IR's Chief People Officer Explains How to Promote Workplace Innovation

January 8, 2024

A new employee anxious to prove her worth goes to her manager with a big idea she thinks will make her department more efficient. Perhaps she’d like to teach a new skill to her colleagues, or maybe she has a cost-cutting idea for contracting with new vendors. “That sounds great,” her manager says, giving her the green light to try out her idea. “Now make it happen.”

While the employee may enthusiastically start to plan and implement her idea, she begins to feel overwhelmed as the project takes an increasing amount of time away from her “real job,” and she finds herself working longer hours. Frustrated with herself for suggesting her idea in the first place, and with her manager for not giving her the support she needs, she drops the project, resolving not to make the same mistake again the next time inspiration strikes.

Researchers have found this scenario to be all too common, and it’s hurting innovation in the workplace. A 2023 study from the University of Iowa found that when a manager delegates a new idea solely to the employee who suggested it, the demands of implementing the idea often lead to an unsustainable workload, and the employee regrets having spoken up.

“If the worker is already busy and with little time to run a new initiative or lead another task force, then they may react negatively,” says Daniel Newton, lead author of the study and assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. “Now, to take some of the heat off managers, they’re busy too. Employees may forget that and think that if they come up with a new idea, their manager will somehow wave a wand and make it happen. Either way, someone has to do the work.”

Make the Necessary Investment

Employees need more than the go-ahead from their managers—they also need ample support and resources to successfully implement their proposal. Keith Keating, senior vice president and chief learning and talent officer at Archwell, a services provider for the mortgage and finance industries headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says he’s not surprised by what the Iowa study found. “It’s essential to create an environment where employees feel supported and know that their ideas are valued, not just as a source of extra work, but as vital contributions to the organization’s success,” he says.

Keating, author of The Trusted Learning Advisor (Kogan Page, 2023), recommends that companies have clear processes and channels for idea submission and evaluation. “This structure ensures that ideas are not just thrown into the day-to-day hustle, but are given the attention and consideration they deserve,” he explains. “It’s about creating a system where ideas are welcomed, assessed, and, if viable, integrated into the organization’s strategy with proper planning and resource allocation.”

Keating says that after an idea is endorsed by a manager, it’s crucial to get additional team members on board so employees aren’t quickly overloaded with new responsibilities. “It’s not solely the responsibility of the individual who proposed the idea to execute it,” he says. At Archwell, when a new idea is accepted and endorsed, managers use the collective skills and resources of their team to support the proposal’s development and implementation. “This approach not only reduces the burden on the individual, but it also fosters a sense of collective ownership and pride in the innovations we pursue,” Keating says.

Give Employees the Access They Need

Theresa Stevenson, chief people officer at Innovation Refunds—an organization in West Des Moines, Iowa, that helps eligible small and medium-sized businesses access incentives from federal and state governments—has also seen the negative consequences of managers delegating new projects solely to the employees who come up with them. This is why she says Innovation Refunds’ employees are given the opportunity to talk not only with their own manager, but also with other managers when they want to pitch an idea.

“Employees might not feel comfortable sharing their big ideas with their direct manager for a number of reasons, [with] fear of additional work being only one of them,” Stevenson says. “Companies looking to encourage their employees to share big ideas should consider making company leaders more accessible [to them]. These could include ‘skip-level’ meetings, where employees connect with their one-over-one leader … to make it simpler for employees to connect with executive leaders throughout the organization, allowing for candid, impromptu conversation.”

Stevenson says that employees who feel heard are more engaged, team-oriented and committed to their jobs. “We recently experienced a period of transformation, and ideas from employees were essential as we figured out how to navigate it in the best way possible,” she explains. “My approach to human resources is aligning business priorities to people strategies. If employees aren’t at the center of this work, it can’t happen. It is our job to break down traditional workplace hierarchies and ensure employees feel comfortable connecting directly to leadership to share their thoughts and ideas.”

Establish a Culture of Innovation

Stevenson often holds in-house focus groups, where she encourages employees to share their ideas. “These sessions are employee-led, with the people team listening to their thoughts and capturing the most important points,” she says. “The key takeaways are then used in recommendations to the executive team. Programs like this ensure that the Innovation Refunds environment is as open to new ideas as possible.”

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