The Secret Behind Continuous Innovation: Employee Feedback

By Gena Cox, PhD - July 16, 2019

Creating a culture of continuous innovation is a goal for many organizations trying to keep up with today’s rapid pace of change. But what exactly does it encompass?

Some view it through the lens of product development; a new iteration of an iPhone or version 2.0 of a software program are examples of continuous innovation, as are other incremental upgrades or enhancements of existing products and technologies.

But in terms of how it applies to the culture of an entire organization, this definition from UC San Diego is a better fit:

“Continuous innovation is more than just incremental changes. It relates to the ongoing, gradual evolution that occurs in our activities, operations, and creations. The majority of innovation happens at the incremental level, and when done deliberately, it drives organizations forward one project, change, and idea at a time. It occurs across all levels and all functions in an organization.”

This type of innovation model operates across all dimensions of the organization, and when realized, results in an organization that is flexible, agile, and better positioned to respond to a constantly changing business landscape.

Creating A Continuous Innovation Loop In The Organization

The critical characteristics of a continuous innovation loop are continuous iteration and continuous feedback. Feedback from customers, users, or employees identifies what is working and what isn’t, and suggests new solutions or refinements. From the HR perspective, employees are the end users in the organization and their input is critical in fostering a continuous innovation culture.

Innovation often resides with those closest to the problem. The person who performs the job on a daily basis can easily identify the job routines and processes that work smoothly and efficiently and the ones that don’t—and they often have ideas about how things could work better. The key to liberating innovation is to get employees involved in the feedback loop, so they can share their ideas for improving every dimension of the organization. (Tweet this!)

Employees are the ultimate agents of innovation but the most often overlooked. To get to a culture where employees drive innovation, there may need to be changes in the way the whole organization functions. A culture that supports getting feedback from the bottom to the top is required for innovation to thrive. Employee surveys are the most important and effective tool for collecting feedback and making it available to leaders—particularly in large organizations with thousands to hundreds of thousands of employees.

Get our free guide, Continuous Listening: Developing The Right Strategy For Your Organization, to learn how to design a listening strategy that promotes continuous innovation.

Using Employee Surveys To Foster A Continuous Innovation Process

The easiest way to find out what people think is to ask. Employee surveys allow HR and leaders to collect feedback and identify opportunities for improvement. Just as importantly, surveys can help change the culture by communicating cues about leaders’ openness to employee feedback and ideas:

  • Continuous listening programs take advantage of multiple opportunities to gather feedback, at the times when feedback is most useful—the moments that matter in the employee and organization life cycles.
  • Survey design and content in itself communicates a message to employees. If survey questions are fashioned to collect employee perceptions and ideas about supporting innovation, it sends a message that the organization values innovation and wants to foster it. A question like “When you have an idea about how to improve a work process or function, do you know where to go with it or who to share it with?” not only tells employees that leaders want to hear their ideas—it lets them know leaders want to make sure employees know how to share them so the organization can benefit.
  • Carefully crafted open-ended questions invite employees to really share what they think. Questions such as “What would you like to tell us that you haven’t had an opportunity to tell us in the past?” result in a wide variety of responses; these can be divided up by themes to see where friction points are most acute.
  • Questions to monitor change communicate that leaders want to know how changes are affecting employees, and how things can be refined to work better. Employee feedback can inform tweaks or refinements to new processes, which can themselves be monitored to suggest further iterations.

Most important is visible action in response to employee feedback. Asking for employees’ ideas can help foster engagement, but if nothing is ever done in response to feedback, employees will figure out that no one is really listening, eroding trust as a result. Without a commitment to action, there’s no reason to ask employees for their opinions; actions to address employee feedback are the iterative aspect of the continuous innovation loop.

Additional Challenges In Creating A Continuous Innovation Culture

Leaders often say, “I wish someone could tell me…” It can be difficult for leaders to stay in touch with employees regarding their daily work, because they are far removed from most employees and there are often many levels of hierarchy in between. In a culture of continuous innovation, one of the main challenges is making it possible for leaders to get information from employees who are “on the front lines” in carrying out business objectives. Employees have to know that feedback is welcome and how to share their ideas; management has to be open to serving as a conduit for ideas, rather than a chokepoint.

To fully remove the barriers to innovation, two-way communication needs to go beyond surveys and open other pathways for ideas to spread through the organization. An innovation message board, team brainstorming sessions, and other forms of open dialogue can allow the organization to crowdsource ideas from employees outside of the survey process.

There are many benefits to promoting open dialogue in support of continuous innovation—and some big drawbacks for failing to do so.

It’s a negative for employees when they perceive that their ideas are not welcome or valued. Companies are criticized for not being open to new ideas, most often by high performers—the employees they most need to keep onboard and engaged. Nothing is quite as disengaging as the belief that no one is interested in your ideas or opinions. Companies are also learning from social media that if they aren’t open to their employees’ good ideas, those ideas will get out into the public domain and someone else will benefit from them. For these reasons—and for the flexibility and agility open dialogue supports—businesses have a lot to gain from creating a culture of continuous innovation.

Want to promote a culture of continuous innovation in your organization?

At Perceptyx, employee feedback is our business. Through custom surveys paired to our powerful people analytics platform, we can help you capitalize on your most important resource—the innovative potential of your employees. Get in touch and let us show you how employee feedback can drive continuous innovation in your company.

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