decades of experience how they incentivize employees to generate innovative ideas. In this article, they share their best practices and steps which have worked for them.

1. Engage people in the conversation

“Employees spend most of their time heads down doing core business work and many welcome the opportunity to stretch their creative legs. I start with defining what the problem or opportunity is.

If possible, have someone who’s probably more familiar with the problem attend and talk (i.e. product management, sales, or even a customer). Define why we’re going to solve this and then move into the how. Make it a rule there are no ‘Yeah, but…’ comments. Push for ‘Yes, and…’ instead. What you’ll find is you can usually solve the original problem pretty quickly, but keeping the conversation going can make it even better.

Filtering comes in the form of taking multiple ideas that fit into a common ‘theme,’ then prioritizing those. Usually, a governance group will prioritize and ID what’s a must-have vs. nice-to-have. Once we roll out a direction, the ideas that don’t make it aren’t dead, they’re just shelved until the core function is done.

Most of the incentives I’ve given relate to food and caffeine vs. monetary unless there is a future implementation bonus for building and delivering. Otherwise, team members like the opportunity to do something different than their functional job.

To add to my already long response, some companies have teams that focus on innovative efforts in particular. In small to mid-sized companies, though, they rely on functional staff or maybe one R&D type of role. There are some ‘it depends’ when it comes to the team assembled.

As for the project manager, you can have one of your PMs run this. However, there is a different mentality required. Employee innovation is about trying and experimenting and sometimes taking a step back to look at the big picture. Deliverables can take longer and no guarantee of success. The new PM to this space should be coached before and during this process.  They’ll find it challenging and rewarding, but frustrating at the same time.”

Jason Orloske, VP of Operations at ImmunoPrecise Antibodies Ltd.

2. Ask calibrated questions

“My approach to fostering employee innovation is to sit down with the team members one-on-one and ask them a question that is calibrated to get a response of ‘no.’ Usually, something along the lines of, “Are you completely, one hundred percent satisfied, with the way this program works?” Once I’ve gotten them to a ‘no,’ I then engage them as part of the solution. How can we make it better?

If you get people to admit that the current situation is less than perfect, get them thinking and talking about solutions, and truly listen to them, you have their engagement. As to vetting ideas, I prefer to start with the desired end state and outline project constraints. Any ideas we entertain must move the project toward the goal while staying within budget, timeline, and other important variables. Then, the question actually becomes a risk/reward proposal. If we try this idea, what is the upside if it works, and what are the cost and setback if it fails?

Beyond that, it’s basic leadership principles. Do I have the integrity to subject my ideas to the same scrutiny as those of my team members? Do I make sure good ideas (even if they aren’t ultimately adopted), are recognized and praised? Am I pushing my people to grow?

Each project is unique, but the above is the core of getting employees to innovate.”

George Turner, Managing Director at Giga Watt, Inc.

“To add to all great thoughts below, I have seen great responses from the team when asking what they would do differently, considering they don’t have a deadline or pressure from the outside. Innovation process takes time, more involvement from multiple stakeholders, and, obviously, cost. We, on the other hand, are always working with the defined triangle or upturned triangle (Waterfall or Agile). Some of them may be great responses but still may not sit within our boundaries. Encouraging the team to innovate with this question, however, and guiding the great responses to forums like hackathons, opens the way to great ideas and galvanizes people. Project or sprint retro is a great forum to initiate this process.”

Sreekala Balasubramanian, Project Manager at UST Global

3. Treat employees like consultants

“My thought has always been to treat employees like consultants – meaning pay them up front for ideas that they present with a business case. We need to help them throughout that process, but too many times incentives for implemented solutions don’t work. Drawing from my experience, businesses find ways to say no or to delay the project. By paying people up front, it’s then on the business to develop implementation strategies and get the ROI.”

Kim Compton,  SVP of Technology and Operations at The Farmers Bank

4. Apply hands-on management practices

“The attitude that comes from habit makes all that people are doing and saying.

Any approach and decision is the result of thinking that comes from the way how people think and the way they work.

Nobody dislikes being inventive, but many people rarely know how to break new grounds and rarely have an innovative way of thinking.

To let anyone experiment with innovation, hands-on management is important to influence people and let their ingenious nature come up.

Hands-on management is not just about giving specific orders to work. It’s more about gathering people together and learning from each other. By listening to other team members and how they approach tasks, we change our inner status quo. This process makes people resonate with different ways of thinking and creates new habits focused on innovation.”

Jae – Ho, Cho, Project, Program, and Portfolio Manager at Samsung.

5. Make room for employee innovation

“Another way would be to give people X hours per week to invest in whatever interest they have. Then, you need to register those initiatives at an Intranet or any other tool, for other people to be able to participate. Finally, as a manager, you must be aware of what is going on around. When you identify an interesting topic, make a business model canvas and start an MVP, fostering innovation. In other words, create opportunities for employees who are happy doing something else to help clients, customers, company, and society.”

Jordi Comas, IT Project Manager at FDS Spain, a DXC Technology Company

6. Create an environment that nurtures innovation

“Before paying attention to innovation, employees need to know they are heard and encouraged to think outside of the box. Presuming such a comfortable and supportive employee environment, usually identifying the need is enough to start generating ideas. Small group meetings (with plenty of available food and time) are great to elect the chosen idea(s) to support. Such initiatives work well for refining and improving ideas too.”

Greg Carson, Owner at Gregory D. Carson Patents

7. Don’t ask for employee innovation (literally)

“Ideally, innovation should be self-motivating, without the need for external incentives, but simply coming out of an interest to take ownership over constant improvements. Now, let’s come back to the real world. I found it more effective to focus the attention to a certain topic or area, rather than asking for ‘innovation’ in general. As for incentives, simple recognition of ideas is as important as rewards for major contributions. Depending on the scope of people involved, it can be a team lead or, in larger contexts, a dedicated committee that selects and supports ideas that are aligned with the overall strategy.”

Peter Kohut, Business and Innovation Advisor at PVK Consulting

8. Articulate the problem that you want solved

“Clearly articulate the problem that you want solved, or the status quo you are trying to break and put it in some place where it will be visible to the team. Bring it up as often as possible in the day-to-day work. When the team comes up with something new, encourage them to collaborate on these ideas. Remember that necessity is the mother of all inventions. In other words, identify and publicize the “necessity,” and the “invention” will follow.”

Kaiser Jayakody, Program Project Management Consultant at CPP Investment Board

“To be honest, not always I have tried this, but throwing a challenge helps. I ask how differently we can solve this problem or in a very basic manner. But I don’t know the answer myself and hence you need to help both of us. This method has a good success rate and makes people think – sometimes it appears to be easy, other times unthinkable.”

Prabhat Pant, Associate Director at PwC India

9. Recognize the contribution of new ideas

“Employees must feel engaged and know that they are not only being heard (and taken seriously) but also that they are an integral part of the innovation process. Recognition, where it’s due, is a fantastic way to make people feel like they have a voice.”

Daniel Jackson, Senior Developer at Dynamic Systems

“Try management by walking around. Start saying hello to each member of your team. Remember they have a life outside the project. Innovation is not in everyone and comes from the strangest places. I had one project, where the best solution came from an office cleaner who had overheard our conversations.

Incentives? Not everyone wants money. In fact, what incentivizes one person may be a turn off for another. Recognizing the contribution of new great ideas and communicating across the team what has been achieved will generally incentivize the team as a whole as well as the individual. Being recognized for your achievements with your peers is important to all of us.”

Athol Hampson, Director at ASHSTAC Limited


What else? Do these examples of how to encourage employee innovation resonate with you? I’ll be glad to hear your opinions and ways to foster employee innovation in the comments below. How can management promote employee innovation within a team?


Illustration: Copyright © Zhenya Oliinyk

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