Gone are the days of the suggestion boxes that tend to act as metaphorical coffins for employee ideas. There is now a trend of organizations wanting to spend time listening to ideas and making them pay through investment in ideation software and processes. There is a real ambition not to let ideas die as they may have done previously.
This sort of investment is a step in the right direction, but I have seen organizations struggle with the success of their ideation process for various reasons. There seems to be an expectation that investing in an ideation platform is the answer to all issues, but there are still challenges relating to poor choice of platform, challenging cultures or inadequate processes. Without these challenges being addressed, it feels as though organizations have simply invested in a digital place for employee ideas to gather dust.
The biggest factor people tend to forget about when investing in employee ideas is the quality of the ideas themselves. In my opinion, any investment and strategic prioritization should be centered around the quality of ideas the strategy will be producing.
Ideation is an incredibly fragile process that draws on many sensitive human traits in order to get it absolutely right. In this blog, I will focus on the ideation process with the main focus on generating good ideas.
Creating a Space to Ideate
Before you even consider the quality of ideas being shared as part of your ideation process, you first need to look at the environment in which you are asking people to ideate.
To use an analogy, let’s think of the ideation process like baking bread - you can have all of the correct ingredients, mixed in the correct order and in the correct quantities, but without the right conditions to prove the bread, you won’t have a mixture that will rise and baking the bread will be pointless.
The same goes for ideation. You can have the best communications and endless funding, but without a good structure, an easy-to-use platform or the right culture, your ideation process will fail, and you won’t have the ability to receive good ideas from your organization.
There are three key aspects that I would like to share with you, which I believe are the key ingredients in creating a place to successfully ideate:
- Provide an easy place to share ideas
- Provide a structure that enables good ideas to be shared
- Set clear expectations and ground rules.
Let’s look at these in more detail to explain the thinking behind the statements.
Providing an Easy Place to Share Ideas
Here at edison365, we have vast experience with customers that are unsure as to whether they need a platform to share ideas. I completely understand that this capital expenditure may seem pointless and risky when so much is already invested into IT tools and processes.
Speaking from this experience, an ideation platform must be an investment that is made early in the ideation journey to ensure you have the infrastructure to support the process from the very beginning.
Any platform selected needs to be easy and fit for purpose. When selecting the platform, always have the outputs in mind - do you just want the quantum of ideas or is your focus more on delivering ideas and reporting? Regardless of the outputs that the organization wants, the platform must make it easy for people to share ideas as any barriers to sharing will turn people off quickly and kill your ideation process straight away.
Providing a Structure that Promotes Good Ideas
Once you have the place to share ideas, you need the structure that makes submitting ideas easy. More importantly, you need a structure that prevents the submission of bad ideas, which makes the whole exercise pointless.
This structure can come in many different shapes and sizes, but I would like to focus on the actual format you are asking ideators to submit their ideas in. This, more than an ideation process, will have the most direct impact on the quality of ideas submitted.
For any idea form to be of good quality, you will need to have a number of key fields that are required to be filled in - this ensures you have maximum control over the information being provided throughout the ideation process. Some of the key fields of information that need to be provided are as follows:
- Idea title - give the ideator the opportunity to make a statement and provide their idea with a shop window that will allow them to sell their idea to those required to vote and review. Encourage the use of catchy or ‘sticky’ titles that draw people in and bring some interest.
- Detailed description - you need to give the ideator the opportunity to go into detail about what their idea is trying to solve. However, I would recommend having some control over the length - you want to discourage too much writing. Remember, you want the ideation process to be a success, so you don’t want to be turning people off with reams and reams of text.
- Interesting and clear categories - providing idea categories is the quickest and easiest way to enable your ideators to add detail to their idea submission, along with providing key insights to the organization. Categories enable you to add granularity to an idea while getting away from wordy descriptions. Adding categories also allows you to easily filter different ideas and report against them - always bear in mind the outputs and the way you want to manage the ideation process when you are introducing the likes of categories and themes.
- Key metrics - as an organization you need to understand what you need to know about ideas that are submitted. Cost of implementation? Time taken to implement? Strategic impact? You need to be clear about this information and you also need to highlight its importance to your ideators. They need to know the key metrics you need to be answered and the detail you require. This also provokes another layer of thinking from the ideator to improve the quality of the idea submitted - the more you challenge the ideator’s thinking, the more detailed and considered the ideas submitted will be.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but what it shows is that providing a structure that suits both the organization and those submitting ideas will enhance the quality of ideas being submitted and increase the success rate of ideas as a result. If you want to discover more thinking around ideation structure, my previous blog discusses key ingredients that lead to a successful challenge.
Setting Some Ground Rules
Similar to providing structure to your ideation process and forms, setting ground rules and some clear expectations is a great way of letting your ideators know what you expect from their ideas while being open and honest as an organization as to what you will be doing with their ideas once submitted.
Setting ground rules isn’t all about the demands of the organization and any expectations, although this is important. This should be used as an opportunity for leaders and those responsible for leading any ideation process to show some vulnerability and say that ‘we don’t have all of the answers’ and ‘we need your help solving business-wide challenges’. This needs to be clear in the messages you are putting out there. It has been seen many times that when those in positions of power show some vulnerability and admit they don’t have all of the answers, it actually improves employee engagement and leads to more successful projects within an organization.
From my experience, there are three simple ways to set ground rules and expectations that promote the engagement of your employees and the sharing of good quality ideas:
- Good ideas only - Make it clear from the outset that the quality of ideas matters. Be clear that the idea forms need filling in with the required detail and quality for ideas to be considered. Show the organization that you are taking the ideation process seriously and that ‘any idea’ won’t be accepted but ideas ‘submitted with care’ absolutely will. It is easy to do this with clear user guides, good communications and a robust and transparent reviewing process. Find out what makes a good idea here.
- Be clear about what happens to ideas - Let employees know where their ideas go and be transparent about the process all ideas will be going through. Show off your ‘funnels’, processes and decision trees. Be clear about idea status, even if that status isn’t a successful one. People want clarity, regardless of success, so showing how the ideas are moving through the process will be an ideal way of showing the whole organization that work is being done in the background to make a success of the ideation process.
- Why should employees bother? - You need to let employees know it is worth their time to get involved in your ideation project. We mentioned that simply being a ‘visible leader’ will encourage people to get involved but setting up a reward and recognition scheme will also help this engagement and involvement. The rewards don’t have to be expensive and in fact, I have found cheap but personal gestures work best. For example, sending out handwritten thank you cards was an incredible success in a project I was involved in. A large part of the rewards and recognition is that second part - recognition. For this, communications are absolutely key. You need to be transparent about the best ideas and what those that submit great ideas receive. You need to communicate how much you appreciate employees taking the time to submit their ideas. You also need to communicate the fact you even appreciate those ideas that weren’t successful.
To summarize the above: creating a successful ideation process is all about having clarity in your communications. Communicate your expectations. Communicate your challenges. Communicate the successes. This openness will be so powerful and only result in better ideas being submitted.
Although this was mainly aimed at those setting up and launching an ideation process, there are takeaways for anyone that is involved in business leadership, project management and change management.
- You need to keep things simple and accessible so that all employees can be involved.
- You need to create a safe space that allows everyone’s contribution to be on a level playing field, ensuring no information is missed.
- You need to put a structure around this accessibility to ensure there is order around the direction of travel.
Above all, communicating intentions, processes, successes, and failures will break down all walls and any perceived bureaucracy associated with the ideation project and the levels of engagement will reflect this openness and willingness to communicate.