In my latest exclusive interview, I speak to Simon Hill, voted Guardian Small Business Leader of the Year and CEO of Wazoku on what it takes to get idea management systems to actually deliver results.
Over the past 5 years, there has been a lot of buzz about software tools which can help companies become more innovative. They go by many names, including Idea Management, Open Innovation, Crowdsourcing and Innovation Management systems.
One of the fastest-growing systems out there is by a company called Wazoku, whose CEO and Co-Founder Simon Hill was this year voted the Guardian Small Business Leader of the Year (and also happens to have started with me at my previous company).
There are differences between what the systems from different providers are capable of, but in general they all have the same aim: To enable companies to gather ideas from as many people as possible, and then help evaluate, find and deliver those ideas which will benefit the business the most.
Here you can find my exclusive video interview with Simon on what it takes to actually get Idea Management to deliver results at your company.
Top 4 insights on getting Idea Management systems to work for you:
1. Many of the original systems failed because they couldn’t adapt to the context of individual businesses
Idea Management Systems have been evolving over the past few years. However, those of us in the innovation industry who have watched the results of big companies trying these systems out noticed that the initial excitement behind the potential of these systems soon became more skeptical after engagement levels dropped following big launches. In fact, there’s even a debate whether the use of such systems is more about marketing innovation rather than delivering innovation.
Simon’s insight is that the software systems had to evolve, as the first versions were limited by the technology at the time and were quite inflexible in how they could be used or what they were capable of. What quickly became apparent is that in order to work well, the systems needed to be able to adapt to various business contexts, not only between various industries (like different mentalities between media companies and energy companies), but also between departments and locations within the same company.
The whole process also needs to fit into the way the business currently operates:
These can’t be standalone platforms, they need to be tied into the other things you’re doing as an organisation … does it fit with your Sharepoint, your Programme Management tools, other things you’re using in the business once you’ve gone from Seed Idea to Project through to Delivery?
Idea Management systems will look to get ideas from a workforce that could include hundreds of thousands of people in some cases. If you are consider gathering ideas from a large number of people, it’s imperative that you consider how this fits into the working habits of the various people you are seeking to engage. For example, certain employees working at the checkout of a supermarket don’t even have company email addresses, so should this be a required piece of information? And if not, what could you use to track a good idea back to its origin?
2. Software systems do not replace humans in the innovation process
The beauty of software systems like this is that they can dramatically speed up the gathering of ideas. This is partially because these systems can automate a lot of tasks, such as categorising ideas and then feeding results through to the right people and getting feedback on ideas from a large group of people.
But ultimately, whether or not an idea is accepted to be taken forward or not needs to rely on a decision-making person. Simon says:
I think we’ve succeeded when we help ‘Great Idea A’ reach ‘Decision Maker Y’ in the shortest time possible. And ultimately that’s important, because they need to know that the idea fits the strategy.
Just as important is clarity on who is driving these programmes internally. For an Idea Management project or Open Innovation Programme to succeed, it needs to be seen as a priority from the very top of the business, usually at the CEO level or equivalent.
Now this does NOT mean that the CEO has to be the decision-maker for all of the ideas for such a system. Far from it. If the system is designed with business context in mind, then it will be clear which decision-makers will be involved in which types of ideas.
What is important is that everyone being asked to get involved in the programme understands what the business is hoping to achieve from it, and why it’s important for the business. And this message is the clearest if it comes from the people responsible for the business, such as the CEO. Even if it’s as simple as a message or short video informing staff about the launch of an idea gathering programme, this has been shown to raise engagement levels. If people know they are being challenged to innovate, they are more likely to do it.
3. Be clear about the timeframes you’re working towards and communicate progress
One of the main value drivers of software solutions like Wazoku is that they significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to gather and manage ideas. Simon notes an example where a client had previously tried a crowdsourcing project where people submitted ideas by email. This resulted in over 10,000 emails, which they then had to pay a consultant to categorise over four months. Using a system like this, it can be done in a matter of days or even hours.
However, what often leads to frustrations after a big, energetic launch is that once people submit an idea, very little seems to happen next. This is one of the primary reasons why the first launch of an idea management platform usually has higher engagement rates than subsequent efforts with the system, as people easily become disenfranchised if they do not see their idea go anywhere.
Even though the timeframe of gathering ideas should be clear (e.g. one month: Sep 2013), so should the timeframes around what happens afterwards, even if they are vague. Because if people only know about the first stage and it appears very quick, the assumption is the rest of the process will be as well.
Innovation is an ongoing process which involves much more than just gathering and selecting ideas. Therefore, any idea management system also needs to fit in with the overall timeframes for innovation.
Our pilot programmes typically run for 12 months
One thing which Simon has found that really helps engagement and energy behind these projects is to give the participants feedback on what has happened to their idea after they submitted it. This could include letting them know that someone is in the process of evaluating all of the ideas, that their idea was evaluated but that other ideas were stronger and theirs will be kept in a pool for the future, or that their idea has been approved to be taken further.
4. Find out what incentivises your people to participate
Most companies, large and small, have not yet tried out ways to get ideas from all across the business. In fact, Simon notes that only about 25% of the companies they work with had previously tried such a programme or project. Therefore, implementing an Idea Management system and asking for ideas from everyone can often be a significant change in a company’s innovation culture.
Simon’s experience though is that if you want to get maximum participation from your people, you need to find out what will encourage them to participate. There are various things which people react to as incentives, such as:
- Small amount of money for a submitted idea
- Larger amount of money for an accepted idea
- Submission of ideas being noted in staff performance appraisals
- Opportunity to get additional holiday days for accepted ideas
- Finding out the CEO is reviewing your idea
- Understanding WHY the CEO and board members care about their involvement in the project
All of these, and many more, have been tried by many companies. And some will work at one company while failing at another. The secret is to find out what will have the most impact at your business.
Extra note: Even though we didn’t go into detail during the interview, my professional view is that money is the worst incentive for getting people involved in innovation. This is because once you begin paying people for ideas, the ideas become a commodity. This not only makes people less willing to share ideas internally, they also become more protective of them. In fact, a number of recent surveys have shown that money is actually one of the least important incentives for participation in innovation, ranking behind the feeling of involvement in changing things and even non-financial incentives.
If you would like to find out more about Wazoku, their client success stories and what they may be able to do for you, go to www.wazoku.com
Has your company ever tried to gather ideas from across the organisation? How successful was it? Let me know in the comments below