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Tech leaders: How to successfully nurture a culture of innovation

Key to a culture of innovation is encouraging people to put forward ideas. From whole new products and services, to tiny tweaks to the way you operate, everything starts with an idea.

But sometimes people come up with what you might think are silly ideas.

They want to develop a product that is clearly never going to make any money. They want to rewrite an obsolete codebase that no-one’s using anymore. Or they may want to chat about things you just don’t feel are high priorities, given all the other demands on your time.

It’s very tempting to simply dismiss these ideas and requests – especially when it’s always the same people who come and bug you. Why can’t they be more like Shanice, who just gets on with her coding?

The dangers of being dismissive

But if you dismiss people without considering their ideas, and giving them honest feedback, you’ll find yourself with a worse problem.

You won’t be getting people stepping up with good ideas.

This will mean your organization misses out on the benefits. Worse, these people may then leave, and take their good ideas to your competitors who do listen, to benefit from.

Striking a balance

The thing with ideas is that there’s a very fine line between a great idea and a blooper. It can be difficult to tell the difference; sometimes, you’re going to get it wrong. But if people think their ideas aren’t valued, they’ll stop bringing them to you.

Here’s the approach we take at Softwire, when someone comes to the management team with an idea.

1. Be positive

First and foremost, we’ll be enthusiastic about the fact that we’ve been brought an idea. Where it doesn’t conflict with point 2, we’ll also be enthusiastic about the idea itself. Remember, people putting forward suggestions is how progress is made!

2. Take time to consider the pros and cons

While we may get a ‘gut feel’ about an idea when someone first proposes it, it’s always helpful to take time to weigh it up. We’ll discuss the idea with colleagues, to gather diverse perspectives: something I might initially see little value in, may in fact be a real game-changer for others, and therefore absolutely worth pursuing.

Areas to consider include:

  • Who will benefit, and how?
  • Does it cost anything?
  • Is there any risk of it causing problems?
  • Do you need more details to make an informed decision?

3. Run a trial

If there’s a way to test the idea, and the associated cost and risk are palatable to the business at that time, then we’ll sign it off as a trial, and provide appropriate budget and resource. We’ll also empower the person who’s suggested the idea to run with it. Continuation past the trial end-period will depend on whether the benefits promised were realised as expected.

4. Provide feedback

Regardless of whether we proceed with the idea, we’ll give honest feedback on what we think, once we’ve properly considered the suggestion.

Is it great? Are we sceptical, but willing to give it a go? Is it too expensive or risky?

As well as reassuring people that their idea has been given genuine consideration, this feedback helps people improve future suggestions.

5. Give credit (and reward)

Where the idea is a success, we give the person who suggested it credit. We’ll always ask them how they’d like us to do this – some will love seeing their name up in lights at an all-company update, where others will simply prefer a personal ‘thank you, your input has made a real difference’ email from one of the management team.

We’ll also seek to reward people who come up with and implement a brilliant idea, via our Individual Achievement Awards. Moreover, commercially successful ideas increase profits, and because everyone at Softwire gets a share of our profits, a larger profit pool means more financial reward for everyone.

Creating a virtuous circle

We’ve found that by nurturing a culture where ideas are welcomed, where employees see suggestions given proper consideration, and always receive constructive feedback, we’ve created an environment where the number and quality of ideas continues to increase.

Indeed, several of our most successful business units have been born out of employee suggestions, including our consulting arm, design capability, and our Career Change and Return-to-Work programmes through TechSwitch. In all these cases, we also empowered the people who put forward the ideas to run with them and lead these successful divisions.

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