How Much Does Ideas Management Really Contribute to Innovation?

The crowdsourcing of ideas was the radical new approach to innovation a few short years ago and technology platforms to support idea generation and ideas management have been growing in popularity. There are, however, question marks over what they actually contribute to innovation.

The world of ideas management c2010

In the early 2000s ideas management was still heady stuff. Open innovation was hardly heard of and collaboration management was only just coming into vogue. Back then, the advent of what was, to all intents and purposes, a collaborative, online suggestion box signaled a veritable revolution in “business-as-usual” because the Internet linked workers throughout the world, and that meant all employees could suddenly contribute to the firm’s future.

“Just imagine! Employees across the largest of global companies can now submit their ideas upward – and have their voices heard!” Unbelievable, you might have said, that senior management could listen to suggestions from 10,000 people across five continents!

Only a few years later, these once-“revolutionary” approaches have begun to seem tired. They’ve wandered into the dangerous territory of cliché.

Today’s innovation managers are well versed in collaboration – they know exactly how to launch fresh ideation campaigns. The most innovative companies know exactly how to create innovation marketplaces. The blogosphere is now littered with examples of successful product-design competitions. The ideas platform as sophisticated suggestion box has had its day.

When you take a hard look at today’s innovation methodologies and tools (including those we have developed at Imaginatik), it’s hard not to came away feeling unimpressed. There is so much more potential still waiting to be unlocked.

Some of the drawbacks

Can we afford to be brutally honest about such a young industry where supplier companies are still seeking their place and where customers believe they are at the edge of innovation practice? We have to be. Here are some obvious weaknesses.

Typically ideas platforms operate a voting system that purports to surface the best ideas. This crowdsourced decision-making aspect is both good and bad. Yes the crowd gets its say but counter-intuitive ideas can be marked off the map.

Another potential shortcoming, in the practice of ranking and ratings of ideas, is their arbitrary nature. Nobody is pretending that these scales actually give an insight into which ideas have practical value when integrated into complex corporate strategies. We need to allow people to use their intuition and be sure of generating and surfacing strategically relevant ideas.

And the use of popularity, or leaderboards, also typical of idea platforms runs the risk of creating the wrong kind of competition, one driven by attention-seeking and not by creativity.

How to do it better

  • Leverage all the good ideas. In traditional idea campaigns or competitions, only the top-ranked ideas typically move forward. This is a huge waste. Countless gems – the next big innovations – are hidden in quirky, under-appreciated ideas sitting in the long tail. There should be a way to notice and prioritize the potentially game-changing outliers.
  • Evaluate ideas based on intrinsic value. Forcing reviewers into arbitrary rating scales and artificial ranking systems compromises objectivity and leads to inherent bias. It also wastes reviewers’ time and energy. Idea evaluations should rest on direct human intuition of the fundamental value of each idea.
  • Build process around innovation roles and styles. Not all innovators are created equal. Some people are true “creators” – coming up with the original fodder for tomorrow’s breakthroughs. Others are more comfortable synthesizing the raw material of their colleagues. There should be a way to allow     different styles to play complementary roles in building ideas into innovations.
  • Distinguish between engagement and mere activity. Popularity contests don’t bring anything good to ideation. Nonetheless, it’s surprisingly easy for innovation leader boards to devolve into a race to the bottom. There should be a way to notice those people who are truly engaged and adding value to innovation, not just busy creating white noise to bump their stats.

A new set of innovation tools needs to address these issues. If we don’t, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that ideation platforms really equate to innovation. Imaginatik’s Idea Central platform will be integrating some such solutions.

Many ideation platforms are typified by their origins in competitions and competition-type behavior. We really need to employ cutting-edge techniques drawn from behavioral psychology, decision-making and rational-choice theory, and game mechanics. That doesn’t mean we dismiss what’s been an interesting decade of opening up the enterprise to wider funnels of influence. But we do have to be sure of getting the full value out of idea challenges, rather than being hijacked by limitations that are starkly obvious once we begin reflecting on them.

Imaginatik will be demonstrating new ideas management concepts at an Innovation Leaders Forum in New York 16th February.

By Chris Townsend

About the Author

Chris Townsend is Senior Director of Marketing at Imaginatik, an innovation management consultancy and software provider in Boston. He is a former researcher at Forrester who pioneered the firm’s coverage of the idea management and innovation markets.

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  • http://www.jpb.com/ Jeffrey Baumgartner

    What a pleasure it is to see finally one of our competitors writing something intelligent about idea management, rather than the usual uninformed claptrap. No wonder you guys make the second best product in the market ;-)

    Nice article! It’s important for organisations to realise that number of ideas or popularity contest votes are useless, if not dangerous, metrics for the innovation process.

  • haydn

    Thanks Jeff – you must be a regular reader and enjoy the site :-). We’re broadening the site coverage – would love to have you write here, and really add to the critical perspective.

  • http://www.jpb.com/ Jeffrey Baumgartner

    Haydn,

    Feel free to contact me by email to discuss.

    All the best,

    Jeffrey

  • http://hyve.de Volker Bilgram

    Nice post on online idea contests! Especially, I like that it emphasizes that all the good ideas should be made use of, not only the few winning ideas. And even a lot of bad ideas may still bear a great deal of need information that users expressed through their ideas. Doing “reverse research”, i.e. asking users for their ideas within a idea contest and then analyze clusters and uncover underlying needs behind the ideas, appears to be a promising approach. Ideas are often a good carrier of latent needs and help to communicate them. In addition to ideas, conducting idea contest may also provide interesting insights and may be an interesting field for researchers as well.

  • http://en.eyeka.net/author/yannig/ Yannig

    I agree with you: good ideas that might seem unrealistic or are not presented in an attractive way can be sorted out while the insights behind them are highly interesting. We at eYeka therefore advise our clients to narrow down the pool of participants as few as possible in ideation contests… good ideas can come from everywhere !

    (BTW: Don’t hesitate to check out our blog too: http://en.eyeka.net)

  • http://www.nos.co michael faelling soerensen

    I have to agree – and disagree;-)

    Firstly, I don`t see any new reflections – the challenges Peter describes, are very well known! And I really don`t get that if the tools/systems available does`nt work, then we assume, that by adding new features/methods, it`s going to work!?

    Admitted – in a perfect world where employees were granted unlimited time to innovate, Peter`s suggestions might work – but that is – and probably never will be the case…So, as Peter also writes companies are now open in their innovation efforts – but bringing in above sophisticated methods in the front end – will that enhance this openness – or will it build yet another silo culture ?

    If the perspective of running idea management, without proper strategic support and awareness, is to find the next game changing product, you will get vague ideas, collaboration and suggestions from your audience – and probably all of them will be improvements of an existing product/service – and not a radical new one. So on this one, Peter is right – but “invention” should have been used instead of “innovation”…But, again its is achievable if proper management of the processes is conducted.

    If your perspective is to seek for product/service improvements. cost reductions, process changes etc. – you will get numerous ideas of high quality, which can easily be implemented…If, your innovation organization is in place.

    The idea management industry is at a crossroad, where some rely on beefing up on features & functions in there software, in order to offer an automated “cater all scenario” solution…

    Others, are decreasing – unused – features and functions to simplify the ideation process, and along with that securing companies with individual consultancy in how to run successful idea management…

    The idea management system is software – idea management is something quite different…

    Someone once – cleverly – said; The art of idea management is to kill good – and even very good ideas…. to be left only with the excellent ones…;-)

  • http://www.pinkcat.dk Steen Koldsø

    I believe that IM system contribute a lot to innovation due to it creates: openness, involvement, speed, structure, process etc..

    An IM system is first of a landing zone for ideas for internal employees maybe even externals, meaning that people are involved and engaged, and the company is open about what is important and where to go = innovation strategy.

    Then it creates a structure to your innovation process and speed up it up.
    It also broaden the innovation process out to a wider audience.

    It’s important that the process is tailored to match the company needs and innovation process and not vise versa. Of course it must be easy to use and have intelligent tools for handling ideas, insights, discussions, challenges, voting, comments, evaluations, value propositions, people profiles etc and an agile process.

    And many of thise steps in IM have to be done anyway when developing new ideas/projects/business plans etc. Here the IM system just help speed up the work process and keep it simple, all in one place (without local copies) and manual follow up on people. Managing innovation with E-mail, spreadsheets and presentation is possible but slow and yesterdays way of working.

    Then the IM system is great for fast problem solving, and connecting your experts from many different locations.

    And not least it creates community in the company, where people can: Connect – Activate – Share – Co-create – Collaborate – Execute ideas for anything that is important!

    Remember that it’s people who are creative and get new ideas that leads to new innovations.
    IM system is a help to ease and structure your process.

  • http://www.inductsoftware.com Rikard

    It sounds like you’re not really questioning idea management, but pointing out shortcomings in today’s dominant methodologies. Recognising great, radical ideas can never be crowdsourced, but the best incremental ones will win the idea contests. Using different methods to identify more radical ideas is being done already.

    Idea management is one of several tools to improve innovation management. Innovation efficiency is one of several goals of using idea management software. Customers not recognising these two points is probably the biggest challenge for idea management solution providers, both in terms of creating value for existing customers and aquiring new customers.

  • http://www.nos.co michael faelling soerensen

    ;-)Don`t know where “Peter” came from – sorry `bout that Chris.

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  • http://www.imaginatik.com Chris Townsend

    Volker — yes indeed! Often the insights embedded within an idea are more valuable than the idea itself. Where many organizations struggle, I think, is how to consistently leverage these insights as productive business assets.

  • http://www.imaginatik.com Chris Townsend

    Sometimes we may advise clients to narrow the audience, sometimes not. We find that these types of decisions are HIGHLY context-dependent within the organization.

  • http://www.imaginatik.com Chris Townsend

    Michael, good points. In the details of my post I decided to focus specifically on the software/system side of Idea Management. But it is worth pointing out that Imaginatik is typically one of the more vociferous providers saying that software alone is NOT enough. We spend a great deal of time with clients helping them get the strategy, people, process, and governance aspects right.

    It’s just…I deemed those issues a bit “out of scope” for the topic of this particular post. I suppose we could have quite a field day if we were to dive into all these different aspects of Idea/innovation management in one sitting…

  • http://www.imaginatik.com Chris Townsend

    Steen — yes, agreed.

  • http://www.imaginatik.com Chris Townsend

    Rikard — absolutely right. My goal in the post (despite the provocative title) is to suggest that there is still much advancement to come in the Idea Management space. Much more value could (and will!) be delivered as the various solutions continue to improve.

    I particularly enjoyed your insight: “Recognising great, radical ideas can never be crowdsourced.” This is a very powerful observation.

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  • http://twitter.com/damodamo Damian Dugdale

    You write that ideas need ‘direct human intuition’ – couldn’t it then be argued that systems are too complex these days and that what is actually needed, if innovation is really what companies are looking for, is a far easier to use system that can be developed specifically for the needs of the customer.

    Almost like an open suggestion box .. with the ability, when it has been in operation for a while, to develop based on the actual needs of customer and not what systems or companies that build these systems think is actually needed.

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