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Sparking Bright Ideas

Seeking company innovation? Look to your staff for collaboration.

Every employee in your company can be a valuable innovator, says David Silverstein, innovation expert and president of Breakthrough Management Group, a performance consulting company in Longmont, Colorado. Contrary to popular belief, says Silverstein, "Innovation needs to be predictable, reliable and repeatable." By creating a culture that encourages innovation and sets particular goals in place, entrepreneurs can train employees to be systematic innovators.

First, business owners must set personal egos aside, says Silverstein. "It's too egotistical to think that you alone hold the key to all future innovations." In order to open the floodgates to innovative ideas from employees, you must eliminate any type of penalty or judgment for a perceived bad idea. "Innovation, by its very nature, is risk taking and experimentation," says Silverstein. "People have to be free to offer up ideas; we have to take the stigma away [from] offering up bad ideas."

An open forum--a brainstorming meeting where all employees gather--is a great way to encourage ideas from everyone, adds Silverstein. However, he suggests sending an e-mail beforehand, asking for any preliminary ideas and thoughts. This ensures that you won't get fixated on only one idea and no one employee will dominate the meeting--you'll have a stack of e-mails full of topics to prompt your staff to move forward.

You should also recognize the unique gifts your employees possess. Silverstein suggests giving them a formal evaluation or test to determine what kinds of innovators they are. Do they come up with new ideas? Or do they build on and find new ways to execute other people's ideas?

Finally, it's important for you, as the leader, to set parameters. Specify what you're looking for, and guide your employees. You'll be amazed at the new concepts they'll throw at you. "The direct benefit [of employee innovation] is competitive advantage, but the secondary benefits are greater employee empowerment and satisfaction," says Silverstein. "People like to exercise their creative juices [and] feel like they're part of the process. You can get this snowball effect of benefits as you get people more engaged."

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This article was originally published in the August 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Thinking Bigger.

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