I believe passionately in the power of ideas. A great idea can transform a business, disrupt a market, change or even save a life, etcetera, etcetera. The scope, potential and reach of ideas is limitless and boundless.

I also know first hand that ideas are complex, divisive, certainly not all created equal and can be extremely personal or totally throw away. As businesses we have treated ideas with far too little respect for far too long.  We have dumbed them down and put them in the corner; everyone has seen a suggestion box Wooden Suggestion Box with a jagged hole cut for suggestions, wrapped in last Christmas’s left over gift wrap and thrown on a table somewhere. Amazingly, the ideas captured in this highly engineered ideas box are rarely of any use and are typically a moan or a scribble and probably just as often some disgarded chewing gum or bus ticket. Garbage in, garbage out.

As the organisational drive for innovation to become more than just a specialist function for the few, and instead become an organisation-wide capability and cultural asset, so technology has emerged to facilitate and enable this at scale. These tools, often referred to as Idea Management software, are highly specialised solutions that underpin an organisational culture of innovation and bring structure, workflow, data, social engagement and analytics. Do not think of these as a suggestion box 2.0 however, these tools are sophisticated engagement solutions and can (will) deliver significant value to your organisation. They are fast becoming must have solutions for all businesses and should be a part of your systems thinking going forward.

What is an idea management system?

Idea management is still quite a new specialism within the enterprise software space, so don’t worry if you haven’t come across this technology before. An idea management system is a piece of software that helps organisations to gather ideas from key stakeholders (employees, partners, customers, the wider world) and provides the tools and mechanisms to manage these ideas through the innovation process, to help rapidly evaluate, prioritise, develop and ultimately deliver the ideas to market. As organisations we compete on the speed at which we can discover, develop and implement ideas to meet our, and more importantly, our customers’ needs. Idea management software allows organisations of all sizes to cost effectively tap in to the collective creativity of any group of stakeholders. Sounds great, right?

As leaders in our organisations, this is a technology trend we cannot ignore. No doubt you have tried, and failed with, numerous idea schemes in the past, but the sector is now reaching maturity. As organisations we are facing the perfect storm of drivers for these solutions:

  • the need to engage stakeholders,
  • the desire to facilitate innovation and a culture of innovation and
  • an ethos of continuous improvement and need for digital transformation.

Most importantly, the tools themselves are now flexible and powerful enough to meet these requirements, but choose wisely!.

An idea management system is not a suggestion box. Historically, many large companies have relied upon suggestion box systems to gather ideas from their employees. But these systems often suffer from a number of common shortcomings:

  • A lack of focus on specific business goals means they tend to attract a small volume of low-quality ideas and typically become ‘whinging boxes’.
  • A lack of transparency and collaboration means once an employee submits an idea, he or she usually never learns what became of it. As a result, employees often became cynical and no longer contribute their ideas to the programme.
  • The very nature of a suggestion box makes it impossible to ensure that all ideas are evaluated on a timely basis and in a consistent manner, makes scale impossible and provides no scope for data, learning, reward, recognition, etc.Suggestion Box
  • No one in a leadership position has ever taken the idea of a suggestion box seriously. A shoe-box covered in wrapping paper with a hole cut for ideas says a lot about how important the ideas scheme is to a company.

Case study: Idea Management at Toyota
Toyota’s idea management scheme has been running for 65 years (yes, you read that right!) and has delivered well over 20 million ideas (that too!).  Toyota didn’t invent this process, it actually took the idea from Ford, following a visit by Toyoda and Saito to Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit in 1950-51. Toyota took the scheme they observed in Detroit and they built it into the very core of their organisational culture.

During its first year (1951) there were 789 suggestions and awards totaling $2,638. Both the quantity and quality of the suggestions were rather low. One reason apparently was that employees thought “creative ideas” must be something like “big inventions”. Consequently, Shoichi Saito, father of the creative idea suggestion system, started emphasizing quantity and efforts were made to increase the number of suggestions. They reworked the branding of the scheme to make it more accessible, they changed the messaging, mandated that all senior leaders have a role within the scheme and much more besides (I will write another post outlining this, so keep an eye out).

It took 20 years to reach 100,000 ideas a year. During the same period, ideas per person per year increased from 0.1 to 2.2. Collaboration on ideas increased. Tracking of ideas improved. The implementation and testing process for ideas evolved. Yasuda writes “One factor responsible for increasing the number of suggestions at Toyota is the element of company culture called “on-site actual checks”. This means that before judging whether a certain idea will be successful, it is first tried out. To see whether something is suitable for customer, the first thing is to check is the customer’s actual situation”. Failures are treated in a positive way, with absolutely no criticism. This minimizes the chances of rejection from the selection committee and helps keep the morale up for the employees submitting ideas. Toyata in recent years is reported to implement approaching 1 million ideas per annum. 65 years of building this into their culture has delivered the true essence of EveryDay innovation. (Source: 40 Years, 20 Million Ideas: The Toyota Suggestion System Hardcover – 1 Nov 1990 – by Yuzo Yasuda).

If building a culture of innovation is important to you and your organisation, then treat it as such. Idea management systems provide structured processes for evaluating and sharing ideas against articulated business challenges and requirements, providing a focus and therefore resulting in a more targeted set of ideas. Wazoku has an approach to building a culture of innovation that they call EveryDay innovation, which challenges leaders within organisations to think about how they can enable innovation at every level of the organization, across every team, every single day. It might sound daunting, but this is what is expected of truly world class organisations in the 21th century; as the pace of change and disruption increases, agility and adaptability across the organization becomes more and more a fundamental and core capability requirement.