I remember the flight well: It was 2010 and our first book on innovation had been successfully released. I was on my way to Cannes to deliver a workshop at the annual World Innovation Convention, and was excited to be making the trip.
What struck me was the fact that the companies attending this conference didn't just represent billions of dollars in spending and revenue – they represented tens of billions of dollars. My business wasn't even a rounding error for them.
In my workshop, I focused on the generation of small, incremental ideas: those 'little things' that leave a big footprint on your organization and most importantly on revenue. Following my presentation, the chief innovation officer of a major U.S. company approached me. He told me that the company had grown to such a mammoth size over the years that it cost more to submit an internal proposal for a new idea than it did to start the company in the first place.
This was a business-changing conversation for me. As an entrepreneur, I gained insight into the value that a boutique consulting firm can bring to the global marketplace. As an innovation thought leader, this encounter made me recognize the importance of intrapreneurship: eliminating the barriers that squelch bottom-up internal innovation.
Intrapreneuring, of course, is all about empowering your work force to think like owners, and identify and implement ideas to move the business forward. It's about managers doing less telling and more listening. It sounds simple and should be intuitive. But true intrapreneurship has been surprisingly slow to emerge.
Its importance was recently reinforced by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman in his new book The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. "Companies need entrepreneurial talent throughout the organization in order to respond to rapid changes." The importance of intrapreneurship, however, goes further than idea generation. Empowering your people has an additional benefit: besides new ideas to improve products, services and process, it helps to surface new ways attract, engage and retain great people.
Why is this important to all of us? Because if business success depends on happy customers, happy customers come from energized, engaged employees. A recent article co-authored by McKinsey and the Disney Institute offers this important insight: "The secret to delighting customers? Put employees first." When employees are encouraged and motivated to do their best work, they will continually delight your customers with new and better products and services.
The same article goes on to say, "companies that had a 1-percentage-point lead over their peers in key customer journeys typically enjoyed a 2-percentage-point advantage in revenue growth. In addition, companies that deliver excellent customer journeys increase employee satisfaction and engagement by 30 per cent."
It's all intuitive, really. Who's better positioned to recognize new opportunities for better products and processes than those who meet customers every day? And what better way to motivate and engage your workforce than to listen to them and respect their insights?
Having spent many years in manufacturing, I'm impressed with American Airlines' Fuel Smart program. Founded in 2005, the program aims to reduce fuel consumption by implementing employees' suggestions. Through simple ideas from employees, like using one engine during taxiing, American Airlines has saved billions of dollars in reduced fuel costs. This concept resonates with me because I have always engaged my employees to help my company do things better, and saved thousands of dollars along the way, which for small businesses is a big deal.
As an entrepreneur, I'm also moved by Adobe's Red Box innovation program. As a 2013 Adobe blogpost, "Imagination Sparks Innovation," explains, "at Adobe, we truly believe that anyone in the company, irrespective of title or function, can innovate." To bring employees' ideas to life with minimal management interference, Adobe developed its KickStart Innovation Workshop. "Employees are given a red box. Inside is everything they need to become an Adobe Innovator, including some seed money on a pre-paid credit card with a step-by-step process to originate an innovative new concept, and then use that money to validate that concept with customers." Imagine that: A suggestion box that offers recognition, process and capital.
As entrepreneurs, we may not be able to give everybody in our organization a 'red box' to test new ideas. But we can certainly take the time to listen, mentor and fund a few choice ideas percolating within our organizations.
The good news is that companies large and small are ripe with entrepreneurial talent. Generation Y employees, and the younger millennials (born after 1980), were not raised like the generations that came before them. They were not told to keep their heads down, put one foot in front of the other and not to cause problems. They were raised to think independently and make a difference. Growing up with social media, millennials are accustomed to interaction, dialogue, opinion and debate about anything and everything, at work and at play.
Today, smart leaders drive innovation by making their workplace more appealing, stimulating and engaging. It's no small change – you want to attract and retain the best of the best. But it's all based on basic skills: listening, sharing, empowering and collaborating. Ready to get started? Have a positive attitude. Build a culture of belief. Blow up the barriers that divide the thinkers from the doers. Success will follow.
Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works Inc. is a branding and innovation thought leader who helps organizations reimagine their futures. He is the co-author of two books on innovation – The 90 per cent Rule and the newly released bestseller, Cause a Disturbance (Morgan James Publishing, NY).