Fuel employee brains for inspired thoughts; rev ideas



Employee ingenuity accelerates business growth. How to spark inspirational conversations:

• Close the void. As executive chairman of IT consultancy Trace3, Hayes Drumwright observes a common phenomenon. A company’s executives go off-site to talk strategy. When they return energized with a new corporate initiative, workers respond with a lukewarm, what-now attitude.

“There was a huge communication gap,” Drumwright said.

• Open the floor. PoP — Drumwright’s response to the abyss — is a crowdsourcing software-as-a-service firm that opens topics to an entire firm for discussion.

“We needed a way to create a common voice,” he told IBD.

• Create focus. A PoPin session might last two days, during which employees can contribute ideas online — anonymously or by name — and vote for the best ones.

“We put a time frame around a session. We wanted there to be urgency,” Drumwright said.

Each starts with a clear query.

Don’t ask: How can we be better?

Ask: What’s a new use for our core product?

• Rev them up. The process unearths inspired ideas while building employee enthusiasm for evolving as a business. “People will start to think like a founder would think,” Drumwright said. “I think people are addicted to progress.”

• Follow through. The worst thing a leader can do after gathering input? Nothing. If you don’t take action, “you’ll actually drive apathy,” Drumwright said.

• Set the tone. “Innovation isn’t a thing. Innovation isn’t an activity. It’s a cultural statement more than anything else.”

So says David Morken, CEO of Bandwidth. The communications technology firm strives to reinvent telecom. He said that requires “confronting conventions and doing things for the first time.”

• Create a forum. A few times a year, Bandwidth holds a Big Idea Week, during which employees present product, technology and improvement concepts to a panel of judges a la TV’s “Shark Tank” investment reality show.

The event brings ideas to light, “and it’s been really fun for camaraderie,” Morken said.

• Inject urgency. A yearly hackathon, in which workers strive to solve a problem in a short period, is also popular. “We get terrific insights,” Morken said.

• Slow down. Creative types can get obsessed. “You have to make sure you save them from themselves,” Morken said.

Work hard? Yes, “but we do not do so at the cost of relationships, family or health,” he said.

To promote rejuvenation, Morken offers employees sprint sabbaticals. That means after pushing to complete a project, engineers can shift gears and tinker with a project of their choosing. “They get out of the normal grind,” he said. “Some of our innovations have come from these projects.”

• Seek smarts. Hiring inventive thinkers is a top priority for Akta CEO John Roa. The Chicago-based consultancy designs mobile experiences for clients, including HBO and Verizon (NYSE:VZ).

Akta’s hiring process gets inside candidates’ heads. Roa asks: What makes you tick? Are you able to see the world differently?

• Let go. Creativity flourishes with autonomy. “We give our team a tremendous amount of time on their own,” Roa said. That includes an unlimited paid vacation policy.

• Change it up. Akta is completing an 18,000-square-foot office space with 18 areas for collaboration. Rather than having a consistent look, “every single one is designed differently,” Roa said, with various styles, colors and layouts.