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Lead Your Team Managing

Inspiring Employees Unleashes Innovation

Natalie Foley is Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Peer Insight.

The word “innovation” is getting both more commonplace, especially as a marketing tool, and more mysterious at the same time. What does being innovative really mean? How do you get there — does it come as a “big bang” or more gradually through carefully designed steps?

Within the mystery, one note is regarded as fact and discussed rigorously — innovation starts by talking to customers, not sitting in a room hoping for a great, big idea. But there’s another truth that’s often overlooked and underutilized: your employees will make or break your ability to be innovative. Here’s why:

Your employees know your customers best.
Knowing your customer is the foundation of innovative, new ideas. Learning the pain points of the people you serve before, during and after you provide value to them is key: innovation rests in finding a way to meet this pain point. In a service industry in particular, your employees know your customers inside and out. They know them beyond being a demographic; they know them as individuals — their goals, their hopes, what needs they are trying to meet.

Also, your employees likely share the pain points of your customers because they’re there with it, living it. No one wants to be on the other side of an unfulfilled, disappointed customer and so they have likely thought about — or implemented secretly — new ways to serve your customer even better.

At Swisscom, for example, a front-line call center employee came up with the idea to accentuate an extreme service experience (when customers were very happy or very frustrated). This idea became the “Wow! Box” — small tokens of appreciation or consolation that a call center agent could select and mail to the customer after the call. Wow! Box was one of several initiatives that put Swisscom on the path to transforming its customer’s journey.

As another example, it was a software engineer at Amazon who came up with the idea for Amazon Prime, after much time and energy was spent on figuring out the right loyalty program at the retailer.

And even smaller changes to your service can be impactful. At our innovation consulting firm, one of our employees and her client were getting stuck in the prototyping phase. To overcome this pain point, she created a new video-based way to show 2D storyboards or prototypes. The new method has transformed customers’ abilities to move faster through the innovation cycle.

Your employees execute your new ideas: Being innovative means making it through the whole innovation life cycle, from aspirational to operational — translating those ideas into a new business within your company. Your employees will be the ones to execute on your new service; they will deliver the new service to possibly new customers. For a new service, that employee-customer touchpoint is critical. What will make that touchpoint sing is an employee who helped design the new service, knows the pain point the new service is meeting, and is empowered. You’ve likely been on the other end of an employee who was unenthusiastic about and unempowered to deliver a new offering. You’ve come up with that great idea, and now it’s time to nail the execution.

One company we partnered with started offering a new service in the hospitality industry — an industry they sold products to, but not services. In the innovation cycle, the company made sure to really understand not only the customers of hotels, but also all of the staff. These staff would be the ones executing on the new service — their insight was valuable and their buy-in was critical. Without their input, the new service would just have been a great idea that customers salivated over in theory, but not in reality.

This is likely not the first article you’ve read about employee engagement, and you know it’s easier said than done. What are some steps you can take?

  • Encourage purposeful play and experimentation. This can be neatly bounded, maybe with an innovation challenge with micro-grants or more of Google’s 80/20 rule, where a portion of employees’ time is devoted to tinkering. Whatever you do, the encouragement must be embedded in the culture. Effort must be measured alongside outcome, learnings must be as important as getting it “right” the first time.
  • Be empathetic. Empathy and listening is the first and foundational step of innovation. If you’re empathetic to your employees, they’ll model this behavior with their peers and with customers and your organization will ultimately see the new ideas percolate.
  • Put on the innovation training wheels. Don’t expect an iPhone-level innovation the first time out of the gate. It’s tempting to demand ‘disruptive’ innovation, as new initiatives need to prove their worth and show ROI. Focus on learning as the ROI — modest improvements in customer services build confidence and keep you constantly listening to your customer.
  • Facilitate teamwork. In my experience with large organizations, employees often see the customer need, but their idea is too bounded, too trapped within their siloed view and needs to be built out with other’s ideas and expertise. Teams are key for this.

Don’t be surprised if while your employees are innovating, a nice byproduct will be greater retention. Talent today wants to try out ideas, be involved in creating and building the business. We’re all authors these days, so give your employees blank paper and who knows exactly what stories will come forth, but guaranteed it’ll be a narrative your employees and customers will want to be included in.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessNewsDaily.

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