By Dr. Evans Baiya

You could be missing out on $1,237 per employee in untapped ideas.

No, really!

According to a 2019 study by IdeaScale, each employee has on average $1,237 worth in unused ideas. A separate study also showed that employees come to work with an average of 8 to 10 new ideas every day that could help their work.

This means that there are potentially hundreds of thousands of ideas in any given organization ready to be considered, tested, developed, and implemented—ideas that are all around you. The key is to have the structure and the resources at hand to be ready to tap into employee ideas.

Without ideas, organizations become irrelevant. Innovation and value creation are driven by ideas, so your company must be regularly generating ideas to stay relevant in the eyes of customers and stakeholders. This requires ideas from multiple sources: employees, customers, competitors, and leaders in other industries.

Ideas are the seeds of value creation. In order to end up with a flourishing garden, you need a culture that supports this kind of growth. Creating a culture of ideation within your business or organization will give you the structure to steadily generate new ideas and actually take advantage of them.

So, what does a culture of ideation look like?

First, you want to see new ideas coming into your organization frequently and schedule time to evaluate those ideas at least once a month. You want to track their origins and ensure you are seeing ideas from multiple sources on different problems and opportunities. Once tracked, the ideas can be evaluated and acted on, connected to specific challenges that the organization faces.

If you have these systems in place, you have a culture of ideation already!

If you don’t, developing a culture of ideation is easy, and something every innovation leader can and should do. Here are five steps to build a culture of ideation:

Step 1: Stimulate Creativity

Everyone has ideas—and I mean everyone! But different people contribute different kinds of ideas. They gravitate towards ideas based on their position, experiences, perceptions, natural talents, and passions. Those who are driven by people will most likely come up with people-centric ideas. Those who are more product-oriented will have ideas that address product-based problems and opportunities, and so on.

Every person also has different idea triggers—those events, spaces, problems, and opportunities that help people get into their creative zones. If employees feel stressed or uncreative in their work environment, they won’t be able to generate optimal ideas for the company.

With that in mind, it is important as an organization to understand how to stimulate and foster your employees’ creativity: What inspires their creativity? How can you help them come up with as many ideas as possible? Do they have the time and support they need at work to be creative? Consider these questions and implement changes with your employees in mind.

Step 2: Capture and Acknowledge Ideas

It’s interesting that leaders often want their employees to contribute ideas but don’t create a forum to contribute. This forum could be electronic, physical discussion boards, in-person brainstorming sessions, or a combination of all three. The goal being that people have the space to come up with and share their ideas.

Whatever system you choose, it should be easy to access, able to capture ideas, and then acknowledge that they have been received. There is little worse than capturing ideas from employees yet failing to acknowledge the ideas. It is a sure-fire way to ensure that employees do not contribute their ideas again. Why would they, if they don’t feel heard or seen?

This doesn’t mean you have to act on every idea that is submitted. In fact, ideas will need to be evaluated, categorized, and possibly combined with others before they can be acted upon. Some ideas may never be implemented but may inspire other, better ideas. And some ideas may just be saved for a later date. Communicating these possibilities to employees is crucial.

Step 3: Incentivize Ideation

Once you’ve made space for idea generation, a key part of making it part of your culture is to tie incentives to ideation. Rewards keep ideas flowing, increase motivation, and keep the idea initiative at the forefront of each workday.

Incentives can be material, financial, or social. Hold team meetings and recognize the highest number of ideas generated in a month, the best ideas for a specific problem, or the most voted-for idea. Offer monetary awards if an idea ultimately improves processes, decreases costs, or boosts the bottom line. Create ideation trophies and give them out quarterly. These incentives should encourage everyone to participate and bring their ideas to the forefront.

Step 4: Be Specific and Bring Data

You get the best ideas from employees when you offer a clear problem to solve. A mistake leaders often make is in telling employees, “Bring your ideas!” with no other direction. Employees will be left asking, “Ideas for WHAT?”

In order to get the best ideas, you need clear problems and opportunities to give context to your employees. The more framework and data that is given, the better your employees’ ideas will be. For example, you might be facing a customer retention problem: Perhaps you lost a certain number of customers during a time period. Give your employees the specifics: customer details, demographics, and any data you have on individual circumstances. Then ask them for ideas on how you can improve.

You can also use a problem board within your forum that is updated frequently with calls to action. This will give employees time to review the problem, think about it, and return with as many ideas as possible.

Implementing a system like this will also spark problem identification among your employees! They will start seeing problems or opportunities that you may have missed and bringing them to the group for ideation.

Step 5: Quantity > Quality

Encourage as many ideas as possible without parameters! This is where the creative juices start flowing. You want your employees thinking outside the box, and in order to do that, you cannot limit or pre-judge ideas before they are examined. Pre-judging ideas is like giving an opinion on something that you know nothing about. And when you decide to toss out an idea prematurely, you limit what that idea could be—or what it could inspire in others. There are no bad ideas during ideation. Each idea is a step toward new possibilities. Encourage employees to bring their ideas to the table before discussing or evaluating those ideas for action.

These steps will help you create a culture of ideation within your organization—and see the benefits that result from a healthy culture of ideation, such as increased employee engagement, enhanced organization, thoughtful problem solving, employee growth, and more profits for the organization. Ideation pays. This is why it is crucial for leaders to foster ideation within their organizations.

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