Inviting Innovation in Small Organizations
When I first published this post in October, 2014 all of us on the leadership team at Packback were new at management. We sort of took our own approach to employee engagement, and Innovation Day was one of those approaches.
Looking back, I’m not sure if innovation day was the best way for our employees to spend their time at a ten person company, but it is interesting to see that even back then I was thinking about creating a company culture of creativity and inclusion. I may have to get back into that as I think I’ve gotten more focused (for better or worse) as I’ve gotten more experienced.
When I joined Packback a year ago pretty much all we did was innovate. There were only four of us then, and we had very little in the way of established process. Most of our meetings were more like open brainstorming sessions than times to actually get things done.
That may sound like chaos to you, but I’ve always liked that part of working at a startup. As our organization has matured a bit (we’ve grown to around ten full-time employees) things have started to become more structured, especially in the engineering department. We’re still small, but we act a lot more like a “real” company - planning projects weeks in advance, determining key metrics before data collection begins, and planning for future hiring and growth. It’s exciting, but holding onto that innovative spirit we had when I first started has gotten a little bit tough.
But we’ve remained intentional about inviting innovation
Our founders Mike and Kasey have always said that they look at Packback’s early employees as entrepreneurs in their own right. In my experience, the best employees at any organization have an entrepreneurial attitude that causes them to take action, solve problems, and work independently, so our approach to encouraging innovation as we’ve grown has been intentional. Here are three things that I think have been key to Packback keeping an innovative culture as we’ve grown:
1. We make time for innovation
As we went from 4 to 6 to 8 employees, we came up with a program called Innovation Day. Every month, we invite two of our employees to present an idea to the rest of the company, interns, and brand ambassadors. After the presentation, we leave time for discussion about the idea and more brainstorming questions to get everyone thinking creatively. Topics for presentations have ranged from a music classification app to a better drink distribution system in bars. It’s awesome to see what problems our employees are thinking about and their creative solutions to these problems.
2. Feedback is encouraged
During these presentations, we hear ideas that are usually unrelated to Packback or textbooks or even college. Since it doesn’t relate directly to anyone’s work, it’s easy to pass feedback around the room, offer tips for improving the presentation, and ask follow-up questions without ruffling any feathers. Employees with experience giving presentations are more likely to speak up and present their work related ideas as well.
3. Cross-functional, non-traditional teams
Finally, we have tried to make Innovation Day an opportunity for employees working in totally different areas of our business to work together. Pairs are set that may include a marketing intern and an engineer or a designer and operations manager. By putting team members who don’t normally work together in close proximity, we are building relationships and encouraging the spread of ideas long after Innovation Day is over.
Have experience with innovation in small organizations? What do you do to help encourage new ideas when there are a limited number of brains in your office? Let me hear from you in the comments below.
Photo by Emilio Garcia on flickr.com