What is a realistic level of participation in idea generation events? Jeffrey Baumgartner sheds some light on this important issue.

A concern that companies sometimes experience when using enterprise idea management systems is that participation levels are lower than they expect. In other words, they had visions of everyone in the company happily submitting ideas to the challenge when in fact, they typically see between 25 to 35% participation rates. Such levels are actually normal; anything beyond 30% is excellent and that in most cases they do not really want higher levels of participation. Let’s look at why all of these are true.

Participation rates

I have been an avid user of the Internet since 1994 and one of the things I have always valued are discussion forums, that is e-mail lists or bulletin boards in which people could ask questions and get answers, start discussions and explore ideas with others sharing a common interest. Because I was starting up one of Thailand’s first Internet and multimedia production houses, there was little expertise locally. However, by participating in specialist forums, I could learn a lot and eventually share my knowledge with others.

Even then, I noticed that, broadly speaking, in such forums about 3 to 5% of participants were high level contributors who took part in many discussions, shared lots of ideas and helped out others. Another 20% or so were occasional contributors who asked questions and shared ideas from time to time – but not often. And a handful of the others participated perhaps once or twice a year. The remaining 60-70% were “lurking” as we called it. In other words, they watched the discussions and learned but never contributed.

As our first clients started using Jenni, the idea management tool my firm developed, in 2004, we noticed that these rates were consistent with idea management participation levels. Moreover, as I discussed this with other innovation practitioners, I found that these participation levels were consistent across almost all innovation initiatives and similar activities.

In short, less than 20 to 25% participation suggests that something is wrong. Most likely the problem is due to:

More than 30% participation is excellent. It suggests good promotional efforts and a culture that encourages innovation.

  • Lack of awareness: no one can participate in your innovation initiative if they do not know about it.
  • An innovation unfriendly corporate culture: no one will participate in an innovation initiative if they feel it is a waste of time or that participating could have consequences.
  • Poorly framed innovation challenges: if people do not understand what kind of ideas are wanted, they will not submit any.

More than 30% participation, on the other hand, is excellent. It suggests good promotional efforts and a culture that encourages innovation.

That said, other factors can contribute to participation levels. A highly-promoted ideas campaign looking for incremental improvements to operations can show high levels of participation. A highly technical ideas campaign focusing on a complex issue is likely to result in relatively few people submitting ideas. Also, if an ideas campaign is only open to a small group, such as a team, participation percentages tend to be a lot higher as everyone knows each other

Creativity, not quantity, of ideas

When they get started with idea management software, managers sometimes complain that “only” 30% of their employees (or a business unit or a team) is participating in an ideas campaign and ask what can be done to improve this? My response has always been: “what is your aim with this tool? Is it to maximize the participation level or to innovate better?”

After all, irrespective of whether you are running an ideas campaign, a brainstorming action or another form of collaborative idea generation, you should ultimately be looking for one or more highly creative ideas that you can implement in order to solve the problem or achieve the goal implicit in the innovation challenge. Thus, your aim should be a variety of creative ideas rather than a huge number of ideas of indeterminate quality. That is, a greater level of creativity should be more important than quantity.

Forcing higher levels of participation

Of course it would be possible to achieve higher levels of participation, perhaps by requiring that people submit ideas or otherwise pressuring employees to participate. However, the result is likely to be a high number of mediocre ideas and duplicate ideas – all of which you will need to assign experts to review. This will eat up company resources without providing any discernible increase in the overall level of creativity.

Of course you could argue that a brilliant idea may be hidden in an employee’s head and without pushing for 100% participation, there is a chance that the idea may never be submitted. But let’s be honest. If an employee has a fantastic idea, particularly one that is a solution to a well-promoted innovation challenge, she will certainly submit it. Forced participation only pushes people without relevant ideas to participate. Alternatively, if everyone submits a great many ideas, you may find that your reviewers simply do not have the time or resources to review every idea properly. Hence, with massive levels of participation, that innovative idea may well be submitted – but never identified as a solution!

Realistic expectations and goals

Rather than focusing on maximizing the level of participation in your innovation initiative and especially in any ideas campaign or other event, you should focus on promoting the initiative and the challenge so that you can be sure that every eligible participant knows about it. That way, you can ensure that people with creative ideas will participate.

If you must look at participation rates, then you should consider anything above 25% as being good. Moreover, when you look at participation rates, look not only at idea submission, but also at collaboration. Most idea management tools now allow users to add building blocks or comments to ideas. Some people may be very active in building other ideas rather than submitting their own ideas.

And always keep in mind that the purpose of an ideas campaign or similar initiative is not to maximize the number of ideas. Rather it is to maximize innovation opportunities. Hence, your goal should be a high level of creativity rather than a high number of ideas.

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.