Never underestimate your employees' ideas; they could just be the next breakthrough

September, 2022

Major breakthroughs can very well come from within organisations, writes columnist Simone van Neerven. Pioneering ideas such as Post-Its, the Playstation and IKEA stores are living proof of this.

Big ideas often start very small. The key to success lies in seeing the potential of an idea and then fully embracing it.

Like the opening of the very first IKEA store in 1965. So many people showed up, that not everyone could be served quickly. The store manager therefore decided to instruct people to pick up their selected furniture from the warehouse themselves. This led to the world famous ‘self-service’ concept that we all know today.

And when an IKEA employee bought a table himself and wanted to take it home, it was almost impossible to get it in his car. His idea of cutting the legs off the table seemed absurd at first glance. But this event eventually led to the sale of furniture that comes in individual parts which customers can assemble themselves at their home.

LEGOLAND

At amusement park LEGOLAND, also a groundbreaking idea came from one of their employees. One of the biggest annoyances for visitors was the long wait for attractions. Children were bored to death, sometimes even resulting in some major temper tantrums.

A frontline park employee who experienced this on a daily basis felt sympathy for these parents and decided to do something about it. He placed tables with Lego pieces in the centre of the area so that the children could play and have fun while the parents waited in line. This made life a lot easier, for the children, the parents, and the LEGOLAND employees. It turned out to be a concept that completely changed the customer experience at LEGOLAND.

Perseverance

Almost everyone knows the story of the origin of the Post-Its. At 3M, Spencer Silver was looking for a super strong adhesive. Many of his experiments failed and one yielded a sticky but not solid glue that could make a piece of paper stick to a surface without affecting it.

Silver sensed that this failed product had potential, but he had no clear purpose at that time. He kept talking about it and years later he finally found a problem for his solution. He met his colleague Art Fry, who was looking for a bookmark that would stick without damaging the pages. Together they eventually developed the Post-It as we know today.

Dare to rebel

In the late 1980s, Ken Kutaragi had been working in Sony’s digital research lab for several years and was known as a ‘tinkerer’. He created a chip to make his daughter’s Nintendo more powerful and provide a better gaming experience. It worked great. He went to his bosses with the idea of creating a new console for Sony, but he hit a wall. At the time, many believed that the gaming industry was just a short-lived fad.

Kutaragi refused to give up and turned to Sony CEO Norio Ohga. Increasingly aware of the value of the gaming industry, Ohga kicked off a joint venture with Nintendo. Licensing disagreements meant that the partnership eventually faded, but Sony continued to develop their own console: the PlayStation. The PlayStation was launched in 1994 and has sold over half a billion units since.

Being brave

We often tend to think that major breakthroughs can only come from outside. But a lot of good ideas live within organizations. The problem is often that they are not seen and are too quickly dismissed as an idiotic solution that will never work or won’t add any value.

Therefore, it is key for management to be open and to learn to sense when an opportunity presents itself. Can you see the potential of an absurd idea such as that of the IKEA employee to saw off the legs of the table and do you dare to embrace it?

At the same time, you need employees with a good dose of courage. Who dare to think differently and are brave enough to share their ideas and solutions, knowing that they can be dismissed as a ‘weird bird’ or a troublemaker.

It is the combination of these two that can lead to unimaginable success.

This article has been translated from its original version, which was originally published in Dutch on MT/SPROUT in September, 2022.

Wanna read more ? Then check out this column: “Innovation almost never starts with a great idea”

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