Don’t Ask For New Ideas, If You Are Not Ready To Act On Them

Companies that focus on innovation often worry about how to encourage people to contribute ideas. But what happens when you ask people to participate in an innovation effort, and then get flooded with too many suggestions?

Faced with a declining market and needing to ramp up growth, a company decided to tap into employees’ collective brainpower. Using an intranet-based crowdsourcing approach, management asked employees to suggest ideas for new products and services, how to increase sales, and how to improve customer satisfaction. A communications campaign also encouraged people to use the platform to comment on and “like” others’ input. Within a few days, hundreds of ideas and discussion threads came in. When the submission period ended, the company had well over a thousand ideas.

Unfortunately, our client hadn’t expected this kind of response, and the small team charged with orchestrating the innovation event was quickly overwhelmed. It took them over a week just to sort the ideas into categories.

By the time the committee reviewed and discussed it, almost a month had passed since the end of the crowdsourcing event. It then took a couple more weeks before management finally thanked everyone and announced that senior executives would follow up on specific ideas to pursue.

The good news from this case, of course, is that employees were engaged. People from across the company logged onto the site and contributed ideas. The bad news is that senior management wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of suggestions — and in the absence of timely and effective follow-up, the event didn’t actually produce substantial results. The lack of follow up also potentially made employees more cynical about future innovation efforts.

There are several key lessons that can be derived from this story. The first is that innovation requires more than just coming up with ideas.

So if you’re going to start an innovation effort, think about how to orchestrate the process after you have ideas to work with. Another key lesson is to be more specific about the focus and criteria for submitted ideas. If the parameters are too general, it becomes difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Read More from Ron Ashkenas. Managing partner of Schaffer Consulting.

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