Have all the great ideas really been taken? It’s an absurd notion, and one just has to watch an episode of “Shark Tank” or look at the list of companies Google has purchased in the past year to appreciate the absurdity. Creative and passionate people are everywhere, including within your seemingly bloated, old-school organization, and they’re just waiting to contribute new ideas to solve your biggest challenges. The secret to tapping into their potential is in providing the right environment for breakthrough ideas to flourish.

Also see The 10 Key Elements of an Innovation Plan 

Keep in mind that idea generation is only one part of the innovation process, but if done correctly, it has the potential to put you on the path to truly disruptive change. Here are five things you can do to allow those big ideas to blossom:

1. Give employees permission: Employees need to know that they have the support of their organization — specifically their leadership — to invest time on innovation. Many companies suggest that employees spend 10 to 15 percent of their time on creative endeavors, but this needs to be communicated broadly and supported locally. If employees feel that their leaders don’t support creativity, then they won’t pursue it.

2. Provide structure around the problem: An invitation for ideas will produce a variety of suggestions, but you might get overwhelmed with requests for a microwave in the break room and jeans on Fridays. A more valuable practice is to articulate a specific challenge the organization would like to address, with the full support of the business unit experiencing the problem. Make sure that the challenge is narrow enough to ensure you solve it, but broad enough that creativity can flourish.

3. Cast a wide net: While it may seem like the people closest to the problem are best suited to finding a solution, don’t underestimate the power of those blissfully unfamiliar with the details. Their lack of knowledge may prevent their thought processes from being limited by existing assumptions. Consider tapping into other resources as well, not just employees. We once held an idea generation event for children ages 7 to 17. Because they were not familiar with the nuances of our business, the kids produced fairly transformative ideas that we ourselves hadn’t already considered.

4. Rewards aren’t necessary, but recognition is: While we’ve used tangible rewards to entice people’s participation in idea-generation events, the events without rewards proved equally successful as long as they provided employees with an opportunity for recognition. Although we all have day jobs, I believe that people want to be recognized for their contributions and capabilities that lie just outside of their “normal” responsibilities.

5. Don’t discourage category killers: Truly disruptive innovation may involve ideas that might put your business out of business, but at the same time might provide opportunities elsewhere. While it may be difficult for you to face that reality, it’s a reality your competitors will embrace. Don’t bury your head in the sand when the future seems bleak; seize the opportunity to explore the game changing ideas. 

Matt Manzella is a director of technology and operations at Allstate.

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