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ENTREPRENEURS: Keep your ears open for wisdom from staff!

?Ego ?Can ?Blind ?You ?To ?Others� ?Ideas
As creative mavericks, entrepreneurs may figure that they ?can carry their company ?to new heights on their innovative shoulders. That�s an awfully heavy load.
It�s better if ?you get employees ?to innovate. But they�re so busy, how ?can they possibly find time ?to think outside the box?
The fastest-growing young companies feed off constant innovation. The founder sets the tone, but employees get inventive as well.
�In the Navy, we call it keeping a drumbeat up,� said Neal Thornberry, who built the first course in �Leading Innovation� for Navy admirals and their civilian partners. �?You create a culture of innovation by asking employees, �What�s a way we ?can do things faster?� and �How ?can we treat customers better ?� �
Thornberry is faculty director for innovation initiatives at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He�s also founder and CEO of Imstrat, a consulting firm focused on innovation strategies.
Persistent questioning stokes workplace creativity. Entrepreneurs who solicit ?ideas from staffers lay the groundwork for identifying ways ?to improve. But the real key is follow-up.
�It�s important for founders ?to say, �Remember last week when I asked for your ?ideas? What are your thoughts?� � said Thornberry, author of �Innovation Judo.� �?You want ?to set the expectation that the boss will keep asking so that employees think, �Next time, I better think this through and have a more complete answer.� It causes people ?to lift their head up and ask, �What ?can we do better?� �
Savvier Than Thou?
Thornberry cautions that some entrepreneurs assume they�re the only ones with great ?ideas. Accustomed ?to unlocking bold solutions ?to vexing problems, some business builders ignore input or suggestions from underlings.
He cites the charismatic founder of a tech firm who fancied himself as chief innovator. He hired people ?to follow orders, not ?to make creative contributions.
�No one else was listened ?to,� Thornberry said. �He got rid of people who disagreed with him or who felt they had a better strategy. Ultimately, the board of directors removed him because he couldn�t let the company grow beyond his own reach.�
It�s not enough ?to invite employees ?to propose potential breakthroughs. ?You also want ?to make it easy for them ?to test the practical value of their ?ideas.
When staffers share an insight, encourage them ?to investigate it further. Allocate sufficient resources for them ?to stage a few preliminary experiments.
Thornberry has devised what he calls �an opportunity template� � a worksheet that entrepreneurs ?can distribute ?to employees who propose innovations. It includes questions that they need ?to address such as, �Who will be affected by this ?idea?� and �Have ?you talked ?to ?others about it?�
�This puts the responsibility back on the employee and forces the innovator ?to come ?to grips with their ?idea,� Thornberry said. �It�s a honing tool.�

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• December 29, 2014

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