Using Employees to Generate New Ideas

Develop an “in-house think tank” to discover new ideas for solving problems and increasing efficiencies

By David Cox, SHRM-SCP | August 14, 2018


I’ve previously discussed numerous management consultants who begin their engagements by surveying the employees of their client’s business. As mentioned, the goal of this survey is to identify workable ideas they can recommend to the client. Then, they’ll create projects and charge thousands of dollars in billable hours. Some may feel this is an unethical practice, but I assure you it isn’t. After all, these consultants are merely doing what their client was unwilling to initiate on their own.

According to management expert Peter E. Drucker, “Even in routine work, the only true expert is the person who does the job.” So what do the “experts” in your company have to offer? Is it possible that your employees could be the experts you need to ask about future business development?

The Idea Campaign

About four years ago, I heard about an employee suggestion program that company management referred to as “The Idea Campaign.” In just three weeks, the organization received over 500 new ideas from their workforce. At the end of the campaign, they had gained many workable ideas on how to increase productivity, cut costs, and improve employee motivation.

Some organizations experience remarkable success with this program. Eglin Air Force Base ran this campaign for two weeks. During this period, both civilian and military personnel were asked to submit ideas that could either reduce waste and inefficiency or increase productivity. Eglin received a tremendous surprise when workers generated $400,000 worth of cost savings ideas and new ways to generate revenue. Harley-Davidson ran a similar program saving $3,000,000 in one 30-day program.

Developing a successful employee suggestion program may be easier than you think. These programs typically start with excellent participation but soon lose momentum. In a 2012 Harvard Business School research study, authors Anita L. Tucker and Sara J. Singer found that the key to operating a successful employee suggestion program is to stop spending so much time on “big-bang projects” and start focusing on the abundance of “low-hanging-fruit” problems.

They reported that suggestions used in solving the smaller problems had built employee confidence, encouraged greater participation, produced more significant ideas, and gave the entire program more credibility.


Some organizations use a reward and recognition approach to encourage participation. For example, employees submitting useful ideas might receive personalized gifts such as coffee mugs or pens.  Some of the organizations involved schedule a gathering once each month to recognize everyone’s contribution. A gift certificate to a local cafe might be a much-appreciated reward.

Employers should do whatever they can to encourage employee involvement in contributing suggestions that might solve problems, improve business practices, and promote better productivity. As an employer, if your organization is to be competitive, you should involve the minds, hands, and ideas of everyone in the organization.

Getting employees involved not only yields valuable ideas and suggestions but also improves employee morale as they feel more fully invested in the business, resulting in a more productive and satisfying work environment for all.

David Cox


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