How Do You Harvest Great Ideas?

leading innovationHenry Ford once hired a consultant to examine the efficiency of his operations. While the consultant gave Ford an overall glowing report, he had some reservations about a particular employee.

“It’s that man down the hall,” the consultant explained. “Every time I go by his office he’s just sitting there with his feet on his desk. He’s wasting your money.”

“That man,” replied Ford, “once had an idea that saved us millions of dollars. At the time, I believe his feet were planted right where they are now.”

In Randy Elrod‘s post, Thinking is Underrated, he suggests that we actually schedule time to think. I couldn’t agree more. As leaders it’s probably one of the most important investments you can make. But, how do you ensure that the people you are responsible for are getting adequate time to think up great stuff? Here are three ways that other companies have found to harvest great ideas:

  • IBM currently has 73 people with their feet up on their desks. They’re the IBM Fellows. They got there by coming up with exceptional ideas and are charged with coming up with more – under one condition: Freedom. Freedom from deadlines, committees and all the usual constraints of corporate approval. Since the program’s inception in 1962, IBM fellows have invented some of the most useful – and profitable – technologies in the industry.
  • Atlassian,  an Australian software company, believes that great ideas can come from anywhere. Unlike IBM, who focuses efforts only on idea specialists, Atlassian gives everyone the opportunity to generate amazing ideas. Once a quarter, they tell their developers, “For the next 24 hours, go work on whatever you want, any way you want, with whomever you want.” These days of freedom have produced more new ideas and profitable ventures than any other program or system they’ve tried.
  • Google takes it all one step further. Like Atlassian they want to harness the creativity of their entire workforce, but they want to do it all year round. Google has a policy called Innovation Time Off, where they encourage their engineers to spend twenty percent of their work time on projects that interest them. Gmail, Google News, Orkut, and AdSense are just some of the services that originated from these independent endeavors.

How have you seen leaders foster and encourage the creativity in the ranks?

What ideas do you have for harnessing the creative power of your employees?

11 thoughts on “How Do You Harvest Great Ideas?”

    1. that was me hitting the submit comment button and it didn’t seem to work so i put in my email and now it works.

    2. I here you, Lee. We focus so much on producing in our society that taking time to do nothing but think seems almost sinful!

      With a wife and kids, I get my best thinking time right now on my commute and in the shower!

  1. These companies you highlight seem to practice what Admiral Rickover described as “courageous patience”. What a meaningful, empowering (and easy!) way for a workforce to feel intricately part of the organization.

  2. And this fits in nicely with many of the ideas I heard presented at the recent Global Leadership Summit (

    For example, Daniel Pink pointed out that the three key elements of motivation are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. All three are parts of Google, Atlassian, and (to a lesser degree) IBM are doing.

    Among other things, Terri Kelly of W.L. Gore said that you have to empower the people with the pertinent knowledge to make the decisions within that domain. (Thus, allowing team members to decide what innovations they want to pursue, rather than dictating from on high). She also spoke about requiring people to sell their ideas, and that good ideas will bubble up when you use peer review (which is what Atlassian does with their FedEx days, where the team members vote for the best ideas).

    1. Good timing, Roy! I attended the Summit as well (and actually blogged about Bill Hybels’ opening comments this morning! ( )

      And here’s a great video about Dan Pink’s ideas on Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose I shared in June:

      Thanks for sharing – and thanks for the other resources on your site.

  3. Awesome article!!! I love the examples you gave and it’s great fit for a presentation i’m building right now on a simple program that I developed to harvest ideas and foster innovation. I’ll post it soon on slideshare with a similar title

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