Entrepreneur magazine, December 1996

Are your employees sharing their ideas for improving your products, services or the overall business? Don't assume that being a small, entrepreneurial company automatically makes you an innovative company, cautions John Gear, a principal with Catalyst Consulting Services in Vancouver, Washington.

"If you want people to give you ideas and help you innovate, you have to ask for those things, and you have to create conditions where people want to give you ideas," Gear says.

Forget about the old suggestion box on the wall. Gear offers these tips for creating an effective suggestion program:

  • Allow suggestions to be submitted by anyone, on any subject, in any medium, at any time. Provide forms to people who want to use them, but don't reject ideas submitted in other ways. "The first step in distancing yourself from ideas is requiring people to package them in a certain way," Gear says.
  • The owner or senior managers should review the suggestions first, before anyone else does. Schedule time at least once a month for this.
  • When you first look at a suggestion, consider the possible results with no regard for feasibility. Ideas that seem to have no positive potential can be rejected without further investment.
  • Ideas with the potential for good results should be studied for feasibility. The person charged with this task should also be prepared to implement the idea and measure the results, or put together a report explaining why the idea isn't feasible.
  • Acknowledge every idea, and keep the contributor informed of its status.
  • Make it clear that you welcome ideas that might not work and that you don't require employees to consider implementation issues before they make suggestions.
  • Reward those who make successful suggestions both financially (a generous share of the resulting savings or increased profits is good, Gear believes) and with verbal recognition.

If you have a specific problem you'd like input on, consider scheduling a problem-solving session that's open to everyone. Gear suggests announcing that you'll be addressing a particular issue at a specific time and place, and anyone who might have input is welcome to attend.

Finally, Gear says, give your suggestion program time to work. "Your people have probably been conditioned all their lives to not make suggestions," he explains, "so it may take a while to see results."