To Crush It at Work, Harness the Power of Big Ideas

Get creative and unleash your inner 'intrapreneur.'
Written by Constance Gustke

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New ideas are big business these days, and companies that don’t want to be left behind increasingly need a steady pipeline of creative thinking. And the employees who pitch winning ideas are rewarded with promotions, raises and more visibility. This trend even spawned a new term — “intrapreneurs” — for employees who invent something new for their companies.

Bosses are looking for employees who can grow with the company.
Jaime Goldstein, Startup Institute

“It’s so important to show that you can do a job using creativity and problem-solving skills,” says Jaime Goldstein, Startup Institute’s vice president of curriculum. “Bosses are looking for employees who can grow with the company.”

Ideas can come from anyone at any time, and they don't have to be groundbreaking. “But, they can also have huge ripples,” she says. For example, getting 1% more people to visit a company website can mean a lot more money in revenue, she says.

Ready to start generating ideas — and get noticed for it? Part of the trick is jogging the mind to think differently. To foster that mindset, Google invented the 20% policy, which encourages employees to use some of their work time to be creative. Google News and Gmail were invented thanks to this policy.

If your employer doesn’t promote creative time, here’s how to nudge a flow of ideas on your own.

Keep learning and exploring. Sometimes the best ideas come from traveling to new places, taking a new route to work or even talking to strangers.

Take billionaire Jim Koch. He founded the company that makes Samuel Adams Boston Lager, one of the biggest craft breweries in the U.S. He came across the idea for his beer while talking to a stranger at a bar who said he liked imported beer better than the domestic varieties that were being offered in the 1980s. This conversation prompted Koch to sketch out an idea for a lager that would later help kick-start the craft beer movement.

Talk to different types of people. Speaking to wide-ranging types of people can pay off. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, famously traveled the country talking to customers, competitors and employees to see what they were thinking.

Within your own company, ask people in different departments about their roles and motivations. “Questions should be good, open-ended ones that aren’t judgmental,” Goldstein says.

Organize a hackathon event. Many companies hold 24-hour hackathons, in which employees collaborate on solutions to technology problems or create new inventions. “It’s a way to create rapid ideas,” Goldstein says.

Shutterstock, which offers stock photographs, hosts annual hackathons. One data analysis product called Oculus, which was born during a hackathon, is now widely used by the company.

Next step: Match your ideas to your company’s goals. Here’s how.

Know your company. Every company has an overarching mission and culture. So pay attention to cues from your company on what’s important, Goldstein says. Where is the field changing? What are senior executives talking about? What’s culturally important? Where is the company putting its money and resources?

The goal is looking for the gap where you can make a difference, Goldstein says. For example, a small group of employees at W.L. Gore, which makes Gore-Tex fabric, found a way to use one of its coatings (developed for bike cables) for guitar strings. The coating prevents particles from being trapped between the windings of steel guitar strings, the company says, resulting in a longer-lasting tone.

Note pain points. Every job has a process of some kind. That means there are many opportunities to improve how something is done, which can save a company time or money. “Maybe those six steps for doing something can be streamlined,” Goldstein says. “Sometimes, there’s a whole new market to service if you can simplify a process.”

Get supervisor buy-in. Once you have an idea, bounce it off a few trusted colleagues. If that goes well, then take it up the ladder, Goldstein says. “You may also want to get someone to champion your project,” she adds. Start small, though, and show proof of concept.

“Don’t forget, you’re an agent of change,” she says. “You can’t give up easily.”