A Stream of Ideas: the foundation of an ‘Innovation machine’

An unsupervised ideation framework as the driver of innovation

A stream of ideas driving innovation — image: pixabay

Modern corporations need to embrace real innovation as part of their day-to-day business. They need to operate in an ‘actionable innovation’ mode where, on one hand, employees actively participate in the idea generation process and on the other hand, executives constantly evaluate ideas and business opportunities in an experimentation-driven setup.

But, would employees share their ideas? What would they expect in return? What is the value for the company? How could leadership motivate and reward employees?

To reach this ‘actionable innovation’ state, corporations need to develop a special culture and establish the mechanisms to encourage idea sharing and collaboration.

Assuming the innovation culture is there, sharing an idea naturally triggers a number of positive reactions and possibilities: the idea owner receives instant visibility and recognition, while interested colleagues can provide constructive feedback, collaborate by extending the idea and experiment with possible implementations and outcomes. In parallel, the right business executives and product owners are invited to evaluate specific ideas (which are relevant to their expertise and role) and make informed decisions on possible next steps.

Read on to get answers and advice on establishing a powerful stream of ideas towards the ‘actionable innovation’ mode.

The mindset

Inspire ideation, remove the blockers

Yes, employees have great ideas, but in most of the cases they do not communicate them or they do not properly support them resulting in limited attention by the company. This happens due to several reasons including an unfriendly environment shaped by a culture that does not understand, value or reward ideation.

In the typical corporate setup, moving an idea forward can prove to be costly, inefficient and frustrating: assuming that an idea worth exploring is there, the owner needs to try hard to package it, share it and communicate it to the right people. This requires significant effort (content creation, exploration of the corporate hierarchy, presentation to attract attention and influence the right people) with no guaranteed result: ideas usually end-up forgotten or abandoned due to workload, bad timing, lack of engagement and limited attention.

There are many more blockers preventing a culture of ideas sharing and collaboration, including:

The fear of exposure

Employees may be afraid or discouraged to share their ideas: an idea might look ‘crazy’, naïve or not feasible. This can be handled and fixed with proper communication and training and also through a flexible idea capturing process which allows the employee to submit the idea anonymously and capture feedback on its validity and potential — all anonymously until the owner decides otherwise.

Lack of motivation/ reward

Employees do not see the value in sharing their ideas. This is purely a cultural aspect. Companies need to effectively and regularly communicate ideation activity and top performers/ contributors. Gamification and innovation leader boards can also drive great results in this direction. Employees do appreciate rewards and acknowledgement as ‘top innovators ‘— for instance, the opportunity to pitch the concept to the leadership, the budget and resources to experiment with an idea and build a prototype, formal communication of employee contribution at the corporate level etc.

The fear of workload

Employees want to get recognized for their ideas but they may not necessarily want to actively get involved in further iterations and possible implementation efforts. In plenty of cases there is a line between the ideator and the team experimenting with the idea. An ideation framework needs to respect this separation of concerns and provide the necessary flexibility.

Lack of a method

in many cases the idea owner does not know how to start or how to structure, validate and communicate the idea. This can be fixed by introducing a modern UX to allow optimized, zero-effort idea submission and management: an adaptive, personalized UX embedding best practices and the knowledge required to guide the user to create an effective idea description.

The Technology

Use technology to eliminate bureaucracy

Bureaucracy kills innovation. People tend to think of ideation as a strict, linear process, time-boxed with rigid structure, rules and guidelines. Typically, employees experience the ideation process as part of a ‘call to innovate’ or an ideation event (such as a design sprint or a hackathon): certain employees are asked to generate ideas within a specific context and time frame.

But, can employees and teams innovate ‘on demand’? Does it make sense to ask an employee to generate the next ‘big idea’ with a time-keeper in the room?

What if the big idea comes at a different point in time or out-of-process? What if a non-participant has already the great idea the team is looking for? What if the big idea is there in the room, but due to fast pace it is not properly communicated, captured and understood?

The opportunity cost could be high in all the above and similar cases. Ad-hoc, directed and micro-managed ideation events like these may have an instant positive impact (team morale and mentality and possibly some interesting concepts) but, if assessed individually, the contribution to the overall innovation culture and the creation of real business opportunities is probably limited: In some cases, a few ideas may land in a product backlog but experience indicates that in most of the cases, ideas are forgotten in isolated lists and files or as archived entries in an underutilized ideation tool.

Real innovation requires a setup where employees naturally share ideas while, in parallel, the company is constantly seeking for opportunities. In this setup, employees are being recognized, rewarded and see themselves as active members of the ‘innovation machine’ and the success of the business. At the same time, executives realize the value of ideation and experimentation and accept the fact that even random ideas can directly impact business performance.

An unsupervised, continuous ideation process powered by advanced technology: imagine an intelligent system simplifying the procedures of capturing, handling and routing an idea; a component able to notify the right people and teams in order to raise awareness for a high-potential idea; an A.I. engine inviting those employees with relevant (to the idea) expertise to join and collaborate; a powerful UX enabling an employee to silently and anonymously submit an idea or run a targeted internal campaign with clear business goals; a voice-driven discovery module empowering an executive to instantly discover the ‘next big thing’; a layer of gamification strategies and continuous optimization towards well-defined innovation objectives.

This unsupervised ideation framework, requires a ‘data store’ where ideas ‘live forever’ — in the sense that they are always discoverable and available to automatically ‘relate’ and ‘join’ newer ones. Ideas are being continuously evaluated, contextually and against multiple business dimensions and the active ‘idea assessment criteria’ (which reflect the strategy of the corporation). Ideas might be evaluated at different points in time by independent processes, each having its own assessment logic and serving a different business purpose.

An unsupervised, continuous ideation process — image: pixabay

Following lean and agile principles, ideation mechanisms need to be simple, effective and efficient. The ideation process needs to be always-on, always available, with multiple entry points and intelligent idea post-processing in order to handle and hide complexities from the users.

Although the management may release at any time a ‘call to innovate’ setting a specific context for idea generation, the core ideation process should be continuously accessible and open to capture any idea, in any context. It is then the adaptive, cognitive back-end which can automatically handle, assess, route and communicate the idea in the right context and timing.