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Your Employee Innovation Program Can Accidentally Kill Innovation

Your Employee Innovation Program Can Accidentally Kill Innovation

Dedicated innovation programs and labs may actually be killing innovation rather than driving it. Companies should focus on creating a blame-free culture that encourages innovation from all employees.

Your Employee Innovation Program Can Accidentally Kill Innovation

Is your company's employee innovation program the real deal or just a fancy façade with little substance beneath the surface? At Ideanote, we’re not buying into the illusion. 

Too often, these corporate innovation programs are there to create the illusion of an innovative company culture rather than to make a real impact. 

The trend of organizations dressing up in "innovative startup" attire without a clear strategy begs the question: are these programs just a passing fad, here today and gone tomorrow? 

By confining innovation to exclusive groups, are companies unintentionally creating silos within their teams and hurting employee engagement? 

Is your innovation program inadvertently turning into a "members-only" club, sidelining 95% of your employees from contributing their innovative ideas? 

Unfortunately, we think that's precisely the case. Let's cut through the corporate jargon and explain why employee innovation programs might be stifling, not fostering, innovation in your company.

What Is an Employee Innovation Program?

Employee innovation programs are structured efforts taken by companies to involve their employees in innovation. 

Through these structured programs, companies aim to come up with new, innovative ideas regularly and follow up on these ideas to bring them to implementation.

There are many types of popular innovation programs. Yet, the most common ones that companies often resort to are the ones that give the biggest illusion of innovation without bringing real results. 

These are: 

➡️ Dedicated innovation teams

Companies often start implementing innovation by creating dedicated teams tasked solely with generating innovative ideas, strategies, and solutions. 

These teams focus exclusively on exploring new concepts, conducting market research, experimenting with novel approaches, and developing prototypes. 

They're often isolated from the regular day-to-day operations of the company.

➡️ Innovation labs 

Companies establish innovation labs as spaces of creativity and cross-functional collaboration. 

These spaces are intended to break down departmental silos and inspire employees to engage in open dialogue. 

While innovation labs can stimulate creativity and idea-sharing, they often create the very silos they're trying to avoid by being an "exclusive space for creativity" that's separated from the company’s day-to-day operations. 

➡️ Intrapreneur programs  

Intrapreneur programs empower employees to act as entrepreneurs within the confines of the organization (hence, intrapreneurs). 

These programs provide employees with resources, support, and necessary funding to develop innovative ideas. 

Still, these programs can hinder employee engagement by creating division and resentment between those who are "lucky enough" to become part of these programs and those who aren't.

It’s All Great on Paper But Makes No Real Impact 

The issue with most corporate innovation programs is how isolated they are from the rest of the company. 

Not just in terms of assigning specific people and teams to innovate rather than encouraging all employees to participate in the culture of innovation but also when implementing these new, innovative ideas. 

Innovation program: quote

Often, these ideas never see the light of day and are never turned into anything that brings real value to the company because they’re disconnected from the company’s goals, culture, and overall framework in the first place. 

So, while all these corporate innovation programs look great on paper and give the illusion of an “innovative” company, in reality, they’re just a show.

"Companies are simply putting on “tech company” clothes and trying to look more startup with no real strategy and no strong ties to their business units," says Scott Kirsner, the editor and co-founder of Innovation Leader. 

💡 This is known as “innovation theatre” - a flashy “we’re an innovative company” performance that looks good on the surface but lacks substance and genuine innovation.

Your Employee Innovation Program Can Accidentally Kill Innovation

The concept behind employee innovation programs is good because it recognizes that most out-of-the-box ideas come from employees. 

Yet, the “program” framework and how these programs are executed is often counterproductive and can lead to stifling innovation within the company rather than fostering it. 

💡 The Head of Innovation at AXA warns against treating innovation as a program. Instead, he advocates that companies should see innovation as a continuous activity of experimentation, validation, iteration, and industrialization.

The issue with employee innovation programs is that they often operate in isolation from the broader company context rather than encouraging all employees to contribute creative and innovative ideas whenever they arise. 

By setting up isolated innovation labs and outposts that only a few selected employees have control over, organizations effectively rob 95% of their employees of the opportunity to contribute their ideas and miss out on tapping into their creative potential.

Employee innovations programs aren't that great in realty

There is no right way to tell who can come up with the best ideas and who should be part of these closed innovation labs. 

The most innovative companies in the world know this and treat innovation as a continuous process where every employee is encouraged to contribute ideas rather than an exclusive program confined to a chosen group. 

💡 To truly inspire innovation within your company, invest in building an innovation culture rather than creating an employee innovation program.

Employee Innovation Program vs Innovation Culture

In an ideal scenario, employee innovation should not be confined to designated programs but should be ingrained in the organizational culture where every employee is encouraged to share their ideas. 

Breaking away from this isolated programmatic approach allows companies to tap into the collective creativity of all their employees, making innovation a natural and integral part of the daily work environment.

Here are the differences between employee innovation programs and fostering a real innovation culture. 

Employee Innovation Program
Innovation Culture
Discourages across-the-board employee engagement
Continuously fosters widespread employee engagement
Limits innovation to an exclusive group of employees
Embraces innovation as a continuous and inclusive part of the company culture
Robs 95% of employees of the opportunity to contribute ideas
Taps into the creative potential of all employees
Expects an ROI from the ideas being contributed and a tangible result
Isn’t measured by the number of ideas contributed, knows that results will come on their own

Replace the Employee Innovation Program with an Employee Innovation Culture 

Confining idea generation only to a selected group of people or a closed container prevents you from tapping into the creative potential of your entire workforce. 

And while the selected few within an innovation program can come up with great ideas, it’s often the regular employees who come up with the brightest ideas

That’s because they’re the closest to the business - its customers, internal frameworks, product development processes, etc. 

💡 The frontline employees’ input is often the most valuable and insightful. By removing regular employees from the innovation process, you’ll only miss out on potentially groundbreaking ideas.

Establishing an innovation culture rather than innovation programs will turn innovation into a continuous process and give all of your employees a shot at contributing their ideas. 

Here are a few best practices to set up an employee innovation culture.   

Best practices to set up an employee innovation culture

Keep Innovation Blame-Free

Your employees will never confidently and willingly share their ideas and opinions unless you reassure them it’s safe to do so. Studies show that a lack of psychological safety can stifle creativity and prevent employees from speaking up. 

💡 In a company where innovation is truly valued, employees know they’re always encouraged to share their ideas without repercussions.

To promote a culture of innovation, create a safe space for employees to contribute their ideas with a clear set of processes and challenges waiting to be solved. 

But make sure that your culture of innovation doesn't force anyone to share ideas. It should be a blame-free environment, where those who don’t have a lot of ideas shouldn’t feel inferior to those who do contribute a lot of ideas.  

To encourage more idea contributions from all employees, implement recognition and reward programs. This approach avoids pressuring anyone and, instead, creates a positive and inclusive atmosphere where everyone feels valued for their unique contributions.

Come up with an Easy Ongoing Innovation Process 

To make sure that innovation is a continuous process, you want it to become an integral part of every employee’s day-to-day in the workplace. 

But without a clear framework and an ever-green space for them to contribute their ideas, the creative momentum can quickly dissipate, and great ideas can get forgotten. 

💡 Part of establishing a transparent framework for idea generation is setting up an idea collection platform. It can be as simple as a digital suggestion box or an idea management tool like Ideanote.

This way, whenever your employees have an idea, they can add it to the platform on the spot. The platform also allows you to make sure that no idea slips through the cracks and that every idea is tracked, evaluated, and sorted. 

Moreover, having a platform dedicated to idea collection shows your employees that their ideas don’t just vanish in the corporate void but are noted, heard, and considered, which can boost their motivation to contribute. 

Don’t Reward Innovation With Money 

Recognizing and rewarding your employees for contributing ideas is a great way to inspire them to continue doing so. And while rewarding innovation may seem straightforward, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. 

Most managers think rewarding employees with money is the best way to motivate employees to actively participate in innovation. Yet, studies show that monetary rewards can hurt employee motivation in the long run. 

What does work, however, are intrinsic rewards. While it may sound counterintuitive, it makes sense when you realize that employees value a sense of meaning, purpose, and autonomy in their work even more than they value getting paid. 

💡 Promoting the internal rewards of generating ideas and developing them - like recognition, career advancement, and skill development - is not only cheaper for the company (you don’t have to spend money on external rewards) but can also go way further in terms of employee motivation and performance.

Organize Employee Innovation Campaigns

Given that your employees are already busy with their day-to-day duties and responsibilities, it's only natural for them not to be in a perpetual mindset of generating innovative ideas. 

They may have a good idea pop up occasionally, but the key is to inspire and encourage them to contribute their thoughts consistently. Without ongoing inspiration, you won't have a reliable and steady stream of innovative ideas. 

To keep innovation present in the minds of your employees, inspire them to come up with ideas from time to time with punctual campaigns. 

These campaigns should have a clear goal or challenge you’re asking your employees to solve, for example, coming up with a new product idea by the end of the quarter or finding a solution to a specific problem by the end of the month. 

💡 You can run these campaigns using a tool like Ideanote, where everyone can vote or comment on each other's ideas.

To encourage your employees to actively participate in those campaigns, you can gamify the experience and introduce a little bit of healthy competition. 

Punctual idea campaigns are a great and cost-effective way to generate ideas, yet they only work when you've already established a culture of innovation. 

If you run them before you've created a culture of innovation, your employees won't be in the right mindset to contribute ideas, and your campaigns may run dry. 

💡 Without an established culture of innovation, organizing punctual idea generation campaigns will simply turn into an empty corporate innovation program rather than being a part of the continuous innovation process within your company.

Examples of Successful Employee All-Inclusive Innovation 

There are plenty of inspiring examples of all-inclusive innovation. Big companies know how to create a true innovation culture and motivate their employees to contribute ideas continuously without resorting to “innovation theater.” 

  • Amazon has created an internal, virtual idea suggestion box that gives employees an easy place to submit ideas whenever they spring to mind. 
  • The UK Department for Work & Pensions developed its highly successful Idea Street, a gamification platform to encourage ideas from employees.
  • Westin hotels send their top five innovators on all-expenses-paid exotic holidays every quarter. 

These initiatives incentivize employees to think innovatively all year round, creating a culture where innovation is not confined to isolated events or teams but becomes an integral part of everyone's day-to-day life in the workplace.

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If you're looking for an all-in-one solution for your innovation, look no further than Ideanote! With our flexible platform you can do everything from collecting ideas, engaging your crowd and analyzing your innovation performance.

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