Innovation is one of the hottest topics in the world of business right now. CEOs and executives consider it a priority because they know that innovation can help differentiate their companies. In nearly all of my consulting engagements, I often hear executives say how much they wish their employees would contribute new ideas. At the same time, I hear frontline employees say how much they wish someone in management would care about their ideas. Clearly, there is a disconnect.
Let me share a wonderful story from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta that exemplifies the great outcomes of innovation when both management and employees are on the same page:
Cheryl McCarthy, Staff Nurse, knew all too well the anxiety, fear and hopelessness that parents can feel when their child is sick, because she had a daughter who spent the first three months of her life in the NICU at Children’s. While working as a nurse in the same Children’s NICU, she decided to look into creating a formal support program for patients’ parents at Children’s. From her own experiences, she knew a support program could make a big difference in the lives of the families in her unit. After much research, Cheryl put together a plan and presented it to her unit manager and the ICU manager, who gave their approval and support. Together, they ironed out the details and Cheryl then connected with the director of the Children’s Family Support Services department to get more information about programs currently in place and to find out if other departments besides the NICU could benefit from a support group. After coordinating efforts with representatives from other areas of Children’s, Cheryl and her team presented their comprehensive idea to upper management. The leaders not only listened and gave their blessing, but, they gave Cheryl the necessary resources to make the Family Mentor Program happen.
To stimulate innovation, many companies invest in technology to gather employee ideas. Others believe ideas will percolate with open spaces, ping-pong tables, nap rooms, etc. and invest significant amounts of money in the physical environment. Our research has found that the results of any system or facilities will be just another reflection of deeply ingrained cultural behaviors.
Our employee experience research has proven over and over that managers, not perks, are the key. Managers either unleash or inhibit an innovative workforce. If all people who work in your organization are able to find ways to do their jobs in new and better ways, the sum of all those incremental changes would increase efficiency, quality and customer satisfaction in unprecedented ways.
Great Place to Work has been researching what sets apart the Fortune 100 Best Companies and how they create meaningful innovation experiences for all. Companies that score in the top quartile of employee innovation experience achieve a 5.5x higher median year-over-year revenue growth compared to certified companies scoring in the bottom quartile.
These companies have thousands of employees spread across geographies and industries. How do these large and diverse companies build innovation across their dispersed workforce? It all depends on how consistently people experience their managers demonstrating the five behaviors below:
- Involving people in important decisions that affect their jobs or work environment. In my consulting experience, I have learned that everyone wants to have a success story at work. Front line employees have great ideas on how to serve customers better, or how their internal processes could be more efficient. When managers give people the freedom to make their own decisions and trust them to be the experts in their jobs, people will come up with ideas to make it even better.
- Treating everyone as a full member regardless of their position. Great leaders know that everyone has a different perspective and something to contribute. They also know that if everyone feels proud of their contributions, they will want to do more. My on-the-ground consulting experience has showed me that when people feel consistently acknowledged and treated with respect by their leaders, regardless of who they are or what they do for the organization, they will come up with several ideas to make their company even better, and feel good about the benefit it will bring to their leaders.
- Avoiding politicking and backstabbing to get things done. Something I hear very often in low-trust environments, is that when people come up with a great idea, their boss shuts it down or, even worse, takes credit for it. Such an environment inhibits innovation, regardless of how many collaborative platforms or nap rooms are available to them. On the other hand, employees in high-trust environments have opposite experiences. If a manager hears a great idea, he or she helps the employee polish it and give visibility to the idea with higher levels of management. Instead of being afraid of being overshadowed, managers feel pride in their people and coaching skills.
- Fostering cooperation. The most impactful innovation creates value for the business overall, not just in one department. People who are exposed to what other roles and departments within the organization do are able to think of innovation opportunities that can impact the organizational system as a whole, not only the small part of their process or department. Great leaders consistently create connections across teams to help their employees see the bigger picture.
- Having a clear view of where the business is going and how to get there. When employees receive a consistent message about where the business is going from different leaders, there is a sense of alignment and clarity. Having this clarity channels ideas because employees have clear parameters about where the organization is looking to grow. In organizations that struggle with alignment, I hear mid-level managers complain about the ever-changing priorities they receive from the top.
If you remember the story of Cheryl at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, all these elements were present. An employee with a great idea felt the freedom and safety to share it. A great manager supported the idea to create a high-value program. This is what innovation is really about. In my 10 years of consulting experience, I have observed that when great managers give employees the opportunity to use and show their talents beyond their job description skills, the level of pride, loyalty and innovation they can bring to their workplace skyrockets.
The pride Cheryl felt contributing at such a high level created a high-trust experience that is still driving loyalty, teamwork and brand ambassadorship:
“Just a few years ago, there was no standard way for our patients’ parents to connect. Today, we have the Children’s Family Mentor Program, matching caring and experienced parent volunteers with parents of newly diagnosed patients who need emotional support. I am proud to work for an organization that not only listens to suggestions and ideas from its employees, but that helps put them into action. And, most of all, I am proud of the role I played in bringing this wonderful program to Children’s.” — Cheryl McCarthy, Staff Nurse