Equal Opportunity for Innovation

I’ve found that managers and department heads often need help acknowledging their biases about their expectations for employees, and then moving past those biases to be equally welcoming of innovation from ALL employees.

It’s an unusual company that will openly admit it doesn’t want to encourage innovation. Yet as much as companies tout the value of innovation, I have observed that innovation is not welcomed equally from all employees. I know this from my own experience and that of at least one other.

Over the course of my career, I have developed ideas for new business endeavors, such as new publications—and been ignored. Note that I didn’t say the ideas were rejected, but ignored—i.e., I reached out to multiple executives with the idea and received no response, not even a thank you.

People are busy, so not responding to e-mails is not unusual. However, this unresponsiveness was happening exactly as one of the companies where I worked was purporting to be in favor of all employees participating in innovation. In one case, the company held a contest in which we broke into teams, with each team developing one idea to put forward as a presentation voted on by executives. The winners got awards. My group, which I should note did not choose one of my ideas to present, received a participation award.

I found an article on Entrepreneur by Igor Makarov from a few years ago about encouraging innovation, which includes nine tips. In one of those tips, Makarov writes of “intrapreneurship,” in which companies should encourage exactly what I did: “An intrapreneur can be defined as someone who thinks like an entrepreneur but brings their ideas to the company where they are employed instead of launching their own business.” In another tip, he writes of the need to “shake things up” by giving people assignments outside their regular duties. These two tips highlight a challenge, a common corporate shortcoming, and a call to action to spur innovation.

The challenge is broadening executive minds about where, and particularly from whom, innovation is welcome. In the early months of one of my jobs, I took the call for innovation in developing new business ideas to heart. I came up with pages of new ideas, which I diligently e-mailed to my manager and our department head. No meaningful recognition came from either that the ideas had been received and reviewed. However, one day, when walking past the communal printer, I noticed sheets featuring my ideas printed out. A moment later, my manager swept past, quickly taking those sheets and walking away. I later told our department head what I had seen, and he said my manager was printing out the ideas for the two of them to discuss. This would be encouraging, except I hadn’t been informed they would be reviewing the ideas, and more importantly, I hadn’t been invited to participate in the discussions.

I have a friend who has experienced similar treatment. She has developed new ideas, been ignored or shot down, and then sometimes within the span of a short time period—maybe even the same day—seen a co-worker present the same idea and be thanked and encouraged enthusiastically.

My own experience, and that of my friend, leads me to conclude that innovation isn’t welcomed equally from all employees. Some of it is the result of a tendency to pigeonhole employees into narrow slots—this one is a low-level, task-oriented workhorse and this one is a high-level thinker. It’s no coincidence that women like my friend and myself often are categorized in executive minds as efficiency machines, expected to keep our heads down and get a tremendous amount of work done. We are not as often thought of as high-minded, “top-of-the-trees” strategic thinkers.

This tendency to compartmentalize employees—often women (which, from my own experience, I can verify) and minorities—requires greater involvement from Learning professionals. Managers and department heads need significant help acknowledging their biases about their expectations for employees, and then moving past those biases to be equally welcoming of innovation. How can this be done?

Making it a regular part of every employee’s annual development plan to include one new business idea per year is a good start. Doing this would send the message that innovation is expected and welcome from every employee, regardless of how low or high in the corporate hierarchy—and regardless of how each employee is perceived by managers and executives.

I like the idea of focusing on driving individuals, rather than teams, to develop new business ideas. Doing it on the individual level gives managers and executives a chance to gauge the potential of each employee for higher-level thinking. It also would be helpful to have a way of collecting those ideas anonymously. The managers and executives would get the ideas with no names attached. The ones that wow them the most may come from the places they least expect.

What does your company do to drive each individual to be innovative? What manager and executive biases may be negatively impacting the generation of new business ideas?