The rank-and-file employees you dash past each day on your way to meetings are often an overlooked source of new product and service ideas.
The best employees want to feel they have some control over their futures. If you want to recruit and retain the smart people, you have to encourage them to make recommendations and try some of their ideas. If you don't take them seriously, then they will leave for a more enlightened company.
In my years as an entrepreneur and business leader, I've found that the following brainstorming guidelines help keep employees engaged and creative -- and help keep your company from falling into a rut:
Outside speakers bring new ideas
. I liked to bring in speakers every month to discuss new products, management techniques, and how they develop new ideas.
In the mid-1990s, when I was running Mixed Media Works, a Philadelphia-area multimedia company, we had a speaker who talked about opportunities in something called the Internet. He invited us to one of his company's seminars, which ultimately led to us switching our focus from developing CD-ROMS to developing Web sites.
Every employee matters
. I once ran a small mom-and-pop mall that had a 12,000-square-foot room that I thought could be best used as an incubator for aspiring shopkeepers, who, if successful, would rent space in the regular mall.
My management and marketing team were stumped on how to complete this project efficiently and cost-effectively. During a brainstorming meeting, a maintenance worker who was there to fix a light in my office chimed in, suggesting that maintenance could build moveable walls on wheels. His idea cost us $10,000, vs. the $75,000 we might have spent otherwise, and we ended up making a $50,000 in profit after the first year.
. Biographies can be great idea generators. I once gave each employee at a trade association a biography on former White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who was a creative sports-marketing genius. After reading the book, our receptionist suggested that we sell season tickets to our Titans of Technology CEO speaker's series. We offered 300 season tickets and held 50 tickets in reserve for key sponsors. The season tickets sold out in 10 days.
. It's important for employees to see how other people are doing things. When I was running Penn State's technology incubator, I visited an incubator in another state and noticed that the waiting room was filled with media stories about the incubator. The receptionist told me that the manager made people wait so they would absorb the stories, thus generating interest in renting space.
. Twice a year, we would have off-site meetings with outside facilitator, who would ask questions about the company's mission, competitive differentiators, competition and process for developing new ideas.
When I was running the Eastern Technology Council, a big regional trade association outside of Philadelphia, we hired a facilitator to run a strategic planning the session. The facilitator asked whether we'd ever considered converting our newsletter into a newspaper. We liked the idea so much that we did convert the newsletter to a tabloid paper, which produced $250,000 a year in new income.
Encourage people to generate ideas, even if they seem far-fetched. What is important is that your employees are challenged and stay fresh. My next column will be about how to sort through the good ideas in a structured methodical way.
Marc Kramer, a serial entrepreneur, has written five books and is an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Global Consulting Practicum, where he serves as Country Manager for Chile.