Five Starting Points for Getting Great Ideas

The answers to some of your toughest business problems are closer than you think. Creative solutions, new approaches, and potential solutions aren’t going to come from outside hires or consultants. More than likely, they’re sitting in an untapped resource right under your nose—your team. But many leaders get tripped up by this. This is because employees aren’t often expected to do more than the status quo of their job description.

Most people perform the status quo

It’s not because your employees are apathetic or lazy. It’s not because they lack good ideas or aren’t motivated, either. It’s an autopilot effect that naturally happens in the workplace, kind of like the human body maintaining homeostasis.

But homeostasis is not good for business and the data proves it. Since 2000, the rate of engaged employees in the United States has lingered around 30 percent and has only budged three percentage points in the last five years.

So what’s the big crisis?

The remaining 68 percent of U.S. workers are disengaged. And not a loud, boisterous kind of disengaged either— it’s a silent apathy. The disengaged show up and kill time, doing the minimum required with little extra effort to go out of their way for customers. They are less vigilant, more likely to miss work and change jobs when new opportunities arise.

Companies need bold contributors, people unafraid to present an idea that might be unpopular or misunderstood for the sake of progress. They need people who show up. Henry Ford put the Model T on the market before the car was a commodity for “the great multitude” as he foretold. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in a society that was mostly illiterate. And while both might be considered savants or visionaries, they were really just people with the guts to show up.

Challenging the status quo feels like navigating open water. “The way we’ve always done it” is safer. Coming out from behind the safety of the status quo takes coaxing and encouragement, even for the most ebullient personality on your team. Presenting new ideas is a bit of a no-man’s-land. There’s no guarantee what will happen out there, but it’s a necessary step to gaining ground on new ideas. So as a leader, here are ways to get this kind of “show up” engagement and attitude from your team.

Ask better questions

Ask questions unrelated to job performance. Ask questions about random stuff. Get on a deeper level with the people on your team. Find out what creative pursuits they’re devoted to on the weekends. Where do they spend all their time? What problems are they committed to solving on their own, without being asked? Figure it out and chances are good that this will tell you a lot about what makes them tick. Stay genuinely curious about the people who surround you every day. It’s the difference between asking questions you already know the answers to, and the ones you don’t.

Set aside times (and places) for ideation

Spontaneity isn’t how great ideas are born, even with the pop-culture image of the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head.

Good ideas are forged in the fire of discipline and consistency. Schedule regular times for your team to get together to ideate. Consider having an off-site meeting once a quarter. Give your team time (but not too much) to prepare in advance, so they come with something to contribute. You may be surprised what people bring to the table when you ask them to show up. But don’t ask people to create in a void. Come prepared with a prompt.

Look for “problem finders” vs. “problem solvers”

Watch for people who are solving new or different problems within projects they’re assigned. These ones are the”problem finders” as Daniel Pink calls them in his book “To Sell is Human.” Problem finders look at traditional problem and ask, “Is this really what’s motivating people to buy a product, or is there another layer to this?” They kick the tires on an existing idea and challenge it, not for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, but to improve it.

Social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a study on said “problem finders” and concluded: “It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.” This is precisely because problem finders understand how and when it’s appropriate not to answer a proposed question, but to ask a different one entirely.

Invest in your employee’s motivational bank account

Every employee is motivated by something different, and a good boss learns how to engage an employee based on their motivational drivers. The old carrot and stick ideology of payment in exchange for value no longer applies. More is needed to get someone to bring the best of what they offer to the workplace and beyond.

Find out what your team members value, and help them tap into it. For some, it’s frequent recognition for their work. For others, it’s an opportunity to take on more responsibility and leave behind menial tasks. And still for others, it’s the gift of flexibility or control over their schedule, or earning additional days of vacation. When you need to ask your team to dig deep on a problem or project, identifying your employee’s motivational bank account is the difference between success and failure. Do this and watch the fire of productivity ignite in your team.

Do more than kick the tires on your team’s new ideas—take them for a spin

Even if you have some reservations, it’s important to give time and space for your team’s new ideas to fly. It communicates that you trust them and when you do, you might discover that they have solved a business challenge you otherwise would have hired outside insight to fix.

Some companies host “hackathons” for software developers or other theme-based problem-solving days that gives employees a chance to exercise their problem-solving skills outside of the daily grind and to contribute in new ways.

Above all, be wary of what many organizations doing in place of change: “Companies also fall into a common trap of mistaking their survey for an employee engagement strategy. Taking employees through a set of survey questions does not lead to improved engagement. Organizations have to approach employee engagement as an ongoing human capital strategy.”

Using these starting points to get ideas from your team might just transform a disengaged employee into a top performer. Setting aside time and space for new ideas, staying curious, investing in those ideas, and watching them fly will produce a winning strategy.