10 Key Lessons on how to Generate Ideas from Employees
When your CEO asks you to create an idea management process to generate ideas from employees it sounds simple right? All you need is some software (an employee suggestion system to capture ideas) and wait for the ideas flood in. 15 years ago, this was exactly my thought process and I was perplexed when very few ideas were actually submitted.
Looking back now I realise how naive I was. Today, experience and passion have replaced naivety and youthfulness. Having driven idea management programs and designed many innovation management tools for the enterprise, I have a better understanding what’s required to collect great ideas from employees, and also how to engage them in other people’s ideas.
Here are some of my Idea Management lessons from the last decade and a half. These lessons will guide you if you are starting out on your continuous innovation journey.
10 Key Lessons on how to Generate Ideas from Employees
Lesson 1: Leaders must show the way
The quickest way to generate ideas from employees is for them to see their own leadership teams active and engaged. Lead and others will follow!
Having leadership teams communicating updates and acknowledging individual accomplishments is very useful. However, nothing actually beats having them interacting directly with ideas and engaging in the idea management process itself. It is this active engagement that sends a ripple effect through an organisation and encourages employee participation.
And probably not surprising, the quickest way for any initiative to fail is to see their leadership teams disengage. This leads me nicely onto the next lesson.
Lesson 2: Don’t let that initial momentum die
This is true for most company initiatives but particularly true when it comes to idea management. There is a great push to launch a new initiative to generate ideas. However, that initial momentum soon begins to slow and longer periods of inactivity creep in. There are generally two main causes for this:
- poor (or lack of) communications
- little or no engagement by the leadership teams
The first is fairly easy to resolve with a clear communication strategy and regular updates. The second however is more difficult to prevent as leaders often become more and more distracted with other business priorities.
Lesson 3: Lead with passion and influence
Innovation is a business-critical initiative. However, many organisations still see it as a second-tier business objective.
66% of the 800+ executives surveyed worldwide confirmed that their organisations could not survive without innovation.
source: PA Consulting Innovation Matters 2017 report
Therefore, the leader has to have passion for ideation to be able to drive adoption with employees. The sponsor must have the influential skills and willingness to keep innovation at the forefront of the executive’s minds.
Innovation is an initiative that every company should be embracing. With the right leadership, success is only an idea away.
Lesson 4: Not all tools for innovation are the same
Embracing ideation as a key business initiative is the first step. Next is choosing the right innovation management tools to generate ideas from your employees.
All tools for innovation should:
- be simple to use – there’s nothing worse than the employee suggestion system being too complicated
- be easily accessible (including mobile) – inspiration can strike at any time!
- allow discussions around an idea – collaboration turns a good idea into a great innovation
- integrate into the existing digital landscape – embed ideation as an everyday business activity
- include Artificial Intelligence – accelerate the decision-making process
Understanding that not all tools for innovation are the same has been one of the key lessons that has taken me a long time to get right. It has required a lot of trial and error in designing different innovation management tools.
Check out this buyer’s guide to best idea management software for an in-depth understanding on choosing the right tools to generate ideas.
Lesson 5: Don’t make it standalone
People are inherently creatures of habit who do not always embrace change easily. Consequently, a standalone platform to generate ideas is much more difficult to attract employee contribution than one that already integrates into their existing company’s digital landscape. There was a 20x increase in user interactions for an employee suggestion system that I helped design for a Fortune 500 company, when it integrated with their existing social network digital infrastructure.
There is tremendous value in having the latest business challenges, ideas and discussions feed into a company’s intranet. Ideas filter through seamlessly and become part of the daily business workflow of employees.
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Lesson 6: Artificial Intelligence is your friend
Enterprise innovation cannot be successful without Artificial Intelligence!
Bold statement but let me tell you why. Over the years there has inherently been two major flaws with innovation management tools once employees begin sharing their ideas. The first is how to find the right Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) to collaborate on ideas and help turn them into potential innovations. The second, and the biggest bottleneck in the idea management process, is how to choose the right ideas to progress with.
Assigning time, money and resources is the next step to now turn these selected ideas into real business solutions. However, the responsibility and time-consuming exercise of fishing for the right ideas from a sea of hundreds (maybe even thousands) is the decision of the management teams whom are already under incredible time pressures.
This results in a bottleneck in the idea management process and where the initiative often fails. I have experienced this situation many times both as a contributor and as a leader.
It is a similar story in knowing who the right Subject Matter Experts are. Ideas shared by employees are in their rawest form and often need refinement before presenting to management for a decision.
Artificial Intelligence can help in both these situations by analysing all the Big Data captured, including all user interactions with each idea, and applying a machine learning algorithm. In laymen terms, this means over time it can learn who the successful contributors are to specific types of ideas and automatically recommend (or even assign) them to similar ideas in the future. Artificial Intelligence can also predict the best ideas for management to move forward with.
And the best news is that whilst more ideas shared causes an even bigger bottleneck in the idea management process when having to select ideas manually, it actually increases the accuracy when you allow Artificial Intelligence to do the same job.
Lesson 7: Acknowledge the idea-makers and contributors
I ran an internal survey a few years ago asking employees what type of rewards would encourage them to be an active contributor to ideation. The results shocked me as I was expecting “money” to be the top response. Actually “recognition by one’s peers and leaders” was the overwhelming winner.
Therefore, including a way to recognise and reward successful contributors who generate ideas and making it a part of the communication strategy, is often a great way to organically influence other employees to get involved.
Lesson 8: Avoid the dreaded idea black hole
Many employees interact with customers regularly and therefore they are a critical knowledge asset to solving a company’s business challenges. But for employees to continuously engage in ideation they need motivating. There are many ways to do this, but an employee can quickly become demotivated if ideas they have shared just sit there with no feedback.
So, avoid ideas falling into a black-hole, and demotivating employees, by creating a feedback process on ideas. Appointing ambassadors is a great way to achieve this which leads me to the next lesson.
Lesson 9: Bring on the Ambassadors
Build it and they will come!
This is something I have heard many times when it comes to software for ideas. Unsurprisingly it is very rarely true. And even less true when it comes to employee suggestion systems in large enterprises.
The solution to this is to create an Ideation Ambassador role, where the primary responsibility is to drive awareness, encourage engagement and support groups within the organisation (this could be split by country, industry, line of business or even a mix). This role should be an add-on to an existing role and shouldn’t be more than 5-10% of someone’s’ time. However, it is an essential role for organisations with an employee base typically over 1,000 people.
Lesson 10: Make it fun!
Ideas flow best when the environment created to do so is enjoyable. I have seen some of the best innovations spawned when countries have hosted Innovation Days where employees come together and collaborate in a relaxed and fun way. So, don’t be afraid to get creative to encourage employees to engage in ideation.
With enthusiasm for the creative and an eye for the detail, fused with 15+ years at Oracle leading cloud software teams to create complex innovation solutions, David drives the digital marketing strategy.