How to get more innovation from your team

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Everybody wants more innovation. That’s true today. It was true 30 years ago when I helped develop a course in creativity and innovation for a major oil company. There’s really no magic. If you want to get more innovation from your team here’s what to do.

Why we don’t get the innovation we desperately want

One reason we’re not getting a lot of innovation is that we keep going after what I call “big innovation.” Here’s how that works.

Big innovation happens mostly in big companies. It’s programmatic. Someone at the top of the food chain decides the company needs more innovation and so they develop a program to get it.

The company usually asks for ideas using the equivalent of a suggestion box. So, if I have a good idea. I write it up and put it in the box. Sometime later, the company collects all the suggestions and turns them over to a committee to evaluate. The clock keeps ticking.

It can be a year or more before I hear whether my idea was worth anything in the eyes of the folks at the top. Since they’re looking for really big ideas, the odds are against me. Finally, the people at the top of the org chart decide on which suggestion or suggestions have the most promise. The people who submitted them get a monetary reward. Sometimes they’ll get a plaque or a little statue that can sit on the desk in their cubicle.

Small innovation is better

There’s a lot wrong with big innovation but the good news is you don’t need big innovation for your team. What I call “small innovation” is much better. Here’s how it works.

You don’t need a program or permission to practice small innovation on your team. Team members come up with ideas. The team conducts small experiments to see how the ideas work or how they can be modified. You adopt the good and developed ideas as common practice.

This doesn’t take a long time. It can have an immediate impact on your productivity. It also boosts morale.

You need ideas to innovate

Here’s a no-brainer. You need ideas to start the innovation process. Most effective innovation starts with an observation like, “hmm, that’s interesting” or a question like, “I wonder what would happen if we…”

The really good news is that human beings are great at coming up with ideas. We do it all the time. Coming up with ideas is not the problem. Sharing ideas is the problem. Here’s how to fix that.

Say, “Thank you.” Every idea somebody shares with you is a gift. So, treat it like a gift. Say thank you. That simple act can make all the difference.

“But,” I hear you cry, “people just don’t share their ideas.” That’s true in most workplaces.

People don’t share ideas with you because they’ve shared too many ideas with bosses and teachers and gotten shut down. There’s an ad on television just now for a television network that illustrates how it happens far too often.

The team leader is leading a group discussion and asks for ideas. He says, “There are no bad ideas.” Then someone offers an idea. The leader’s response: “Bad idea!”

If you ask for ideas, you’ll get some dumb ones. Think of them as the cost of getting the good ones. Remember that many great ideas start off as dumb ideas and get modified into greatness.

Make it easy

Make it easy for people to share ideas. Build discussion of ideas into your daily work process. Perk up when you hear a good idea. Remember to say, “thank you.”

Turn ideas into experiments

So far what we’ve been talking about is creativity, not innovation. Innovation happens when you turn ideas into something that works. This doesn’t need to be a high-cost, high-risk enterprise.

Ask, “How can we make this work?” Conduct simple experiments to discover what ideas have potential and should receive more attention.

If you want to get more innovation from your team it’s pretty simple. Make it easy, safe, and positive. Thank people for the gift of their ideas. Remember that people may not jump on board right away. They’ve been fooled before. Weave discussion of innovation and experiments into the way you do business.


Everybody talks about innovation, but not much innovation happens.

Big innovation is slow, programmatic, and looks for BIG wins.

Small innovation is quick, practical, and makes a difference in work and morale.

You need ideas to innovate.

People often won’t share their ideas because they’ve been shut down before.

Build innovation into your work process.

An idea is a gift, when someone brings you one, say, “Thank you.”

Ask “How can we make this idea work?”


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