by Jim Martin
You wouldn’t be in business if you didn’t have some tendency toward innovation, but you can become even more successful if you encourage your employees to be creative as well. Innovators capitalize on new ideas, new technologies and new developments in the market place. Big changes are obvious, but small changes can be hard to see and even harder to implement. The degree to which your employees cherish creativity as part of their work function can substantially increase the enthusiasm they bring to the job, and the ideas they see for improving the business.
Much of this will hinge on the ambience you establish within the business. I once worked for a boss who was a wonderful man, but our work space seemed like a dungeon. I’m sure the atmosphere offset what his cheerful disposition should have caused. Start with a light and cheery workplace. Encourage employees to decorate their personal work area (but establish standards for the decorations). Then establish an open door policy. Tell employees they can bring problems and improvement ideas to you at any time (unless you’re in a meeting or on the phone). Respond to these inputs quickly. If you reject an idea, explain your rejection in terms of the business issues involved. If you need time to think it out, tell the employee when you’ll make the decision.
To foster innovation, communicate regularly with employees so they understand what the business wants to accomplish in the long term. If your business is small, tell your employees of major successes for the company. If you’re larger, start a company newsletter. You can post it on a bulletin board, or email it to all the employees. Invite employees to contribute. Create a “council” of your more creative employees to review suggestions. Getting them in one place will lead to dialog that could in turn lead to new products or methods. Encourage education, perhaps even with a partial reimbursement program for education expenses. You can also pay employees a small amount if they publish an article or a trade show speech related to (and noting) the business. Post a copy of the article (with a note “Great job, Joe!!) on the bulletin board. You should also reward employees for ideas that dramatically improve an element of the business.
Never dwell on failure. After an employee has offered an idea that won’t work, end the discussion by saying that, even though you can’t use the idea, you think it shows great thinking and you hope he keeps looking for ways to improve the company. If you implement something that doesn’t work, don’t assess blame. Take most of the blame yourself, and try to public identify why it didn’t wok (without naming names). If you can determine why it failed, you may be able to fix that problem to make it work rather than abandoning it.
Lastly, deal quickly and ruthlessly with toxic employees. There are people who delight in complaining about everything, who love to turn other employees against each other. You can’t afford them. They deflate all of the tires on which the company moves forward. Don’t waste time trying to fix them. Fire them. I don’t care if the toxic employee is your spouse’s favorite nephew, give him his severance pay. Your first obligation is to yourself and your family. Your second obligation is to your business and any partners you may have in it. You can’t afford to coddle an employee who makes it harder to meet those two obligations.
One side benefit of developing a creative culture within your company is that you’ll find you have a lot of fun doing it. No one ever said that running a business had to be painful. And you’ll derive some real pleasure from the speed with which the business evolves into something even better.