Most corporate idea crowdsourcing platforms fail. Here’s how to do it right.

In our work helping corporations design and implement innovation strategies, we found a majority of our clients had launched idea crowdsourcing platforms.

But as we talked with the people who built and managed these platforms, we learned that many had been launched with great fanfare and quietly forgotten only months later.

To help you avoid the same fate, we interviewed dozens of Fortune 500 companies that have launched idea crowdsourcing platforms — some successfully / some not — and created this guide.

Done well, we believe idea platforms can be a great way to jumpstart innovation and a good first step in a broader innovation process. Done poorly, they can work against you.

Note: For this guide we focused on internally facing platforms which collect ideas from a company’s own employees. Many — but not all — of the tips below are relevant to externally-facing platforms (e.g. 3M or General Mills) which collect ideas from customers and other people outside the company.

Don’t tell employees to think big.
 Several of the idea platforms we reviewed asked for $1 billion ideas. All of them later regretted it. The problem with this approach is that is assumes people have the ability to predict how big their idea can be. The reality is that no one can. Small ideas can quickly turn into big ideas — and vice versa — once you get in the field and start validating and experimenting. Asking only for big ideas sends the wrong signal to people. Welcome all ideas, big or small.

Encourage people to submit “validated” ideas.
 Accept all ideas, but give preference to ideas that have been somewhat validated. Encourage people to interview 10 potential users/customers before they submit their idea. “Ideas are great…” one company wrote in their brief, “…but ideas supported with evidence are more interesting.” This sets a powerful cultural precedent because it places value not on the idea, but, instead, on the validation and execution of ideas. And that’s the type of activity you want this platform to inspire — validating and experimenting, not brainstorming.

Communicate like a human.
 Assume that people will delete your email announcement or close the website if they don’t understand it within 10 seconds. Give a clear explanation of the purpose of the platform and the kind of ideas you want. Use conversational language. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Don’t ask people to review a slide deck. Spend more time simplifying the language and keep it short.

Make it easy to submit ideas.
 You must make this simple . Don’t ask people to provide financial projections. Don’t require ideas that comply with legal, compliance and privacy policies. Asking for too much information will significantly reduce participation. Aim for a submission process that takes less than 5 minutes. If you must ask people to estimate ROI and costs, take whatever they submit with a grain of salt because it’s all guesswork at this stage anyway.

See Bonus Tips at the bottom for an example submission form.

Put a constraint on the submission period.
 Don’t leave idea submissions open all year. Run specific challenges for 2 week periods. Time constraints motivate people to submit early rather than putting it off. And each challenge is an opportunity to send a promotional blast and create more excitement.

Alternate between ideas for new customer-facing products and services and ideas for fixing internal processes or reducing costs to operate.

Commit to providing feedback.
 Don’t let your idea platform be the place where ideas go to die. You must commit to responding to every single submission and offer reasons why it was accepted or not accepted. And you should not wait till the end to send feedback — you should send feedback early so people have a chance to clarify points and resubmit their ideas before the challenge closes. Based on our research, if you don’t send feedback to every submitter, there is a 100% chance your platform will die after 1 or 2 cycles.

Giving feedback is the respectful thing to do. If people spend time submitting ideas, it’s courteous to read and respond to each one, even if it’s brief. Feedback from peers and leaders is an incentive and often the primary reason people submitted their idea. Not hearing back can have an opposite, demoralizing effect.

Offer the right incentives.
 When it comes to incentives it boils down to this: some people will be excited simply to participate, but introducing a competitive component can boost engagement, and the size of the prize is directly proportional to the level of participation.

The incentive structure we liked the most rewarded people based on the successful launch of their idea, which can lead to more follow through and higher engagement after the idea submission process ends.

One of the most successful idea submission initiatives out there — 3M — offers employees royalties or revenue-sharing. If financial incentives are out of the question, you can still make this work, but be sure to follow as many of the other tips in this guide as you can so that your idea platform doesn’t falter.

Encourage company wide participation.
 It may be tempting, but challenges open only to a single department tend to result in fewer ideas and — perhaps less obvious — lower quality ideas. The reason: good ideas can come from anywhere. Don’t assume that people working in HR will have the best ideas for improving the employee onboarding process. Don’t assume that millennials working at your company will have the best ideas for products your company should sell to millennials.

Create a team building component.
 Don’t position your idea platform as a call for heroes. Encourage people to submit ideas in small cross-functional teams of 2–5. Teams tend to submit better (i.e. more validated) ideas than individuals.

Be transparent about the review process.
 People are more likely to submit an idea and spend more time writing a quality submission if they know who will be reviewing their idea and the process to select winners. So make sure to list the reviewers and the judging criteria.

See Bonus Tips at the bottom for suggested judging criteria.

Paint the picture of what happens next.
 What happens after an idea is selected? Will the top 20 ideas be pitched to executives? Will it be handed to a manager or a different team to be executed? Will it be awarded a small budget for further validation? Does it flow into the next step of an innovation pipeline?

If the process isn’t well defined yet, that’s okay! You only need to explain the next step. A great example of this is one company that selected 25 ideas and placed them into 8 weeks of coached experiment sprints. Funding was given to experiments as needed. At the end of the 8 weeks, teams presented their recommendations to executives. Teams were asked to present only the next two milestones, not a huge launch plan. A recommendation of “We should kill this idea” was applauded. We like this process because it encourages learning — a critical component of innovating with speed and focus and finding your way to something that people actually want. It also encourages employees to place time and resource constraints upon themselves instead of building huge committees and asking for millions of dollars in funding.

Another option: host an event two weeks after the submission period where people re-pitch ideas, form small teams and quickly validate and prototype them. Corporations have found value in bringing people together to learn new innovation methods and to work in person with others from around the company. Check out some of the events we’ve run like this.

If possible, give the submitter(s) of the idea the opportunity to be involved in the execution of their idea. Whether that’s full time or part time can be decided later. State this clearly and upfront — it can be a big motivator for people seeking development opportunities or the chance to work on something they’re passionate about.

Have an early win.
 Being able to point to something tangible that came out of the idea platform creates momentum and excitement and boosts participation in future challenges. Do anything you can do to help teams succeed — even if it means hustling for them and helping them tear down internal obstacles. Get that win.

This is also your best offense when you seek additional resources.

Tell stories.
 Capture successes stories along the way. Was an idea killed? Tell the story of how the company saved significant time and money by figuring out quickly what not to do. Did an idea change after a few weeks of validation or did a small idea turn into to big idea? Share these stories with the entire company. Doing this demonstrates your commitment to this initiative and will pay dividends for the next idea challenge you launch.

Final thoughts

Following this guide won’t guarantee success. Every company we interviewed executed their platform differently. You may need to tweak some things depending on your company’s culture and other innovation initiatives already in place.

If you’re launching a platform at a large company and want to meet people who have done it before, email us — we’d be happy to introduce you to some of the people we interviewed while writing this guide.

*Bonus tips*

Submission form template:
 Required:

  • Catchy title.
  • What problem does this solve for the customer?
  • Who is the customer and which specific subset of that market will adopt it first?
  • Explain the potential solution.
  • Do you have evidence that this will work? Have you talked with potential customers/users of your idea or run any experiments to determine if people truly want this? Please explain.
  • Why might this not work? What should we be worried about?

Optional:

  • Potential value / ROI
  • Cost + time to implement
  • Does this conflict with any legal or privacy policies? If so, please explain.

The review process.
 Reviewing all the submissions seemed to be the most daunting part of managing an idea platform. Here’s a simple process that works:

  1. Read submissions as they come in and give quick feedback immediately on every idea. At this point, just ask questions and share your thoughts. Be candid but constructive. Help people improve their submissions. Encourage them to do customer development interviews and add what they learned to their submission. If you are using software that lets others comment on the ideas submitted, provide your feedback via this public forum so others can see it too.
  2. Don’t approve or reject ideas yet. Ideas need to bake and get voted and commented on. Ideas can morph quickly as others jump in to add their thoughts.
  3. After the challenge closes, schedule a 2-hour meeting with the approval committee. Committee members should read through the ideas prior to this meeting. This meeting is for deciding — not reading.
  4. In the meeting, have each committee member state their top 10 ideas. Write each idea selected by a committee member on a post-it note and prioritize them on the wall by number of mentions.
  5. For the committee — the right number is 3 people. The number must be odd so there is a tie-breaker. 1 is too few, 5 is too many. With 5 people, coming to an agreement will take exponentially more time and you’ll need an incredibly talented moderator.
  6. Legal, compliance, etc. does not need to be in this meeting. Seek their input after you have a short list of ideas to implement.
  7. After all the ideas chosen by committee members are on the wall and prioritized, have an unstructured conversation and use feelings — not math — to reorder. If someone gets stuck on an idea, ask them “What would worry you about this idea?” That phrase tends to move people to surrender their argument faster or state more clearly why they feel so strongly.
  8. Another way to compare ideas is on a simple grid with Difficulty to Implement on the x-axis and Value (Revenue or Cost Savings) on the y-axis. Draw the grid on a whiteboard, place each idea on the grid and shift other ideas as needed so that each idea is placed on the grid in context with others. Draw a line of best fit. The ideas in the top left quadrant create the most value and are the easiest to implement, so your decision is easy.
Value vs. Cost grid

Using a meeting like the one described above seems to work best. Companies that tried to weigh ideas against each other using a complicated spreadsheet tended to end up in an emergency “we have to make a decision” meeting anyway.

Judging criteria.
 Judging criteria perceived as subjective can be a showstopper. Here’s what we found to to be the right set of criteria:

  1. Is the idea easy to understand?
  2. To what extent has the idea been validated?
  3. The potential value to the business — not in $ but relative to the other ideas submitted.
  4. How difficult is this to implement? — also relative to the other ideas.

Bad criteria:

  • Idea must produce a minimum of $1MM in cost savings or new revenue by Jan 2016.
  • Solution must cost less than $100k to implement.
  • Solution must be implementable by Nov 1 2015.
  • Cannot cannibalize other products.
  • Cannot have already been tried by the company.

Design your own expectations.
 
Most companies found that for every 200 ideas submitted, 10 were launchable and 1 worked. If you need 20 success stories, shoot for 4,000 submissions

Start small.
 Don’t overthink this. Run an experiment using email or existing tools before you buy or build a new platform. As you grow the program, admit when things aren’t working and commit to changing it up. Good luck!


Originally published at Your Ideas Are Terrible.

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