Encouraging Innovation and New Ideas


Encouraging Innovation and New Ideas
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Charles Steinmetz, the “Wizard of Schenectady,” was
sometimes seen in his office with his feet on his desk, staring into space. This was an unsettling vision to General Electric workers who were used to more conventional managers.

But Steinmetz, a mathematical and electrical engineering giant respected by such contemporaries as Einstein, Tesla and Edison, was a genius who made major contributions in his field. GE was content to allow him to perform his job in his own way because it was in its best interests to do so.

Are we limiting ourselves and our employees with unnecessarily rigid boundaries, leaving little room for the Steinmetz kind of inspiration needed to develop creative ideas? Have we forgotten how to encourage imaginative thinking that might lead to innovative products and more efficient processes? Are we guilty of allowing relatively unimportant details to distract us?

We cling tenaciously to our cell phones 24/7, sometimes to the exclusion of normal human contact. We feel the social pressure to conform. It seems we’ve lost the sense of curiosity with which we were born.

In a recent article, “Are Your Employees Languishing? Try Piquing Their Curiosity,” Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino writes, “Children show boundless curiosity, constantly seeking answers to all kinds of questions … But our impulse to ask curious questions disappears as we grow older, either because we feel the pressure to just execute in our jobs, or because we don’t want to be judged or come across as silly or not knowing.”

When Gino and her associates studied employee personality traits, they discovered that curious workers perform better than most. They ask questions and are not reluctant to pursue novel ideas. They are also able to control stress and form meaningful networks with their peers.

A way to spur employee curiosity is through management example. Gino points out, “As leaders, there is so much power in being the first one to say, ‘Why are we doing this? Is there another way?’ It inspires others to see that it’s okay to ask questions themselves, and that there might be multiple ways to tackle a project. Curiosity causes us to ask and engage and talk across differences, so we can work to leverage our unique perspectives.”

The professor is on to something, and there are additional actions that managers can take to encourage creativity:  

  • Organize events in which employees can advance innovative ideas. Ask if they have a suggestion that will help the company, and be patient and receptive while hearing them out. Do not allow others to downplay those thoughts. As author Jonathan Swift said, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
  • Encourage managers to be less rigid. “But we’ve always done it another way,” should not be an acceptable criticism of an alternative proposal. Encourage imaginative thinking as well as informal “skunk works” projects on company time.
  • Set aside specific times when employees are allowed to think and work without being distracted by meetings, phone calls or emails.
  • Look for other product or procedural uses from unexpected experimental results. That’s the way Post-it Notes and vulcanized rubber were discovered. You never know.  

Jack Goodhue, management coach, can be reached at

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