It’s a familiar refrain to those who have been working in the innovation industry for some time.
“We recently ran a hugely successful challenge that prompted XX employees to participate, with YY ideas submitted and ZZ votes cast. We chose a winning idea and are really happy with the results. Based on the success of this effort, we are rolling out a broad “challenge based” innovation program.”
Why wouldn’t anyone see this statement and result as anything but an unqualified success? The numbers are large, pointing to a workforce that is engaged and desperate to be innovative. Hundreds of ideas were generated around an opportunity or challenge that is important to the organization. Everyone else that you talk to with seems to be running similar efforts, so why would you question your success?
While the headlines may remain positive, these kinds of front-end crowdsourced activities can lead to some significant structural issues, which need to be addressed early on. Further, these concerns can raise questions from corporate leadership around the value generated by a broader innovation program, beyond the online crowdsourced activities.
So what’s up?
It is well and good to run challenges or establish “always-on” suggestion boxes, but the real issues appear when you try and get those great ideas implemented. While the crowd is invited to participate in the front-end of the innovation process, they are often excluded from the back-end execution of ideas. The crowd is told (directly or indirectly) that their support is no longer needed and that someone else will do the heavy lifting. It’s a terrible message to be sent to employees, whether they came up with ideas themselves or just contributed in other ways (voting, commenting, etc.). More broadly, the message of transparency and across the board involvement is severely undermined.
Further, issues are often generated when you take that idea and ask established groups, such as Product or Process Development, to build the ideas. Think of it from their perspective. They are already busy, operating with limited resources and often have their work planned 12-month in advance. Suddenly someone is saying that they want their group to build out the idea, quickly, and with no additional resources. Even if they are involved with the planning of the challenge, chances are that the idea will struggle to get traction.
The approach to crowdsourcing needs to mature, beyond the quick and easy front-end metrics, to be a vehicle to drive real business value.
With this in mind, the traditional route to crowdsourcing needs to be replaced with a more holistic approach that includes crowd input from a front, as well as a back-end perspective. This means crowdsourcing elements such as business planning, development, launch and even ongoing maintenance. In other words, the approach to crowdsourcing needs to mature, beyond the quick and easy front-end metrics, to be a vehicle to drive real business value.
In order to make this transition, Innovation Program leaders need to take the following actions:
Understand the approach: There are a number of organizations that are already doing front and back-end crowdsourcing efforts quite effectively. There are also vendors that specialize in this field. Find them, learn from their experience and occasional mistakes.
Develop a framework: Before taking any concrete actions you need to develop a robust framework, incorporating both strategic and tactical perspectives, that creates a pathway to retooling crowdsourcing efforts. Needless to say, this can be a difficult effort to implement and an effective framework will help you consider all the benefits and pitfalls to the approach. In addition, this can become an internal tool to help “sell” your vision.
Stakeholder assessment / buy-in: Given that there are many established stakeholders involved in the execution and development of ideas, it is really important to secure their early buy-in. Speaking from personal experience, your efforts can be completely derailed if you spring this kind of program on stakeholders without their prior knowledge and consent. Try and avoid my (stupid) mistakes.
Employee networks: Within your framework consider how employees will connect, share opportunities and build relationships amongst themselves (read a little more here). Employee networks can be supported by a variety of activities, including access to consistent tools, language and metrics, in order to help breakdown silos and encourage collaboration (check out another previous article here).
Employees trained on innovation skills expand the scope, quality and capacity (scale) of idea execution.
Innovation Training: By training employees around the skills of idea development you will expand the scope, quality and capacity (scale) of your efforts. The initial result is to drive more consistent adoption of approaches and efforts across the organization. The longer term result is to increase the flow of executed ideas and enhance ROI of your overall efforts. Note that I have also written about this in the past.
Link up with other innovation-centric activities: It is important to understand the ecosystem of innovation-centric activities across the organization and consider how they can be utilized to drive idea development. Don’t be picky, and use what you can to move ideas forward. At a recent event my buddy Declan Denehan talked about some successes generated by linking up front-end ideation with an internal incubator. While not strictly a crowdsourced effort, it showed that flexible approaches can work well when needed.
While the old, front-end centric approach to ideation has worked well for some time, its day in the sun is over. New models, that drive business value, rather than Innovation Program leader excitement, are in place and demonstrating success. It is exciting to see this change taking place, and I look forward to more movement in the near future.
As always, thanks for visiting.
Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate, an organization that empowers a company’s employees to execute ideas and inspire a culture of innovation, through employee networks, a resource portal and training programs (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash from Carnegie Mellon University). Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led the BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).
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