Business leaders are often people who know how to get projects done and reach difficult milestones - so why does innovation or employee engagement seem to confound even the most driven organizations of modern times? 

Every organization understands that feeling when they look around at competitors and notice big and bold innovation is happening. It can make you feel like you are losing your edge, and that you need to take action. You need to get unstuck.  But how? 

This is a loaded question, as innovation is a broad concept that requires some key elements to be in place at the foundation of your business. At its core, innovation is bred by creativity. People are inherently more motivated if they have the right intrinsic motivators driving them towards a long-term goal. If you want to establish innovation programs that produce real results and drive your business forward, you need to create a healthy competitive environment working towards a greater good and have the tools enabling employees to add value with autonomy. 

To begin, let’s discuss why getting your leadership on the right page is a must in order to set the right example for employees. 

The Key To Leadership Buy-In

Most companies are risk-averse, and as a result, are stifling innovation. Some incumbent leaders may look at innovation as a threat to results in the existing core business. New ventures need strong executive sponsorship – but they also need the freedom to operate in such a way that innovation is not stifled.

Many businesses are stuck in a vicious cycle, repeating the same rituals that have always worked for them in the past. Predictability is rewarded and uncertainty is penalized.  This short-term trap heavily stifles innovation and removes the long-term vision required to innovate.

This type of environment also has a very crippling effect on leadership.  Senior leaders start to reward certainty and ignore ideas that need nurturing over the long term.  Employees stop caring about trying to do their best and just do what they need to get by.  You get the idea. 

In order to get the ball rolling in the right direction, you need to convince leadership of the value of long-term thinking and a more free, open, and unencumbered approach to innovation. To build more sustainable businesses, leaders must break the cycle that traps their business in a low-innovation, low-risk status quo.

The Value of Healthy Competition

One example of how to jumpstart innovation is to establish a competitive environment that facilitates creative thinking and a drive to push the boundaries. A great place to start is with employee think tank competitions that are designed to get employees engaged in creative thinking exercises. Essentially, a hackathon for knowledge workers.  

These spirited competitions are a great way to start building a culture of innovation that is contagious amongst employees and leadership alike. In these competitions, employees will compete to develop a pitch for their idea that adds value to the business and win resources to drive that idea forward.   Ultimately, employees receive more freedom that they can use to channel their creativity while leadership is able to be more transparent.

But how do these competitions help facilitate a buy-in from the top? 

Recruiting leaders to be the evaluators for the competitions achieves two main objectives.  First, it provides the opportunity for leadership to see the potential these employee competitions have to drive new value for the business. In other words, it helps leadership believe in the merit of these competitions.  Second, it sends a strong signal to employees that their engagement matters and that leadership is invested.  Collectively, this helps to shift the mindset from short-term, safety-net thinking to a more open, long-term, purpose, and mastery-driven mindset. Not only that, but it also drives immense value for the business. 

Once leadership understands that these programs are a literal no-brainer, you quickly find out how easy it is to get the resources necessary to continue to carry them out. Over time, and alongside intelligent feedback and insights, you can create a system of agile innovation programs.

The Importance of Widespread Understanding 

So now that we understand leadership buy-in, let’s take a look at what you can do next in order to further bolster your employees’ creative capabilities. 

As we mentioned previously, the idea competitions that you hold not only benefit the mindset of leadership but employees as well. The playbook we created for these types of competitions include various activities to promote fun and reinforce to employees that they are valued.  For example, voting rounds help participants articulate their idea and persuade colleagues to support them.  Pitch coaching for the competition finalists amplifies quality and learning. Winners receive time and resources to start validating their idea towards implementation.  

Collectively, these activities help your employees commit to the long-term mastery of a skill over time. They are constantly learning from each competition and challenging each other (in a good way) to do their best, adding huge value to the business.  We often say that pitching an idea to improve a business is the same as pitching a new business.   You need to understand and articulate the problem, how your idea solves the problem and why it is unique.  Teaching and promoting this mindset among employees yields incredible engagement to drive cumulative quality and value over time. 

So as we can see, employee competitions executed properly can cause a trickle-down effect that causes a transformation in the whole business. Once leadership believes in the value of these activities, they more easily support and become invested in their employees’ ability to be successful by providing them with more autonomy and facilitate a long-term mindset. This promotes more intrinsically motivated and engaged employees invested in adding value for the business.  

Take an Intelligent Approach to Innovation

With the right mindset and tools in place, any business can improve its capacity to innovate.  As with any process, these activities need to be repeatable, measurable and accountable.  You simply need to get started.  

If there is one thing we've learned from our customers who have found success from these programs in the past 6 years, it is that when it comes to innovation and employee engagement, companies need to be clear and direct on where to start the process. All it takes is a commitment to something simple and fun that is repeatable and easy to understand such as an employee think tank type competition.  Once you get your feet wet and have gone through the process, you will be amazed at how much easier it is to improve the process and further push the boundaries within your organization.

Want to learn more, check out our blog on Challenging Yourself to a Better Competition Platform


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