Four Levels for Great Ideas

If you ever wonder about the maturity of your company's ideation process, these four levels are a simple yardstick – whether you have software to support them or not.

Level One is the age-old suggestion box. It's been around forever and is the entry level of all suggestion collection schemes.  If your reception desk still has a shoe box with a slit cut in it, it may be time to modernize, but don't be too hasty to dismiss this level. There can be enormous value in an elementary starting point. At its very simplest, it conveys the message “we're interested”, but its effectiveness is completely dependent upon feedback. If you can tell your idea-giver what you did with her brainchild it completes a positive feedback loop and you're likely to get future engagement. If you can't, the first idea is likely to be the last.

How you process the idea is also relevant of course.  Staying with the shoe box metaphor, empty the box at the end of the day and pin each idea on the notice board. Passers-by comment, move them around and might even make more suggestions. The idea might get improved and endorsed – or the pin probably got reused for a better idea already.

What's wrong with the suggestion box? It lacks focus.

Level Two is the idea campaign. It's like having three shoe boxes. A silver one asks for cost reduction ideas, a green one is of course for environmental sustainability and a red one has a label that reads ‘What do we do about China?'  The software savvy reader will know campaigns and challenges can be dynamic, usually providing top-down categorization of what the company is interested in – ideas aligned to strategy, in response to competitive pressure, regulatory changes or market demand for ‘new'.  The idea list can be moderated and assessed as a group, letting the cream rise to the top during community discussions, voting, i-share dealing and other collaborative opportunities that the software provides.

Campaigns can also be used to inspire and encourage innovation from within the organization, not just orchestrated from above but I witness few organizations tapping this potential.  A mature idea process will interlock with diverse downstream activities and it's within these research, product development, cost reduction, technology development and myriad other processes that challenges arise. It's not just the big idea, but also the small hurdle that idea campaigns can address.  Release the inventiveness of the organization on the micro-innovation challenges to create a truly innovative organization.

Level Three gives an excellent opportunity to use campaigns among your expert knowledge workers – it's the Expert Community or Centre of Excellence. So open the shoe box, pick some ideas and pin them on the laboratory notice board. Preferably near the coffee machine. Not only does the expert community represent a melting-pot of expert ideas, but it gives an excellent target to direct your campaigns at. Letting that same community raise its own challenges empowers and enriches an innovation culture. Discussion groups and community forums have been around since the dawn of the internet. Many expert communities already exist and our knowledge workers are familiar with them, but it means you may need to tap into existing ones to really find the nuggets of gold. The next generation will, I predict, see the operation of virtual communities, not explicitly joined by anyone. Topic clouds, watch lists, dynamic profiling all contribute to identifying a topically coherent population.

Finally, Level Four is social networking.  Here I'm not referring to the mining of external social media for public opinion and insights. Large CPG organizations in particular are investing significantly in this, and it's not so relevant for other industries and B2B business models. What I'm hoping to see replicates the fun and valuable interactivity of the social media but with your internal community, your partners and ecosystem.  If you're already Chattering or Yammering, how are you connecting these to your innovation processes? -  the real value for our Level Four is when there's an explicit effort to glean ideas from the social ‘noise'.

You don't have to be under 24 years of age and technically savvy to be connected these days.  But for our unconnected friends, level four probably means standing around the coffee machine, lunch room and bar, and capturing the ideas that float around in the discussion. It's just that by using software you're less likely to be accused of stalking.

In business, social media capabilities are emerging more slowly than they have done publicly, as both IT and management have been nervous of the impact on performance and productivity.  However, finding a way to tap into the rich fabric of the internal community is a goal that few organizations have achieved. As people interact, comment, ‘follow' thought leaders and develop watch lists, it represents a layer of ideation and which could prove to be the richest vein of ideas for the future.

Steve Rogers is an Innovation Business Consultant with Sopheon. He has more than 20 years of experience in creating and implementing business process solutions, with an emphasis on product development. He has worked with best-in-class product innovation systems for major corporations in a range of industries, including consumer goods, chemicals, aerospace and defense, and hi-tech.

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