Employee-driven Innovation – Gold Standard Engagement

Employee-driven Innovation – Gold Standard Engagement

Figuring out how best to build and maintain high levels of employee engagement is a question that has been vexing organisations for many years now.  With the alteration to employees’ expectations of work especially the where, when and how, the need to have an engaged workforce has never been greater.  From an innovation viewpoint, this is a great requirement; we are dealing with a VUCA world with a greater number of  challenges but also opportunities.  We need an engaged workforce to submit and engage with ideas to address  these challenges and opportunities.   

Many Senior Management Teams believe that if they give their workforce a place to submit their ideas, they will surely tell them which product they should build to become the next Apple Inc! What this view fails to consider is that innovation is a process.  It is a process that must be learned and continually refined, and that is built on the culture that has openness and trust at its heart.  It also fails to recognise that innovation requires engagement and that engagement must be earned.


The Point of Engagement

So, what is the business benefit in earning engagement?

  • “engaged employees freely and willingly give discretionary effort, not as an ‘add on’, but as an integral part of their daily activity at work.” 1
  • There is a significant correlation between engagement and innovative work behaviour. 2
  • Highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability 3
  • Thirty-two percent of employees who leave a job within 90 days do so because of company culture. 4
  • “Employees don’t check their personalities at the door when they come to work. Knowing that they are respected as individuals at work can have a significant impact on how employees view their overall lives.” 5

So, the business benefit of engaged employees is clear.  An increase in the overall innovative ability of the organisation where employees are prepared to go beyond their contractual obligations for the greater good.  What is also clear is that driving employee engagement is not the natural role of an innovation leader and underlines the importance of Senior Leadership & Human Resources in helping to frame the culture that supports innovation.   

Successful innovation programme outcomes increase when there is an innovative culture, employees are  willing to  submit ideas and the organisation supports this with an innovation process and team.   

Below are some of the traits we see in organisations that have high levels of engagement and that see benefits in their innovation programmes:

  • Trust – Employees feel empowered to give voice to their ideas and views. Employees believe that their colleagues will be there for them. 
  • Openness – Decisions and the rationale behind them are communicated regularly.  
  • Accountability - Blame does not exist, responsibility to each other does. Individuals, however,  take responsibility for their own actions and their effect on others and the organisation generally.
  • Individuality – The organisation recognises the individual’s strengths & weaknesses and supports them to put the strengths to best use in internal teams and for the benefit of their customers. The individual is supported to build on their strengths and improve their weaknesses.
  • Leadership – Leaders are ‘there’ for their employees. Feedback (both ways) is given regularly and is viewed as an opportunity to improve.  Criticism is always constructive. In fact, a previous blog talked about the importance of moving to a more regular approach to gathering feedback from employees and moving beyond the annual survey as the only mechanism for employee feedback.
  • Measurement – What gets measured gets improved! The organisation, departments, units and individual employees welcome the setting of KPI’s as an integral part of ensuring the best performance. Missed targets are used as an opportunity to learn.
  • Agility – Organisational silos do not get in the way of collaboration; teams are formed across organisational units utilising the best talents to get the job done and for the benefit of the customer.
  • Learning – Regular reviews of projects are undertaken. The good and the bad are used to improve future performance.  Failure is regarded as chance to learn and is embraced as a natural product of innovation.


Earning Engagement in an Innovation Setting

As organisations move forward into a more volatile world, from an innovation point of view it is important to look back over this list and consider the Impact that each of these areas might have on engagement of a more disperse workforce, working in more uncertain times.   Trust – with reduced conversation and verbal assurance from leaders, does the workforce still believe that the organisation will follow through on its promises?; Openness – are the leaders doing enough to share idea decision making with employees who might be feeling isolated?;  Accountability – does the organisation’s systems and processes provide the scope for remote workers to own their ideas and share their achievements?;  Individuality – does the organisation have the appropriate frameworks to enable workers, wherever they are located, to join cross functional innovation teams that best utilise their expertise;  Leadership - do all employees have equal opportunity to get their voice heard, equally irrespective of role, and with fair and regular feedback?;  Measurement – does the organisation present and share its goals, objectives & KPIs with its workforce in all business units, and help its employees see how their contributions will improve the organisation?   Learning – are solutions in place to reach out and learn from everyone in the organisation, irrespective of location and device, and follow through on the learnings to deliver real improvement?     

By paying attention to these areas and putting in place practical solutions for engagement that will help innovation flourish, organisations can better prepare themselves to deal with the inevitable challenges ahead.   In this article, we present some of our thoughts on practical steps than can be taken to enable innovation through effective engagement.


Organising for Better Engagement

Organise People effectively

Careful organisation of people into groups that share common interests, aims and objectives (often aligned to existing business units) creates channels that enable individuals to stay abreast of the information that is important to them.  Supplementing this, an open culture encourages the use of discoverable groups, where employees can get involved in other areas where they feel they may be able to add value.   Groups members receive information only from the  groups they have joined; this careful control of information guards against ‘information overload’ and helps to maintain engagement.

Communicate the organisational Values and Priorities

To maximise value to the organisation, align idea assessment measures with the specific values, strategic objectives, or KPIs of the organisation or each business unit in which innovation initiatives are planned. 

When they are suitably aligned, well designed assessment measures play an important role in communicating back to  group members how their ideas will contribute to the goals of the organisation or business unit and reinforce the benefit of getting involved.

Ensure ClearInnovation Challenge Definition

An Innovation Challenge  should have a very clear definition of the expected outcome – i.e. the challenge “mission”.  Set out clear deadlines for receipt of submissions, and supplement challenge mission statements with a comprehensive set of challenge constraints.  Clarity of challenge definition helps group members quickly understand what types of ideas the organisation is interested in receiving, creates confidence in submission, and increases the quality of ideas received.

Communicate Regularly

A good innovation system will have regular communication at its core.  Communicate the launch of a new challenge;  encourage involvement with regular mid-challenge updates; notify members of approaching submission deadlines.  Keep contributors up-to-date with comments and progress on their own ideas; allow the workforce to select their areas of interest for extended notifications.  Most importantly, follow through on the ‘feedback promise’ – one of the biggest barriers to continued engagement and participation is an idea that goes into a black hole.

Gather Employee Feedback using Idea Surveys

For ideas that have been shortlisted for further exploration, use idea surveys to increase the sense of ‘team’.  Idea surveys enable the organisation to quickly consult with the entire workforce, members of the appropriate business unit, and customers or partner to elicit what they think of the idea -building the feeling of involvement in the decision-making process, creating trust in the organisations innovation culture, and increasing ‘buy-in’ to the whole innovation programme.

Create Idea Teams

Avoid overburdening a central innovation team with work when running multiple Innovation Challenges in parallel - innovation will suffer, and the wider workforce will feel excluded. As an alternative, build innovation “Teams” around each shortlisted idea, getting the contributor and more experienced practitioners involved in the idea exploration stage, and onto the implementation stage where appropriate. Use of blended experience teams delivers on-the-job coaching, builds capability and increases engagement further.

Identify Quick Wins

At the point of the idea selection stage, identify the “quick win” ideas which can be considered for rapid selection and implementation.

Delivering quick wins and communicating their story back to employees, via notifications and case studies, demonstrates that positive outcomes are being achieved from the innovation programme, and that the organisation is committed to following through on its employee promise.

Create & Announce Case Studies

Use case studies to tell powerful stories of successful ideas – from inception, through exploration and on to implementation and outcome.  They provide an opportunity to showcase innovations that could provide benefit to other parts of the organisation, and they also give the organisation an opportunity to put the contributor in the spotlight for their efforts.

Incentivisation Schemes

Carefully consider appropriate incentivisation -  unless schemes are very carefully managed, they can lead to bad behaviours creeping into the innovation programme, anxiety amongst some individuals, leader boards elitism and worse, accusations of favouritism – how can one really measure the “best idea”?

In truth, most individuals do care about the organisation, and want to see it succeed and will willingly engage, without being incentivised,  if they believe the organisation is serious about listening and learning.

Ask the employees!

Consult, Consult, Consult.  Build rapid, effective surveys and consultations into the heart of your innovation programme.  Organisations should consult regularly with employees to find out what they would like to see the organisation focusing on.  The results are likely to surprise everyone, and lead to the next meaningful innovation challenge.

Create a bank of Lessons learned

Utilise lessons learned to get those involved in a project to give their feedback to its successes and failures.  But feedback on its own is not enough – employees should be confident that their feedback will lead to change for the better.  Share the findings, create plans for change, and assign tasks to make it happen.    An effective  repository of knowledge creates a reference for things that didn’t work, and a means for employees to seek ways to address the shortcomings of a previous approach.

Engagement, then, is the cornerstone of innovation.  The highly engaged workforce can embrace the heightened volatile environment, and not fear the changes it might bring.  With robust innovation processes in place, effective engagement is the means by which ideas start, ideas develop and nurture, innovation risk is identified, managed and removed, and sustainable, meaningful solutions and products are created.

Take these processes and map them in a digital platform and they become turbo charged; maximising the number of ideas ‘in play’, increasing the pace of innovation and ultimately leading to more positive change, more of the time.  This in turn, will increase the levels of employee engagement, completing a virtuous circle of high levels of employee engagement, high levels of innovation, high levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty.


1 https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/1810/1/file52215.pdf

2 http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/54474/

3 https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2019/01/16/10-timely-statistics-about-the-connection-between-employee-engagement-and-wellness/

4 https://ideas.bkconnection.com/10-startling-employee-engagement-and-statistics

5 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/231581/five-ways-improve-employee-engagement.aspx