As creative mavericks, entrepreneurs may figure that they can carry their company to new heights on their innovative shoulders. That’s an awfully heavy load.

It’s better if you get employees to innovate. But they’re so busy, how can they possibly find time to think outside the box?

The fastest-growing young companies feed off constant innovation. The founder sets the tone, but employees get inventive as well.

“In the Navy, we call it keeping a drumbeat up,” said Neal Thornberry, who built the first course in “Leading Innovation” for Navy admirals and their civilian partners. “You create a culture of innovation by asking employees, ‘What’s a way we can do things faster?’ and ‘How can we treat customers better?'”

Thornberry is faculty director for innovation initiatives at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He’s also founder and CEO of Imstrat, a consulting firm focused on innovation strategies.

Persistent questioning stokes workplace creativity. Entrepreneurs who solicit ideas from staffers lay the groundwork for identifying ways to improve. But the real key is follow-up.

“It’s important for founders to say, ‘Remember last week when I asked for your ideas? What are your thoughts?'” said Thornberry, author of “Innovation Judo.” “You want to set the expectation that the boss will keep asking so that employees think, ‘Next time, I better think this through and have a more complete answer.’ It causes people to lift their head up and ask, ‘What can we do better?'”

Savvier Than Thou?

Thornberry cautions that some entrepreneurs assume they’re the only ones with great ideas. Accustomed to unlocking bold solutions to vexing problems, some business builders ignore input or suggestions from underlings.

He cites the charismatic founder of a tech firm who fancied himself as chief innovator. He hired people to follow orders, not to make creative contributions.

“No one else was listened to,” Thornberry said. “He got rid of people who disagreed with him or who felt they had a better strategy. Ultimately, the board of directors removed him because he couldn’t let the company grow beyond his own reach.”

It’s not enough to invite employees to propose potential breakthroughs. You also want to make it easy for them to test the practical value of their ideas.

When staffers share an insight, encourage them to investigate it further. Allocate sufficient resources for them to stage a few preliminary experiments.

Thornberry has devised what he calls “an opportunity template” — a worksheet that entrepreneurs can distribute to employees who propose innovations. It includes questions that they need to address such as, “Who will be affected by this idea?” and “Have you talked to others about it?”

“This puts the responsibility back on the employee and forces the innovator to come to grips with their idea,” Thornberry said. “It’s a honing tool.”