CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Innovation is the key to growing your business, whether you're developing a new product, re-thinking your advertising strategy or finding ways to cut costs in your supply chain. Ideally, fresh ideas bubble up from throughout your company. In practice, it often takes a push from above to get employees to think big.
For years, managers have used brainstorming sessions as an easy, low-cost way to tap into workers' creativity. The only problem? Numerous academic studies have shown that brainstorming -- while great for team-building -- doesn't reliably generate effective ideas.
So how can you get your employees thinking about innovation in innovative ways? Wharton professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, with professor Karan Girota of INSEAD, found that the highest-quality ideas emerged from a two-pronged process. First, workers were given specific instructions to come up with ideas on their own within a certain timeframe. Those ideas and possible execution were then hashed out a meeting with peers.
"Innovation benefits from diverse contributions, whether it's different personalities or different organizational roles," says Terwiesch. "Having all strategy come from the founder is a risk for small, entrepreneur-driven companies."
Small-business brainstorming sessions also can fall victim to the "boss is always right" syndrome. "Entrepreneurs often don't want to monopolize the process, but they do," says Terwiesch. "Because of the history of the company and your position, people implicitly will like your ideas more and listen to your evaluations more. Just by who you are, you'll influence the group dynamics."
One way to escape that dynamic is through a Web-based innovation tournament, where employees submit and assess suggestions anonymously online. Terwiesch and Ulrich explain the process in their recent book
Innovation Tournaments: Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities
. They also created Darwinator.com, a site where groups can set up tournaments for free.
Evaluating ideas online takes interpersonal relationships out of the equation. In a meeting, coworkers who are friends might hesitate to point out flaws in each other's concepts, and an idea from a well-liked employee might get more kudos than it deserves. Anonymous, constructive comments allow the best ideas to filter upward, regardless of who suggested them.
Just as importantly, the people whose "losing" ideas were voted down in early rounds won't suffer a public rejection -- which might make them less likely to contribute in the future.
Innovative ideas may come from throughout your company, but ultimately it's up to the leader to make them a reality. Entrepreneurs who encourage creative thinking need to back up those pep talks by taking concrete action.
"Ideas will come up as winners that were never on your shortlist," says Terwiesch. "You have to let go and believe in the process." Give your workers the time and budget to take the next step, whether it's creating a prototype or doing a market research study. You'll get objective data on whether the new idea has legs, and you'll also show employees that their contributions can become a reality.
One of the underlying assumptions of brainstorming is that everyone in the group has something to contribute, if only they can be encouraged to think outside of the box. But some people simply aren't creative. Dragging out a meeting to allow for their input simply isn't the best use of your time or their resources.
Instead, focus on ways your most innovative thinkers can pitch their ideas, then have those ideas evaluated in an anonymous format. Your creatively-challenged employees might be great at execution, for example, and find insightful reasons why a suggested new product wouldn't be a good fit for the company.
"We all have different skills," says Terwiesch. "Your job as a manager is to get each person in the position where they'll do best." Even if that means accepting that some of the best ideas for future growth don't come from you.
Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago and other national magazines.