How to encourage innovation in the workplace

This five-step process will help your company empower employees to generate and execute innovative ideas

Illustrations by Alana Peters/The We Company

Innovation in the workplace is rewarded in countless ways. Businesses that innovate become more efficient in their internal processes, more likely to manufacture products that consumers love, and are increasingly attractive to potential employees.

Examples of innovation in the workplace include:

The good news for companies is that there are concrete steps they can take to become more innovative.

How to drive workplace innovation in five steps

At WeWork Labs, our team partners with companies of all sizes to help them implement frameworks that generate innovation. Business innovation can involve creating a new product, or it could be streamlining existing processes. Whatever the innovation, the end goal is to drive company growth by coming up with better solutions to specific problems. Here’s a process to make innovation possible:

The first step to innovating is deciding on the issue (or set of issues) that poses a problem to an organization. Business leaders should sit down and come up with a list of three challenges they feel are core to the business.

Step 1: Identify the issues to work on

The issue may be at the industry level. Take, for example, the rise of fintech startups in traditional finance. Leaders within legacy banks could see the trend as an opportunity for them to create new digital products to better serve their customers. Or, organizations may look to improve how they conduct business, which involves looking closely at the manufacturing process, the employee experience, or customer experience. 

To surface these issues, managers and business leaders should:

  • Sit down and list major issues impacting daily business. 
  • Prioritize a few challenges to tackle first.
  • Create a criteria or framework for judging and implementing a solution to this problem that is feasible.

After the pre-work is completed, leaders will then turn it over to those who have the most firsthand knowledge of the business: employees.

Step 2: Engage employees

Employees, after all, are the ones on the front lines making the products and talking to customers. They have the closest view into processes that could be made more efficient. As such, it’s important that any attempt at innovation include their insight. 

One way companies can do this is through programs that allow employees to surface ideas about how to solve problems identified in step one. These programs may be hackathons or company-wide employee innovation challenges. They could be for a short amount of time (lasting a week) or a long amount (lasting a quarter). Many companies decide to partner with external parties, such as WeWork Labs, to run programs like this.

The key is to engage the entire company and allow those from all departments to submit ideas. It’s important, also, to do this through a distinct program separate from employees’ day-to-day work because that allows employees to get out of the traditional corporate feedback loop. When the goal is to come up with new ideas, it’s more likely that employees will think outside the box.

Step 3: Brainstorm ideas for innovation

Once a framework or program is set up, employees start ideating. They work as if they are building startups within the company. Drawing upon their own experiences, they should ideate potential solutions to the problems the company has identified.

There are many ways to encourage a positive brainstorming session, including through physical space. Conference rooms allow groups of people to come together and discuss ideas in a private, quiet space. Bonus points if the conference room has whiteboards in order to diagram or map out ideas. The company leaders will then judge the ideas produced.

Step 4: Judge the ideas

Once all employee ideas are collected, it’s time for business leaders to sift through them. They should separate the ideas that could feasibly be implemented and provide value to the company, and those that couldn’t. 

In this curation process, company leaders will judge the ideas against the predetermined criteria they set with stakeholders in step one. This is when the most interesting ideas for innovation are identified and moved to the top of the list.

Step 5: Empower ideas to be executed

Once the freshest, newest, most exciting ideas for innovation are generated, surfaced, and judged, it’s time to ready them for the execution stage. The employees with the best ideas should be connected to those in the company that can help them implement these ideas internally. They should be encouraged to work with business line leaders to brainstorm on business integration. For these teams to succeed, company leaders, from executives to direct managers, need to empower these employees with budget and time (20 percent of their workweek, for example) dedicated to bringing those ideas to life.

Three tips for jump-starting innovation in the workplace

Businesses of all sizes can use the framework above to become more innovative. Here are a few more tips that can help along the way:

1. Move into a new space 

Getting out of the business-as-usual office means employees can have an easier time thinking up new ideas. Physical space plays a big part in how employees work, think, and feel. The presence of open collaboration areas, comfortable seating, bright colors, whiteboards, and creative art foster collaboration and productivity. Being in a brand-new space, even for a short period of time, can help people think differently and devise new ideas. This is one reason companies of all sizes are increasingly opening business units called innovation labs that are solely dedicated to generating novel ideas.

2. Work with startups 

Many times, internal business problems can’t be solved just by wrangling ideas from those who work within the company. In these cases, it is useful to pay attention to outside sources also working on similar problems. Identifying new businesses that are trying to solve these problems is a great opportunity to tap into the agility of upstart businesses. Companies will often look at startups working in their industry and choose to build something similar, buy from, or partner with these startups to solve their problems.

3. Build market knowledge 

Keeping abreast of industry changes informs what problems a business decides to work on. It’s incredibly important for traditional companies to know which new organizations are coming out with products and services that may challenge their market share. It’s also important to be aware of what consumers want, so businesses can quickly respond to those changes with new products.

Innovation in the workplace may sometimes feel like a wide open topic. But there are tried-and-true steps an organization can take as long as they commit to the idea that innovation in the workplace is imperative for them to thrive. WeWork Labs partners with enterprises to create processes and frameworks that allow them to be innovative and fully ready for future growth.

This article was originally published on October 11, 2019, and has been updated throughout by the editors.

Noushka Green is a senior business development manager at WeWork Labs, which connects the world’s largest enterprises with a global community of startups. She has more than seven years of experience in enterprise sales and partnerships. Prior to WeWork, Green worked at Merrill Lynch in private wealth management, helping individuals and family offices with estate planning, retirement planning, and investment strategy.

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