Innovation is a word often associated with the Googles, Facebooks and Apples of the world. But while small businesses might not have the budget to take the risks that big businesses have, innovation is just as important to staying competitive, attracting customers and recruiting top talent. Coming up with new ideas, however, is easier said than done.

That’s where your employees come in. Together, they hold a wealth of hidden ideas just waiting to be unearthed. Here are seven ways to encourage innovation among your small business employees.

  1. Make it okay to fail. Many employees are reluctant to submit ideas for fear that they will fail and look foolish. Make it clear that failure is okay. Take a cue from companies like Amazon, Netflix and Coca-Cola, and embrace the idea of failure. (After all, as JFK himself once said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”)  Once your employees let go of their fear of failure, they will feel free to challenge old ways of thinking and bring new ideas to the table.
  2. Reward risk-taking. Employee recognition is key to boosting morale, productivity and overall job satisfaction. But while it’s important to recognize employees for good performance, rewarding them for taking risks will give them incentive to think beyond the status quo. Consider a “risk-taker of the week” award to celebrate your employees’ daredevil spirits. You never know when great risk will lead to great reward.
  3. Encourage off-site learning. Give employees opportunities to enhance their skills and learn new ones. Send them to conferences, seminars or off-site classes where they will not only build their expertise, but also meet new people and be exposed to new environments and different ideas.
  4. Hold a hackathon. No longer just for tech companies, hackathons (or hack days) are days set aside to let employees take a break from business as usual and work on completely different projects. Even if the day doesn’t result in a new business venture, the day “off” will help rejuvenate employees mentally and can help spur ideas for approaching their daily work in new ways.
  5. Create an idea submission hub. It may not be that your employees don’t have great ideas; it might be that they just don’t know what to do with them. Give employees an easily accessible method for submitting ideas – from creating a virtual “idea box” on your company’s intranet to an actual “old-fashioned” suggestion box. Make it a point to review these ideas monthly or quarterly, and act on the best ones.
  6. Schedule time to innovate. Hold regular (perhaps monthly) team meetings where employees can submit ideas and build on others’ ideas. Create a “safe space” where every idea submitted is taken seriously, appreciated and considered.
  7. Prevent burnout. Mental burnout can be a huge obstacle to innovation. Yet, CareerBuilder research shows that 3 in 5 small business employees feel burned out out at work. Make work-life balance a priority. Consider offering flexible schedules, redistributing workloads or bringing in temporary help.

Remember, innovation fosters innovation. The more you encourage and support new ideas and creative thinking at your company, the more it will become a part of your culture – one that attracts like-minded, creative candidates with new ideas of their own.