Thursday, April 29, 2010

Idea Management: Drop Box or Water Cooler

As a consultant who has participated in a lot of innovation projects, it's become fairly clear that there are at least two kinds of idea management systems deployed by firms.  I'll discuss them briefly and use the analogies of drop boxes and water coolers to stand in for these two competing concepts.

I'd first like to say that any systemic, enterprise wide, continuous innovation program needs to be supported by idea management tools.  Whether you choose, in alphabetical order, BrightIdea, Imaginatik, Intuit, Spigit or some other software application to help you capture and manage ideas, it is important to have some mechanism to capture, manage, and evaluate ideas.  And yes, I know there are other software products on the market.  These are the few I happen to be most familiar with.  Have questions about innovation software?  Contact us, and we can help you.

So, let's turn to the concept at hand:  idea management as drop box or water cooler.  Historically, idea management systems have resembled drop boxes.  An individual submitted an idea, to a "suggestion box" or some other drop location, and in many cases never understood if anything happened with the idea and had little communication about the idea again.  The premise was that someone would look at the idea and determine if the idea was valuable or not.  End of story.  Even today many innovation programs work this way.  A real or virtual drop box where individuals can submit ideas that are evaluated in secrecy, by experts, who decide what or how to implement.

As the concept of group action and social media has grown, the idea of innovation as a community activity has grown as well.  Crowdsourcing has become a new phenomenon, and many of the software vendors have followed suit.  We at OVO believe a software application should enable the capture of ideas, yes, but also enable the interaction with ideas and discussions, debates and conversations about ideas.  This is important because few ideas are ever implemented as they were conceived.  The best ideas are usually those that a group of people massage and "build on" to improve.  In the case of the drop box, that is very unlikely to happen.  In the case of idea management as a "water cooler" that is the intent.  If idea management is analogous to a water cooler, that means that an engaged set of people are actively working on and discussing/debating ideas.  This social activity improves the value of the ideas, makes the process more visible and transparent and increases engagement of the employee base.

Or at least that's what it should do.  Because many firms implement software to support innovation initiatives hoping to achieve the "water cooler" outcome, but forget that most of their employees are familiar with the drop box model.  We've taught people over time that they should drop their ideas in the box, like disposing of their trash, never to be seen or heard from again.  Even if we deploy systems that enable conversation and interaction, we won't get interaction and community engagement unless we set expectations for it.

I recently talked to a firm that had deployed a software application to capture ideas and had requested ideas from its community of employees and customers.  In three months they'd received a little more than 30 ideas.  Just because the system exists doesn't mean we've created the environment for a water cooler program to exist.

We advocate the concepts behind "water cooler" innovation.  This means an engaged team or community actively interacting with ideas.  To get that interaction, someone has to set the expectation.  While we expect the interaction, it isn't necessarily going to happen without encouragement or prodding.  This means influencing the culture, changing expectations about interacting online (and offline, by the way), establishing some rewards and recognition systems and communicating frequently and clearly about expectations.

Another thing:  don't expect that everyone is going to rush in and add ideas.  Our experience shows that for all the folks invited, about 20-30% of those invited will add ideas, and probably 15% or less will add multiple ideas.  That's not failure at the start - that's simply human nature.  The more aggressive and more adventurous will add ideas while others watch to see what happens.  If you reinforce success, you'll see those numbers increase.  But you can't expect that people who have been trained to the drop box model will actively engage when you roll out a "water cooler" concept.  It requires more than an interesting challenge and a new software application.  It requires executive commitment, communication, rewards and recognition and reinforcement by the top folks to recognize the success within the community, and encourage more and more of it.

You want the water cooler model for innovation, but your people are likely comfortable and expecting the drop box model.  After all, the drop box model is what they are used to, and requires little commitment and little engagement (and little risk) beyond submitting an idea.  What can you do to create virtual water coolers of innovation?  While any of the applications above can help you implement a water cooler model (in fact many of them are designed that way), evidence shows your folks don't have to use the features.  Even in a software application that's designed for community engagement, many people can simply show up, drop in an idea, and leave.  That's not a software issue - that's a cultural issue that has to be addressed outside the software.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:50 AM


Anonymous Nancy Grossbart said...

Great post. I started my career in the ad agency business. To this day, one of my favorite things to do is brainstorm so I know the dramatic outcome of the "water cooler affect". All of the great ideas I've participated in implementing have started with brainstorming. It always surprises me when people are to scared to speak up and share during these sessions. Some of the stupidest things I've said have made others in the group come up with the most brilliant ideas!

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for this time sharing of innovation about IDEA MANAGEMENT: DROP BOX OR WATER COOLER. This is really the best website about innovation i have ever read.
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6:05 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for highlighting various ways to manage ideas and innovation. Often companies choose innovation software based on their needs and budget. But a company can try several systems to decide the most effective way to manage its content and data.

10:23 PM  

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