Innovation is driven by strategic challenges, rather than pushed through suggestion boxes
Idea-boxes and other open-ended suggestion schemes are cluttered with thousands of useless ideas. Launched with slogans, banners and trumpets, and the promise of giving each suggestion due consideration, the initiative usually generates a lot of ideas at first. The designated analysts start examining the input diligently but quickly drown under the number and more crucially do not have the bandwidth to be able to accurately judge the merit of ideas covering a potentially limitless scope. Even more worryingly, the few good ideas that manage to emerge typically receive a polite welcome from the departments that could take them on board, but precious little action ensues as those departments see these out-of-the-blue ideas as mere distractions. Some ideas may survive, but so few that ultimately – and paradoxically – the scheme ends up discouraging idea generation and dies out.
So why do idea-boxes continue to be launched? Because they are an easy tool to set up and give the pretence of an innovation culture.
A more powerful process is to get each department to define and frame a challenge: a problem that is at the core of what they do and that, if solved, would unlock significant value. The department is then bought into the innovation scheme upfront: it will provide the analysts who have the right background to select potentially winning ideas, and chances are much higher that, as and when a promising idea emerges, the department will allocate people and funds to investigate it further.
This should not come as a surprise: those of us with a background in science will know that no solution can be found to a problem that has not been formulated. Those of us that have managed change will know that the case for change must precede the change itself. The same goes for innovation: leaders must first frame the window of opportunity that the creative minds will then set to open.