Goal Setting Stimulates Employee Innovation

By: Hutch Carpenter | September 23, 2010

In a recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog, Why I Don’t Innovate at Work, Andrew O’Connell writes about some disturbing research:

We relentlessly work to avoid “image risks,” to borrow a term from business researchers Feirong Yuan of the University of Kansas and Richard W. Woodman of Texas A&M. They use the phrase in their study of employees’ fear of making “unfavorable social impressions” on coworkers. In an analysis of responses from 425 employees in a variety of U.S. businesses, Yuan and Woodman found that worries about image risk significantly diminish employees’ innovativeness.

Unspoken social norms undermining innovation…like an innovation code of silence. I’ll admit I haven’t experienced this much in my working career, but obviously it afflicts the workplace.

Aside from social norms, basic inertia can also undermine innovation. The general exhortation to “innovate!” pales in comparison to tangible task requirements with date certain delivery dates.

From the HBR blog, O’Connell has a couple thoughts addressing this issue. One is to create a culture where “being innovative is a desirable image.” Another idea is to rewrite job descriptions with a “requirement that employees contribute new ideas.”

There is another way. Set goals that need new ideas, and which create an atmosphere encouraging innovation. Something organizations large and small do well using Spigit’s innovation management platform.

Goals Stimulate Employee Idea Sharing

A great observation, made multiple times, is that constraints enhance innovation. Goals are a form of constraint. Yes, there are a million ideas you could have, but how about focusing your energies to solve this one.

Goals also break through the code of silence and the basic inertia that can inhibit innovation. A smart approach is to address specific activities that employees can feel, and of which they have first-hand knowledge. Put innovation right in there wheelhouse. Don’t put the onus on employees to come up with the next market-moving, disruptive innovation. There is beauty and value in small innovations, which cumulatively create impact.

Goals are also good for rallying people. They are a shared experience, and elicit both collaborative and competitive behaviors.

The graph below conceptualizes the effect of goal setting on employee innovation:

The typical distribution of employees follows something of a power law curve. Most people won’t have a propensity to submit ideas, but there will be a few who are prolific in their proposals. Goals re-set the curves, causing a shift in the number of people likely to formulate and submit ideas. We humans are quite responsive when it comes to goals: school, sports, romance, career, children, etc.

Another benefit of goals is the community spirit they engender. When it’s the case that everyone is expected to pitch in, that’s quite a different story than the individual employee working through the innovation code of silence singlehandedly. Everyone is asked for ideas and feedback on ideas.

OK, so what sort of goal-setting? Tangible Goals that Leverage Employees’ Daily Experience

The challenge is to set innovation goals that will stretch employees’ ingenuity, without causing it to break. The goal should give a good, hard push to one’s innovation capacity. But it shouldn’t feel like a ridiculous challenge.

I also believe in the walk-before-you-run approach. Get everyone going on tangible goals that leverage their everyday work. As the innovation culture changes, and individuals’ experience and comfort with it grows, take it up a notch. All the way to 11.

Below is an example of goal setting. Follow a hypothetical company’s product delivery chain. Along the chain, goals are set for the different groups:

Notice two things in this goal-setting approach:
  • Leverage the core processes of the company in setting goals
  • Goals are tangible, and relevant to the work individuals do in different groups

Innovation need not be an exotic chase for the next iPad. There is plenty of innovation energy, latent in companies’ workforces. Practical goals that will move the needle for companies are fantastic bases for innovation.

One other thing to note in the above diagram of the product delivery chain. A common innovation platform like Spigit lets employees from across the organization see the ideas of different groups, not just their own. Tapping this diversity of input is a tremendous asset, empirically proven to improve idea quality.

Innovation is always in style – good times and bad – but companies can sometimes struggle with accelerating it. Leverage the innovation smarts of your employees, and do it in a way that fits their everyday in-the-flow work.