By Melissa J. Anderson

Should companies encourage their workforce to innovate? Innovation is a big buzz word lately, with companies striving to embed it within their cultures and looking within their ranks for new ideas rather than outsourcing or working with consultants to find the next big product. But all the clamor has left some to ask – is innovation a distraction?

According to Businessweek contributor and founder and president of the Table Group Pat Lencioni, employees are being asked to do far too much innovating. He writes, “[business leaders] should stop overhyping innovation to the masses and come to the realization that only a limited number of people in any company really needs to be innovative.”

He continues:

“…even the most innovative and creative organizations need far more people to be dutiful, enthusiastic, and consistent in their work than innovative or creative.” Employees need to do their jobs – not devote time and energy to innovative solutions or creative new ideas that will likely go unnoticed anyway, he says.

Lencioni believes the relatively recent hyperfocus on innovation is causing business leaders to be seen as hypocritical – which actually decreases employee engagement. He writes:

“Even well-intentioned and dedicated employees are bound to respond cynically to these efforts [to drive employee innovation], frustrated by what they see as hypocrisy. They just don’t perceive a genuine eagerness among leaders to embrace the new ideas of rank-and-file employees, and they’re mostly accurate in that perception.”

Inspired Innovation

Lencioni’s gripe with innovation seems to come from a mischaracterization of the ways companies are approaching innovation. They aren’t handing down a directive to employees demanding innovation, and then cutting them loose. Smart companies are working to create a culture of innovation, encouraging new ideas, and working to remain open to new solutions created by internal staff.

For example, as Issy Lapowsky describes Google’s well-known 20% policy in her Inc. article “10 Things Employees Want Most”:

“Not long ago, Google announced its 20 percent creative time policy, which encourages employees to work on any innovative ideas they have that are company-related during 20 percent of their hours at work.”

But, she continues, there’s more to innovation that free-time. Leadership plays an important role in the process. She writes:

“[Alexander Hiam, the Massachusetts-based author of Business Innovation For Dummies] says. ‘Just asking people for ideas doesn’t create innovation. It’s a culmination of creativity and leadership.’ Though you might not be able to give your employees this much time on the clock to work on side projects, you can always foster innovation through employee brainstorming sessions that allow the staff to work with new people and generate fresh ideas. “

Innovation Communities

In their recent WSJ/MIT Slone Review article, “Who Has Innovative Ideas? Employees,” JC Spender and Bruce Strong stand firmly on the side of innovation. They, like Hiam, believe innovation should be driven by company leadership. They write:

“To create sustainable cross-organizational innovation, it’s important that ideas flow to senior managers. If they don’t, innovations will tend to have limited, local effects that don’t benefit the organization as a whole.”

In fact, Spender and Strong recommend a directed, group innovation management style they call “innovation communities.” They explain:

“At first, participants typically meet face to face at a central location, often company headquarters, then shift to virtual meetings for follow-up sessions. The most important thing is blocking out time free of daily responsibilities to devote to discussion and creative thinking.

Senior management sets the agenda. A clear statement of purpose and themes for discussion are set forth. Participants are free to discuss ideas without concerns about hierarchy and quarterly financial results.“

In Spender and Slone’s view, innovation should be encouraged by leadership, directed toward a specific goal, and nurtured by managers.

In Leoncini’s view, workers should be given the autonomy to do their jobs to the fullest, without being distracted by pie-in-the-sky calls for innovation that pull on their limited time. But Leoncini misses the desire for today’s workforce to take ownership, not just in their job, but in their company’s mission. By encouraging employees to come up with new ideas and solutions, companies are investing in the long-term growth and engagement of their workforce.