You have doubtless visited a hotel or restaurant or other service business where a small box invited you to offer suggestions on “how can we better serve you?” Very likely, you never bothered to make a suggestion because, like most people, you sincerely doubted anything would happen to your suggestion. Indeed, I often wondered if such boxes were ever emptied and suggestions read! In other words, you probably didn’t make the effort to offer a suggestion because there seemed to be no purpose to doing so.
Likewise, many firms’ suggestion schemes leave employees feeling the same way. They submit ideas by e-mail or by submission into a database and never hear another thing about their ideas again. It is rather like dropping a coin into a very deep well. It simply disappears without a sound, never to be seen again. As far as employees are concerned, taking the time to formulate and submit ideas serves no purpose, particularly if they are very busy. Most employees are. Indeed, in my experience, “lack of time” is one of the most frequently claimed excuses for not participating in an ideation initiative.
Whether ideas submitted to such suggestion schemes are implemented or not is immaterial to the idea submitters. They have received no information and can only assume that nothing has happened with their submissions.
Innovators need a purpose
On the other hand, seeing an idea, that you (either individually or as part of a team) have proposed, being implemented and turned into reality is a very powerful reward.
Implementation demonstrates that time and resources devoted to developing the idea have served a purpose. It demonstrates recognition of the employee’s contribution and gives the employee a sense of having added value to the firm. When this happens regularly, employees are far less likely to complain that they do not have time to be innovative!
Regular implementation of ideas invites people to think creatively and that results in more innovation for your firm.
In short, innovators need a purpose. They need to believe that their suggestions have a realistic chance of being implemented. They need to feel that time spent developing an idea is time well spent. If they know good ideas will come to fruition, it is easier to bring teams together to develop those ideas. It is easier to sell ideas up the corporate ladder. Perhaps most importantly, regular implementation of ideas invites people to think creatively and that results in more innovation for your firm.
Transparency is critical
In fact, ideas submitted to suggestion boxes are occasionally implemented. The problem is that there is often little or no communication with the idea submitter. Hence as far as she knows – nothing has happened to her idea.
Thus it is critical that any idea generation initiative is transparent, not only during the idea generation phase, but also during the idea review and testing phases. Regular reports to the idea submitters lets them know how their ideas are developing and demonstrates the value that the firm gives to good ideas.
Good news and bad news
Although good news about an idea’s implementation is the best news an idea submitter can receive, no news is usually worse than bad news. If an idea is evaluated and found not to meet certain criteria considered essential for implementation, it is better that the idea submitter receives a report of this evaluation. Although not as nice as a passing evaluation report, it nevertheless demonstrates that the idea was considered valuable enough to warrant the time required for evaluation. That also communicates that the firm really is interested in ideas and is likely to implement ideas that meet or exceed certain criteria.
Moreover, if an idea is rejected at any time, a note explaining the rejection is better than no information. And if that note can explain the reason for rejection, it helps the idea submitter learn more about what kind of ideas are unlikely to be implemented and that can help her submit better ideas in the future.
At the very least, a rejection letter (or e-mail) tells the idea submitter that someone actually has read her idea. That, discussed at the beginning of this article, is more than many people believe happens when they submit an idea to a suggestion box.
Focus = more implementations = more purpose
One of the main flaws of suggestion boxes and open suggestion schemes is that they do not focus creative thinking. They do not give information about what kind of ideas the firm is looking for. Hence, all kinds of dissimilar ideas are typically collected, many of them irrelevant to business needs. This translates into a lot of rejected ideas. Indeed, very often it is simply impossible for the team managing the suggestion box to review the ideas efficiently. And the result is no feedback to idea submitters, even if the suggestion scheme managers wanted to provide it.
Hence, ideas campaigns and other ideation actions based on creative problem solving (where a manager starts with a problem and invites ideas that solve the problem) tend to have a higher percentage of implemented ideas. Moreover, because ideas are related to the problem, they can be evaluated more quickly and information can be sent to the idea submitters faster.
What you can learn from this
The main lesson to be learned here is that people will be more creative and share their ideas more frequently when they feel there is a purpose to doing so. Your innovation initiative need only meet three basic requirements to give them that purpose:
1. It needs to be launched with the aim of actually implementing promising ideas. Ironically, many innovation initiatives do not include this basic requirement. They are done simply to perform an innovation initiative or as a marketing stunt!
2. The system supporting the initiative must be transparent so that people can see what is happening to ideas – not just their own. Indeed, if employees in an organization can see that their colleagues’ ideas are being implemented, that gives them motivation and even impetus to participate and share their own ideas.
3. You need to communicate to the participants, ensuring that they know what is happening to their ideas. And it is critical that you inform them when their ideas are implemented.
Following these three steps will go a long way towards ensuring the success of your innovation initiative.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
About the author
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
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