It seems so simple – implementing an Idea Program. You invite everyone to give ideas; you evaluate the ideas and implement the ones that are promising. But unfortunately it is not that simple. I have seen many companies fail badly with their idea programs and ended up with hundreds or even thousands of ideas stuck at the evaluation phase or not being implemented, leading to extremely dissatisfied employees with strong objections towards any type of attempts to re-launch the Idea Program.
Of course many companies have had success with Idea Programs, implementing thousands of ideas, and generating millions in cost reduction or new business. Therefore the question: how do they make it work, what is the secret? What are the main ingredients for a successful idea program? Let me explain this through very simple logic by starting from the beginning of the innovation process.
To have a successful idea program you need, first of all…..ideas. If possible, many ideas as well as high quality ideas. But to have many ideas, you need to have staff motivated to participate and this only happens when, first of all, management shows the importance of the program to the company and communicates this frequently. Second of all, employees get stimulated by recognition, either financial or other, depending the culture of the company (make sure that you align recognition with the type of ideas you are looking for). And third of all, make it easy for them, so make sure you have a system, easy to use to capture the ideas. It might be that some of your employees get better by learning some creativity techniques as well.
After you received many great ideas, you will need to understand how they should be handled. Particularly, any idea program receives ideas in different stages and different complexities and it is highly recommendable that they are treated differently. Small incremental ideas, for example should never be handled by a committee. Imagine a committee evaluating 1000 ideas per month from distant factories, for example. So, once you have defined the people that will evaluate the ideas, you need to make sure that these people are aligned around rules and idea definitions, so that they evaluate ideas the same manner. Also, guarantee that they evaluate the ideas..You will need to have a governance structure in place, with a coordinator and well planned routines. And they need to be informed on how to give feedback. I cannot count the times that employees complained about the rough or thoughtless manner management gave them feedback about their idea. That doesn’t feel good after you just spend several weekends elaborating on your idea…
Hopefully, some ideas get approved, and once they are approved, you need to have to give people responsibility for their implementation (and of course time!) and you will need to have money available for their implementation. Some ideas do not need many resources, but others do, and to guarantee these resources, make sure you show results! The best way of getting more money for your idea program is showing that you are making money for the company! So measuring success is important to guarantee future success. To measure and to adjust to improve your programs’ success, you will a strong system, which will help you to understand what is happening through detailed reports.
Summarizing, different types of Idea Programs need different types of ingredients. And this is important: your Idea Program should be set up in such a way that it generates the type of ideas you are looking for, being them incremental ideas for your factory processes or radical new businesses. All aspects of the program need to be aligned with these objectives: communication and change management, recognition, governance structure and routines, clear and explicit rules, measurement, training and a system that supports all of the process.
Caspar van Rijnbach is a specialist in innovation management and partner at TerraForum Consulting in Brazil – www.terraforum.com.br and www.terraforum.ca. Co-author of “Innovation: Breaking Paradigms” and “Management 2.0’’ (in Portuguese).