How to democratize ideation in your organization — and why it matters

Look at any desktop or in any junk drawer and you’re bound to see a stack of Post-It Notes. You may be surprised to learn that the idea for Post-It Notes wasn’t born out of endless focus groups or relentless brainstorming sessions, nor to fulfill a high-level corporate strategy or objective.

Rather, a couple of curious employees at 3M are responsible for creating what has grown into one of the company’s most recognizable products. Spencer Silver, a chemist for 3M, was tasked with finding a super strong adhesive. In the process, he discovered a less resilient one that could easily be removed from surfaces while still retaining some of its stickiness.

It wasn’t until his colleague, Art Fry, began seeking a better bookmark for his hymnbook during church choir practice that Silver identified a use for his adhesive. And just like that, they invented Post-It Notes, which now serve as bookmarks, to-do lists, and solid proof of the magic that can happen when you democratize ideation.

What does it mean to democratize ideation?

“Democratize ideation” might sound like buzzword or workplace trend, but it’s actually a very beneficial step for an organization to take. It’s all about enabling all employees, regardless of rank or experience, to chime in, make suggestions, and voice their ideas.

But, this isn’t about lip service or empty efforts to make employees feel valued and included. To truly democratize ideation, you can’t just listen to employees — you need to actively consider and even implement their ideas.

Why does democratizing ideation matter?

Aren’t decisions made and projects completed far faster when you have a select few people steering the ship? Why open the floor? Let’s take a look at how giving every employee a voice benefits your organization:

  • Hear from diverse points of view. Our background and experiences heavily shape our points of view and, thus, the ideas that we brainstorm. When you collaborate with a bunch of like-minded people, you risk groupthink and confirmation bias. But, when you allow anyone within your organization to speak up and contribute, you’re able to tap into a much broader array of perspectives.
  • Gather more creative ideas. Research has shown that diverse teams come up with far more original and useful ideas. Bring your employees into the conversation — even the ones who typically don’t have a say in the decision-making process. You’ll likely be surprised by the clever suggestions they’re able to bring to the table.
  • Boost employee retention. When employees have a voice and are able to actively contribute, they have more visibility into the meaning behind and impact of their work. And that sense of purpose? It makes them want to stay in their jobs. So, employers who prioritize autonomy, ownership, and participation not only benefit from a happier workforce — but one that wants to stay there, as well.
  • Improve employee engagement and performance. Most employees don’t like feeling like a cog in a wheel. But when they believe that their contributions are heard and valued, they’re far more likely to feel committed to and engaged with their jobs. That leads to all sorts of other benefits like productivity, satisfaction, and morale. Consider these statistics:

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1. Highly engaged employees are three times more likely to say they feel heard at their workplace

2. When employees feel heard, they’re 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform at their highest level

How to democratize ideation in your own organization

Despite the obvious benefits of democratizing ideation, many organizations still struggle to do it right. A frightening 83% of employees say they don’t think they’re heard fairly or equally at work.

This hesitancy might be due, in part, to leaders feeling like it might open the floodgates and invite a chaotic free-for-all where everybody gets to offer their two cents.That’s not necessarily the case, though. Leaders are still responsible for providing direction, so that employees understand the bounds in which they’re ideating, and prioritizing the ideas that the organization ultimately pursues.

So, how do you make the ideation process more accessible in a meaningful, yet manageable, way? Here’s how to effectively democratize ideation:

1. Give employees sufficient context

It can be difficult for people to come up with groundbreaking ideas if they don’t have any concept of the broader context they’re operating within. Expecting employees to actively contribute without first ensuring they understand the big picture, and providing them with the resources to do so, will make them feel aimless, unsupported, and maybe even tested.

Here are a few ways to make sure they’re equipped with the broader context they need to offer promising suggestions:

  • Store company- and team-wide goals in an easily accessible place (a Miro board is great for this!)
  • Provide visibility not only into company-wide decisions, but also why those decisions were made
  • When soliciting feedback (more on this a little later), provide clear parameters to help shape their output (for example, “Do you have suggestions for how to improve our customer response time?”)

Use the Strategy Diamond Template as an easy place for employees to understand the big picture.

2. Prioritize psychological safety

You told your employees that you’re open to their ideas. You provided a spot where they can easily drop their feedback. And yet, the “suggstion box” — or board! — remains empty.That’s a red flag that your employees may not feel psychologically safe. Even though people have an outlet for voicing their suggestions, they might not feel like they have your full backing to actually put their ideas (particularly the big ones) out there.Psychological safety means people feel supported when offering suggestions, without fear of judgment or criticism. Here are a couple of ways that you can create an inclusive and safe team environment:

  • Encourage all managers and leaders to openly discuss their own risks, failures, and learnings
  • Avoid fixing everything immediately and instead take a step back together to discuss what happened and what you can learn from it
  • Limit negative or blaming language (this can be as simple as saying, “That idea” instead of “Your idea”)

3. Provide a platform

When employees have a brilliant idea or a nugget of inspiration they want to share, they need a place to do so. And, it’s important to remember that not everybody will be comfortable knocking on your door or raising their hand in a team meeting.

For that reason, it’s helpful to set up a shared space where people can brainstorm, share ideas, or even drop suggestions as they think of them. Miro is a visual workspace that makes it easy for anyone on your team to jot down their biggest and brightest ideas. The boards’…

  • Infinite canvas gives them limitless room to explore all of their ideas
  • Sticky notes, pens, shapes, and arrows equip them with all of the tools they need to best express themselves
  • Templates provide structure and save time (while also offering inspiration)

Plus, Miro is built for collaboration. With screen sharing, cursor tracking, and even embedded video, chat, and commenting, it’s the perfect spot for everybody on your team to spitball and work together seamlessly.

4. Solicit employee feedback

We’ve already established that most employees don’t feel like they’re heard at work. And even worse than that? Organizations aren’t really doing anything about it. In one survey, only 52% of companies said that they had actually asked employees what they want to see improved.

Soliciting employee feedback is crucial for democratizing ideation. Aren’t sure where to start? Get their ideas about…well, ideas. Whether it’s in one-on-one conversations, team meetings, or even surveys, ask them things like:

  • Do you think your manager values your ideas and suggestions?
  • Do you feel like you have the freedom and encouragement to regularly contribute?
  • What other opportunities would you like to see for shared brainstorming and collaboration?

This will also help you get a better understanding of how employees prefer to participate. Maybe they want more time in one-on-ones to pitch their ideas. Or, perhaps they would flourish in a monthly brainstorming session with the whole team. Regardless of the specifics, collecting their feedback will help you democratize ideation in a way that aligns with their working styles and communication preferences. Need an easy place to dump ideas, even if you can’t pursue them right then and there? The Parking Lot Matrix Template can help.

5. Encourage active participation

Here’s something that’s really important to understand: This entire process isn’t about squeezing employees for their best ideas and then running with them. That’s the exact opposite of autonomy and ownership — and it’s bound to make employees feel like they’re doing the hard work while others get the credit.

Instead, you need to make sure that you don’t just listen to their ideas, but actually empower them to play an active role in their execution. That employee who had the brilliant suggestion for improving customer response time? They should get to spearhead the process — or, at the very least, play a role in making it happen. That not only In a world where 45% of employees don’t believe that their feedback actually leads to any meaningful change, giving them adequate recognition for their contributions boosting their sense of ownership proves to them that their ideas actually matter. That’s crucial, especially when you consider that

Good ideas come from everyone (if you let them)

The best ideas? They come from the people who are actually rolling up their sleeves day in and day out. Your employees have valuable knowledge, skills, backgrounds, and experiences that equip them to offer all sorts of clever contributions.

You? You just need to open the door and give them the freedom, space, and encouragement to speak up. Ask the brains behind Post-It Notes — when you offer the right opportunities, you might just get a brilliant idea that sticks.

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