If you really want to innovate, ditch the suggestion box

Wendy Ferris Innovation

Let me state it boldly: employee “suggestion boxes” are not innovation programs.

Even if you disagree, it won’t take long to argue or find an example that proves that they are not effective. I have seen them disguised with slick technology, clever marketing, fun ‘games’ for idea generation, eye catching packaging or attractive incentives, but at the end of the day, it is still a program designed to simply generate and capture random ideas and then do nothing with them. That’s left for you to figure out.

As a former HR executive, it was my experience that these programs result in disillusioned and frustrated employees and a bunch of ideas that are an administrative nightmare to sort through and deal with. And if we are really honest, comparatively to the amount of time, resources or energy needed to run the program, a minority of the ideas that they capture are actually worth doing anything about.

Let me also state, equally as boldly, that it is not the employee’s fault. Quoting Dr. W Edwards Deming: 94% of the time the failure is due to the system.

So how do you set up a system that drives great ideas, engages and motivates employees and offers real, tangible results that support your business?

1.    Make the need for ideas real. Link your request for ideas to a specific, current business strategy and/or problem that really needs to be solved.

2.    Do one thing well. Keep your request for ideas focused on one mission at a time. Don’t cast a broad net for ideas in all areas of your organization, instead define the most urgent need and generate aligned suggestions.

3.    Define the sandbox and be clear about the kind of ideas that you’d consider. If you have a limited budget, be honest. If you are not interested in investing in new equipment or a new location, let them know. The clearer the parameters, the better ideas you’ll get.

4.    Focus on the direct input of a small, diverse team of employees from across the organization and make it a ‘mini project’. Give them 2 hours a week to meet for up to 12 weeks, and they will surprise you with the results, value and ROI that you’ll get.

5.    Support the team with a system, training, guidance and tools to come up with meaningful and unique ideas and solutions for your company. Increase their success with a full system that takes it beyond ‘creative idea generation’ or typical brainstorming and go further to drive innovations to market or implementation faster, while decreasing the risk of failure. (Bonus: you may get a patent out of the deal!)

6.    Don’t have the team focus only on the idea, but also on the business case. When’s the last time your suggestion box offered you ideas that were tested, proven and supported by financial analysis, forecasts, costs and profitability? Let the team learn and grow by doing the work that will help you to make an easy and smart decision for your company.

7.    Finally, once you have gotten to this point and have smart data to work with to move forward, you now have a group of employees that are engaged, invested and feel ownership. Tap into that and let them take it through the rapid development cycles until it’s ready to deliver or implement.

So instead of having to administer through a bunch of conceptual ideas, you now have smart, proven solutions that make sense for your business and are ready to implement to get a faster ROI and result for your company.

By making the change, you will have a system that delivers smart, well thought out, targeted solutions by engaged, motivated and passionate employees who feel purpose and ownership to help their company.

Who can’t love that idea?