The crowdsourcing of ideas was the radical new approach to innovation a few short years ago and technology platforms to support idea generation and ideas management have been growing in popularity. There are, however, question marks over what they actually contribute to innovation.

The world of ideas management c2010

In the early 2000s ideas management was still heady stuff. Open innovation was hardly heard of and collaboration management was only just coming into vogue. Back then, the advent of what was, to all intents and purposes, a collaborative, online suggestion box signaled a veritable revolution in “business-as-usual” because the Internet linked workers throughout the world, and that meant all employees could suddenly contribute to the firm’s future.

“Just imagine! Employees across the largest of global companies can now submit their ideas upward – and have their voices heard!” Unbelievable, you might have said, that senior management could listen to suggestions from 10,000 people across five continents!

Only a few years later, these once-“revolutionary” approaches have begun to seem tired. They’ve wandered into the dangerous territory of cliché.

Today’s innovation managers are well versed in collaboration – they know exactly how to launch fresh ideation campaigns. The most innovative companies know exactly how to create innovation marketplaces. The blogosphere is now littered with examples of successful product-design competitions. The ideas platform as sophisticated suggestion box has had its day.

When you take a hard look at today’s innovation methodologies and tools (including those we have developed at Imaginatik), it’s hard not to came away feeling unimpressed. There is so much more potential still waiting to be unlocked.

Some of the drawbacks

Can we afford to be brutally honest about such a young industry where supplier companies are still seeking their place and where customers believe they are at the edge of innovation practice? We have to be. Here are some obvious weaknesses.

Typically ideas platforms operate a voting system that purports to surface the best ideas. This crowdsourced decision-making aspect is both good and bad. Yes the crowd gets its say but counter-intuitive ideas can be marked off the map.

Another potential shortcoming, in the practice of ranking and ratings of ideas, is their arbitrary nature. Nobody is pretending that these scales actually give an insight into which ideas have practical value when integrated into complex corporate strategies. We need to allow people to use their intuition and be sure of generating and surfacing strategically relevant ideas.

And the use of popularity, or leaderboards, also typical of idea platforms runs the risk of creating the wrong kind of competition, one driven by attention-seeking and not by creativity.

How to do it better

  • Leverage all the good ideas. In traditional idea campaigns or competitions, only the top-ranked ideas typically move forward. This is a huge waste. Countless gems – the next big innovations – are hidden in quirky, under-appreciated ideas sitting in the long tail. There should be a way to notice and prioritize the potentially game-changing outliers.
  • Evaluate ideas based on intrinsic value. Forcing reviewers into arbitrary rating scales and artificial ranking systems compromises objectivity and leads to inherent bias. It also wastes reviewers’ time and energy. Idea evaluations should rest on direct human intuition of the fundamental value of each idea.
  • Build process around innovation roles and styles. Not all innovators are created equal. Some people are true “creators” – coming up with the original fodder for tomorrow’s breakthroughs. Others are more comfortable synthesizing the raw material of their colleagues. There should be a way to allow     different styles to play complementary roles in building ideas into innovations.
  • Distinguish between engagement and mere activity. Popularity contests don’t bring anything good to ideation. Nonetheless, it’s surprisingly easy for innovation leader boards to devolve into a race to the bottom. There should be a way to notice those people who are truly engaged and adding value to innovation, not just busy creating white noise to bump their stats.

A new set of innovation tools needs to address these issues. If we don’t, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that ideation platforms really equate to innovation. Imaginatik’s Idea Central platform will be integrating some such solutions.

Many ideation platforms are typified by their origins in competitions and competition-type behavior. We really need to employ cutting-edge techniques drawn from behavioral psychology, decision-making and rational-choice theory, and game mechanics. That doesn’t mean we dismiss what’s been an interesting decade of opening up the enterprise to wider funnels of influence. But we do have to be sure of getting the full value out of idea challenges, rather than being hijacked by limitations that are starkly obvious once we begin reflecting on them.

Imaginatik will be demonstrating new ideas management concepts at an Innovation Leaders Forum in New York 16th February.

By Chris Townsend

About the Author

Chris Townsend is Senior Director of Marketing at Imaginatik, an innovation management consultancy and software provider in Boston. He is a former researcher at Forrester who pioneered the firm’s coverage of the idea management and innovation markets.