Monday, March 14, 2011

Trust me: You do NOT want to go through your company’s idea list manually.

An electronic suggestion box is not as good as an idea management system. In fact it might be worse than doing nothing at all.

Unfortunately for those organizations unwilling (or shy of proper budget) to jump into innovation all the way; afraid to get a purpose-built idea management system… they decide instead to just offer employees a place to submit their suggestions. These electronic suggestion boxes are not much better than the real metal box with a slot. They accept suggestions. The question is: what you are going to do with the ideas you get.

Amongst the forms these electronic suggestion boxes take are generic collaboration tools. And the vendors of these software tools have made them attractive (read that cheaper). You do get organizational engagement with a generic collaborative tool and that’s a good thing. Within it people are talking, comparing notes, telling war stories. Sharing.

The collaborative tools also may serve as knowledge management systems in the sense that users can post information (like files or white papers or videos or events), discuss them, comment on them, tag them, make them search-able and then retrieve them. So the user community can benefit by having a “go-to” place for problem solving and finding experts (when someone’s profile comes up in a search). So that too is a good thing.

Here’s where we’re about to go wrong with a mere collaborative system for collecting ideas. If some people at an organization think this collaborative tool is a good place to collect ideas…well they’re just wrong. And here’s why….

Employees will be thrilled and start posting their ideas. Without a proper mechanism for automatic idea promotion, someone is going to end up with a thousand ideas on their desk and have to filter them manually. They’ll have to read them all, sort through them, put them into categories, combine similar ones, somehow score them, rank them and decide which ones are the best. I’m going to bet that person is not going to be happy because they have their regular full time job with the company. And, let’s face it with the scenario I’ve just described, they’re going to fail miserably. And this means nothing will be done with the ideas. And the people who submitted them are going to see that nothing was done with them. And that means no one is going to submit any more ideas.

And even if, somehow, you successfully cherry-pick some good ideas out the stack, without any guidance from management about what types of ideas the company would like to get, the submissions are going to be for incremental improvements. Unsolicited ideas yielding incremental improvements are not necessarily bad things. In fact they’re likely to lead to quick revenue rewards. Incremental improvements will just be ideas leading to the means to do exactly what we’re doing now, just faster or better. The buggy whip story comes to mind here. Everyone’s going to submit ideas about the current product line. “If we just did X, then the production line will go faster and we’ll save money” or “If we just did Y then we’ll sell more product and make more revenue”. So your company will be the best buggy whip factory in the world while your competitors are introducing automobiles.

About a year ago I wrote a history of idea management click here to read. These electronic suggestion boxes fall into the first generation of systems (in the time-line somewhere around the sixties) not exactly “state of the art”. This article also can provide you with an excellent explanation of idea management that you can use with your proposal to management when you describe what a system like this can do for your company.

What most organizations want when they introduce a culture of innovation and ask for ideas is Radical Innovation (or Breakthrough Innovation). “What’s the next product that will help us compete effectively in a constantly changing world; in a difficult economic climate”? If you’re a food manufacturer you don’t want to just make your food products better…You want to come up with the next “chicken nugget” and overwhelm your competitors by creating new markets and grabbing revenue hand over fist. That’s Radical or Breakthrough Innovation.

To get Radical Innovation you need to give your user community Strategic Guidance. This is done by putting Challenges or “Seeds” out there. “Dear users, we’re glad you’re all talking (Organizational Engagement) but what we want you to talk about; where we need your ideas is to help us (insert “big” questions here). “Please give us your ideas for completely new products. Take away all your preexisting preconceptions; throw out all the constraining notions of the past. If you could help your company take the world by storm by introducing a new product, tell us what it should be”.

Unlike electronic suggestion boxes, a true idea management system will provide you with a couple of things that are just plain mandatory to succeed.

1. You can Challenge your team by giving them guidance to the types of ideas you want (versus ideas that let you do what you’ve always done better or faster or more economically).

2. You have automated promotion mechanisms that help judge the “wisdom of the crowd” to determine which ideas are the best (versus the poor shmo responsible for manually going through the pile of ideas and building a spreadsheet).

3. And to take it one step further, you have some downstream tools to enhance and shape the top ideas. You have automated mechanisms to support “expert review”.

A description of the ideal world: You get a thousand ideas in response to your challenge. The software uses a “similarity search” so you can cluster like ideas. Your experts can conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, again scoring, ranking and promoting the very best ideas (perhaps twenty out of the thousand). Three ideas surface from the SWOT and your experts have automated software to help them do a Feasibility Study, examining the top ideas using the criteria your company normally uses to assess good ideas. “What’s the competitive advantage? What’s the Strategic Fit with our client community? Is this cost effective?” Again the software can automatically score the top three and makes it apparent what the best idea is.

Someone can march into the executive board meeting and confidently state: “You asked for the next breakthrough product. We collected a thousand ideas. We clustered similar ideas and conducted a SWOT analysis on the top twenty. Out of those we took the top three and conducted a Feasibility Study and decided this is our very best idea that should go to Development. And I have all this data to support our decision that you can pull into the project management system that takes it to market”.

So don’t accept half way measures. Don’t accept free or cheap collaborative tools that are bolted onto other software (that you may love) as a module. Don’t risk a false start that leads to you losing the confidence of your user community. Embrace Innovation properly and get an idea management software system that’s been used by companies renowned for being innovators.

Ron Shulkin is Vice President of the Americas for CogniStreamer®, an innovation management system. You can learn more about CogniStreamer here

Ron has written a slew of articles right here on the FEI blog on the subject of idea management systems. You can find a bunch of these entries here You can find an idea management software tool demonstration "check list" here: Ron’s earlier writing on idea management system as published in The Examiner can be found here: . Ron manages The Idea Management Group on LinkedIn (Join Here) . You can download a free white paper on idea management here:

CogniStreamer® is an idea management software tool. It is an open innovation and collaboration platform where internal colleagues and external partner companies or knowledge centers join forces to create, develop and assess innovative ideas within strategically selected areas. The CogniStreamer® portal is an ideal collaborative platform that invites users to actively build a strong innovation portfolio. In addition it provides a powerful resource for internal and external knowledge sharing. The CogniStreamer® framework is used by industry leaders such as Atlas Copco, Bekaert, Case New Holland, Cytec, Imec, Picanol and ThyssenKrupp. CogniStreamer® represents the best use of adaptive collaborative technology such to harness human skill, ingenuity and intelligence.

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