What Makes a Good Idea Management System?

George Fankhauser
Apr 1 · 8 min read

How to evaluate, select and install an idea management system and how to justify its value

Have you ever tried to extract good ideas from your customers and employees? Did you come up with a continuous stream of ideas and sustainable innovations that boost the top-line of your company?

If you struggle with ideation as many innovation practitioners do, it is time to review a few essential principles an idea management system must provide.

Let’s start with a quick value proposition: the idea management system’s job is to turn ideas in a structured manner into fields worth exploring, testing and refining assumptions, and finally deciding on which bets to put your money. In other words, there are two distinct stages that usually happen iteratively:

  • Idea generation and collection: here we go for quantityas we are still dealing with uncertainty; the important guidance is the general direction of strategic initiatives that narrows the field of search.
  • Idea selection: at this stage we go for quality,so a lot of work needs to be invested in testing assumptions and setting up experiments that provide key insights with solid measures and argumentation for decisions. This part is systematic, driven by results and data collected.

This process is supplemented by characteristics that relate to attributes of the idea management system that reflect on the pains and gains of our value proposition:

  • Collaboration and usability are essential points of sharing and valuing the ideas and the work of others. If you do not get over this hurdle an idea management system deteriorates into another idea box or improvement list. There are several techniques that keep various groups interacting with themselves and with each other, e.g. anchoring strategic initiatives makes it much more likely to have frequent interaction between top- and middle-management.
  • Informed decisions and scalability: decision making is the crucial stepin bringing all the ideas, clusters, metrics, experiments and reviews together. You will be distilling hundreds of ideas, inputs and comments into a single innovation project. Comparing options at concept level or doing A/B-testing is not uncommon and must be part of the selection process.
  • Managing the system: behind the scenes an idea management system has creative minds, often filling the role as part-timers, setting up structures and running campaigns. Beyond single events this team will give a portfolio view of all initiatives across time horizons and other business specific metrics. One of their pain is complexity.

Below we dive into the criteria in detail which can get quite technical. If you are not sure why you need an idea management system and how to connect it to overall strategy within an organisation there is another approach described in “Why We Need Idea Management Systems”.

Criteria in Detail

The alluvial diagram below shows specific features that tie into above high-level criteria. As an example, weights are used on the features and the selection part to highlight the importance of these areas.

For your own purpose you will need to tailor the criteria checklist, and rearrange it to make an evaluation practical. Furthermore, the arrangement could follow a logical sequence to address the why, what and how.

For a first glimpse it is also ok to ignore the details and just stick to the major areas when assessing existing systems or “hot candidates”.

Idea collection and selection: criteria for a good idea management system

Criteria Checklist

In the following we discuss the criteria in more detail.

1. Searching, sorting and filtering: having thousands of ideas in a database requires fast retrieval.

2. With a large number of ideas, picture, documents, voice memo, videos will pile up too.

3. Grouping and clustering supports scale and makes decisions easier.

4. Scenarios and comparisons help deciding on clusters and may generate further ideas (e.g. exploring along dimensions, completing a 2x2 matrix).

5. A review may range from expert opinion to a formal process a team goes through; in ideation, as opposed to project management, this is usually a fast-paced comment or a specific slice in a workshop. Ideally it is captured and documented on the spot.

6. Experiment design may follow a template during selection. What information is crucial and missing? What are the weak parts of a tempting proposal? Are there implicit assumptions?

7. An expert assessment should be possible anytime, spontaneously or invited.

8. Hypothesis formulation and test planning is a key turning point that deserves both data structure and process. Do you use a template or does the system provide it up-front? What’s the organization’s usual gathering to work on?

9. Data-driven decision making: Does the system quantify ideas, clusters of them, add up ratings and allows to collect also information on how the team estimates implementation efforts?

10. On the practical side, does the idea management system work according to data privacy regulations?

11. Does it integrate into an existing system, if there is any, e.g. a workflow? Most of them will have core APIs or can be simply “zapiered”.

12. Does it import base data such as users and organizational structures?

13. Does it export raw data (brain dump)?

14. Does it generate readable reports?

15. How easy is it to setup and manage key structures and map your company’s strategic initiatives?

16. Are there dashboards for both status and progress related metrics?

17. Minimal process: is there one, is it flexible? Does the supplier of the system provide both database models and process descriptions that you really understand?

18. What classifications are preset, what can be added (from generic like stages, horizons H1/H2/H3, regions, to specifics like markets, technologies or even key customers)?

19. Out of classification, can you build portfolios views, e.g. take any 2 dimensions for visualization?

20. In general, submitting an idea must be quick and spontaneous; a mobile-first software implementation has to provide an anytime/anywhere experience.

21. How is an idea expressed, what can the system capture and which use case is your most frequent one? On a factory shop floor, a comment with a few close-ups of a part maybe ok while a truck driver in a quarry prefers to add an observation in a quick video.

22. Media material needs to be annotated and enriched to make all ideas searchable and readable in collections and reports.

23. How much is the crowd used, e.g. by voting internally or putting a campaign on a specific landing or home page for your visitors, paying customers? Can you convert a service complaint into a constructive feedback?

24. Participation: Ideation only works as an end-to-end experience. Anyone providing a good idea must get feedback at each stage of transformation. I’m curious to know why my idea got clustered a certain way or why the team thinks some assumptions require further testing. And I might happen to have more evidence already…

25. Most socially oriented idea management systems provide a commentary function but just happen to stop there.

26. Gamification: this might be a minor point of usability, but leaderboards, badges and the like are nice little virtual incentives for users.

27. Strategic initiatives: if this link is missing a lot of ideation power will just evaporate.

28. Likewise, ask for ideas when they are needed. Does the system have a strong concept of campaigning and communicating what’s needed?

29. As generation and selection are the basic playgrounds, how does the system connect the two? Does it serve your needs with regards to iterations, collaboration, and communication?

30. Regarding communications such as alerts and reminders, is the system persistent and non-intrusive at the same time? What do first-time and experienced users say about its communication style?

31. Finally, check complexity. In general, I recommend a fast and lean system missing some bells and whistles over a complex, large software that can do everything, requires endless configuration, and slows down everyday use (as this will be a trade-off “make the frequent case fast”).

Evaluation and Installation

While working through the idea generation and selection areas first you will probably get an idea which systems could work for your environment and culture.

Looking closer at usability and management criteria above will further reduce valid options and systems that you actually can test. It’s important for testing to stick with some of the quite tough criteria and evaluate under real-life conditions.

Migrations from existing systems may do the same and use existing data to populate a new tool.

Conclusion

Above criteria are a good start to consider a professional idea management system. They are certainly not complete and should be tweaked according to an industry’s specific needs.

Maintain a system over a long time as it will become your company’s innovative brain, document earlier experiments, and keep track of the innovation portfolio. Very importantly, it will allow you with very little setup time to start new ideation campaigns — an often-heard argument against ideation is that setup cost is too high when starting up from zero.

What’s the cost of an idea management system? What’s the value and payback? In my experience, running 3–4 ideation campaigns a year will pay back your investment from an efficiency perspective alone. Adding the effectiveness (quality of selection, prevention of lost ideas or wrong directions, etc.) is a huge value everyone will agree upon. In contrast, the solution with a negative payback is to do nothing at all and miss more and more growth opportunities. With a typical cost point of 1–2 USD per user and month an idea management system will cost a 250–500 employee SME around 5 to 10 kUSD. Large corporations and MNCs may expect volume discounts from this point.

Having used home-grown system as an alternative I know this can turn into a maintenance mess and never achieves effectiveness of a professional software. For small companies, there are affordable choices among the 20 to 30 global suppliers, some offering even free use for very small settings.

A third approach might work depending on your IT infrastructure, when re-using an existing knowledge sharing system, such as a wiki. Yet, it will take a long time and experience to set it up.

Compared to its lifetime, an idea management system is quickly configured and installed. If sponsorship and key roles are present, the selection and test drive can happen within 2 weeks.

In general, I recommend to just try it out, test several prototypes and systems, ask an experienced practitioner, preferably with some pitfalls to talk about too.

If you will focus on content and activation, the strategic initiatives and upcoming campaigns (e.g. your next innovation workshop), you will stand a good chance to be up and running in a week!

© Copyright 2019, George Fankhauser, Sensaco GmbH

George Fankhauser

Written by

George is an innovation consultant for Sensaco GmbH, based in Zürich. Read more and contacts at http://innovationmanager.ch/en/blog .

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