In my experience, managers look to other managers for innovative ideas, not to entry-level or mid-level employees. Back when I worked at a public relations firm in San Francisco, company partners would escape twice a year to Napa Valley for a weekend of brainstorming, and always return with a folder full of ideas on creative ways to serve customers. I found this practice to be a little unfair, not just because I would have jumped at a free trip to wine country (who wouldn’t?), but because even in my early 20s, I felt that I could come up with innovative ideas, too. I just never got the chance.
Jake Nickell gets my point. As founder of Threadless, a Chicago-based online community of 1.7 million artists that sells original designs on shirts and other merchandise and shares profits with creators, he welcomes innovative ideas from all levels of his organization.
Every quarter he initiates a ‘DIY (do it yourself) Day’ where the company comes together and works on random ideas. Everyone is invited—from the finance team to the warehouse team. A few years back, a warehouse manager came to a DIY Day with an idea: to incorporate Threadless into the comic book community. With the positive reinforcement from the rest of the company, he reached out to his favorite comic book artists and asked them to make T-shirt designs.
“It totally worked,” says Nickell. “We are now on our fourth iteration of the shirts and we’ve sold more than $500,000 of them. He still manages the project today.”
DIY Days are not the only times employees can share ideas. Nickell accepts suggestions at all times, and tries to make the company’s environment creatively inviting by allowing employees to bring their dogs to work and letting them paint the walls with graffiti.
“People really like that kind of freedom; it makes them feel comfortable to share ideas,” he says.
What about companies that can’t allow graffiti on walls and dogs in hallways? Are they creatively stunted?
Not at all, says Nickell. Any business owner can encourage innovative ideas from staff members. Here’s how.
Tap into personal passions
Employees are more likely to innovate when they can incorporate their personal interests (case and point: the warehouse manager with the comic book fascination). Nickell recommends small business owners sit down and find out what excites employees in their personal lives.
“Look at what they are excited about outside the business and see how you can use that in the business,” he says. “It is hard to squeeze creativity and innovation from people who aren’t interested.”
Candace Klein agrees. As founder and CEO of SoMoLend and Bad Girl Ventures, two Cincinnati-based businesses that help women start their own companies, she talks with each of her staff members about their goals outside the office.
“During reviews and performance planning, we chat about six month and five year goals,” she says. “As they plan for personal success, I encourage them to bring related ideas back into the work place.”
For example, one of her employees is working on becoming a yoga instructor in her off time. She came up with the idea of offering free yoga instruction at the office for customers, and the idea has become a hit.
“Not only does this practice help generate ideas that can help attract customers, but it also breeds employee loyalty,” she says. “If they can’t wait to leave at 5 p.m., they are not going to innovate.”
Create a culture of acceptance
Even if your low-level employees have game-changing ideas, they may be too afraid to verbalize them. Encourage idea sharing by actively listening, holding all-meeting brainstorming sessions, and even putting out an anonymous suggestion box. You never know what ideas will surface.
Invest in a comfortable work environment
Employees are unlikely to innovate if their office feels like a prison cell, so try to make your workspace more inviting.
“My team used to work in a concrete building with no windows that felt extremely corporate and stifling,” says Klein. “I recently moved the company to a brand new space that has a lot of windows and put couches and a fully-stocked fridge in there. They love it and I think it helps with idea generation.”