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Large organizations routinely pay hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on advisors, consultants and expensive research to unlock innovation within their businesses. Whether these investments yield technology advancements or new, out-of-the-box conceptualizations, companies see a lot of value in them, and for good reason. Innovation not only drives profits and creates competitive differentiation, it can kickstart a powerful engagement phenomenon in an organization’s employee base. But what can be done if you do not have millions to spend on consultants? It’s simple: You activate what I like to call “inward innovation.”

The popular television show Undercover Boss—each episode of which features a senior executive surreptitiously working as an entry-level employee in their own company—is an excellent example of how to activate inwards innovation. The executive is assigned low-level tasks, offering them an authentic view into the day-to-day processes of their company. Most importantly, they are given a unique vantage point to tap into original and inventive employee ideas, firsthand.

While I don’t think you need assume an alias like the executives on this show, I do agree that taking a genuine, open interest in learning from your employees is a valuable exercise, one with great potential to expose new ideas and ways of approaching your business.

Unlocking inward innovation does not have to be complex; in fact, the simpler the tool, the better the results. At LoyaltyOne, we created a communication tool called “What If?” geared specifically to enabling innovation within our employee community. What If? is an interactive platform accessible via our intranet on which employees submit and discuss ideas on inventing or improving upon new products, services and business strategies. In creating a central community for employee-based ideas, we have gained access to a rich vein of smart innovation that we can then introduce into the business. Providing this internal communication channel also reinforces our culture of experimentation, risk-taking, and problem-solving. What if? showcases how tapping into first-hand experience can help leaders, managers and owners build out new or improved directions for their business.

It is also not necessary to spend big dollars to create an environment that fosters inward innovation. Our founding CEO used to comment that all he needed was pizza. What he was alluding to is that it is often best to tap into the experience and expertise of your employees at the source (that is, by talking to them). His method to do this was simple: he would order pizza, meet his employees in their space and ask them these three questions:

  1. If you had a magic wand, what would you change to make this business better for our customers?
  2. If you had a magic wand, what would you change to make it better for our employees?
  3. If you had a magic wand, what would you change to make it better for our shareholders?

“Inward innovation” may be a buzzword, but tapping into the expertise and imagination of your team is without doubt an instrumental and often cost-efficient means of creating new opportunities for your business. All you need to do is ask.

Bryan Pearson is an internationally-recognized expert and author in the field of customer loyalty. As President and CEO of LoyaltyOne, a pioneer in loyalty strategies and data-driven marketing, Bryan has spent more than two decades developing meaningful customer relationships for some of the world’s leading companies. Bryan has spearheaded LoyaltyOne’s expansion into new markets across the globe and has grown the AIR MILES Rewards Program into Canada’s premier coalition loyalty program with more than 10 million participants.

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