If you are looking to take your ideation to the next level, it’s time to strategically empower your middle management team. This isn’t only because they are the ones implementing your innovation initiatives, but because they are closer to your key sources of inspiration—your customers and your employees.
Allowing your middle managers to shine minimizes the pressure on your innovation department while optimizing outcomes. Here are a few tips for leveraging and further empowering your mid-level team members.
Reframe Innovation Expectations
Sometimes with the intention of creating refined, strategic, and systematic processes, we create unintended roadblocks to our objectives. When speaking of innovation, this is often expecting all new ideas to come from the innovation department or executive team. Or from the same team or person who has delivered successful ideas in the past.
The more “refined” the ideation process becomes, the more potential it has for losing the essential elements required for innovation. Innovation may be data-driven and designed to achieve key objectives, but it requires out-of-the-box thinking. Out-of-the-box thinking can’t be forced or micromanaged.
So, even with a structured innovation process, you must nurture and encourage ground-up innovation. If your current process is top-down, the tips below will help you generate new ideas from every level in your organization. This employee-led innovation will be facilitated by your middle managers.
The Value of Employee-Led Innovation
Frontline employees are your most valuable innovation asset. They interact with your clients on a daily basis, seeing and hearing firsthand what is and is not working. While your data may provide aligned pain points, data doesn’t provide solutions. As the primary drivers behind daily processes, frontline employees have powerful insights.
When frontline employees share their insights with middle managers who aren’t empowered to innovate, one of your most valuable resources is squandered. Their insights are also squandered if your mid-level team isn’t trained on how to encourage or build upon ideation.
Split Priorities Stop Innovation in Its Tracks
Middle managers have a lot on their plates. Their primary objective is daily execution and measurable KPIs. When prioritizing their responsibilities, innovation often falls to the bottom of the list. It’s viewed as something that can wait until later, but there is no time like the present.
In addition to creating a culture that fosters open lines of communication, have your management team schedule time for process and product feedback—which is where many innovations stem from.
- Conduct monthly one-on-ones with each team member.
- Empower team members to email questions and ideas.
- Look for trends in employee questions and ideas.
- Schedule team meetings that include open discussion.
- Schedule group brainstorming sessions when areas of opportunity arise.
- Celebrate feedback of every kind, both positive and constructive.
Encourage Critical Thinking
When an employee presents an area of opportunity, they may not have a solution. If they present a solution, it may not yet be feasible.
Sometimes the most impactful innovations are sparked by a passing thought. The thought may not yet be worthy of pursuing, so encourage critical thinking by asking questions. These questions support your team members’ ongoing development and give them permission to innovate.
- If the team member has presented a problem without a solution, ask them to brainstorm solutions—solo or with a team. Ask what tools are required to brainstorm? This could be time, data, meeting space, technology, etc.
- Once a solution is delivered, ask what value it will provide for both the customer and the organization.
- Ask how their idea can be implemented and what tools and resources are required to bring their vision to life?
Built to Innovate by Ben Bensaou has more thoughts on how to encourage critical thought-led innovation.
Eliminating the Gatekeepers
Many organizations believe their greatest challenge is a lack of sound ideation, when in fact—it’s ensuring sound ideation is noticed and acted upon. Once your middle managers empower their team to provide insights and ideations, they need somewhere strategic to go next.
Middle management often serves as gatekeepers between the executive team and innovation department. Unfortunately, the executive team and the innovation department aren’t well-versed in day-to-day operations and they have little to no contact with consumers. This means that they may unknowingly pass on a winning idea. Sometimes they don’t see the value, or sometimes their ideas or priorities get in the way. So, eliminate the gatekeepers.
We aren’t suggesting eliminating management, but the process of how employee-led innovations are shared. This can be achieved by allowing the middle manager and their team to pitch the ideas they are most passionate about.
Embrace Both Scheduled and Organic Innovation
The questions in the critical thinking section share how your management team can help organic ideation evolve into actionable solutions. However, some of your ideation may be the result of targeted initiatives.
There is no formula for what percentage of new ideas should evolve organically or strategically. Either way, your middle managers and their teams should be part of the process. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the executive team isn’t always as in touch with the consumer. Or with the team who will be the benefactor of the targeted solution.
So, before you get too far down any of your data and trend-driven strategies, get your middle managers involved in the process. Even if the idea you move forward with comes from the executive team, your middle management input strengthens it. You will also have the added benefit of making them feel like part of the process, which contributes greatly to management and employee buy-in.
Measuring and Monitoring Innovation
Once you identify an idea worth further consideration, it’s time to measure its likelihood of achieving your objectives. While there is never a 100 percent guarantee of success, you can drastically minimize risk with an innovation assessment. To eliminate the blind spots, you and your team may have, many organizations work with an external innovation partner such as IdeaScale.
Not only can we measure the viability of your idea, but we can also resolve its areas of opportunity—and provide you with a roadmap to completion. Reach out today to learn more!