The best innovation program isn’t a program at all

Most innovation programs are broken Despite 1000s of years of evolution and countless books and studies on human motivation, we’re still using the Innovation Program and it’s cousin, the Suggestion Box, to inspire people to create change.

These devices - and the general “let’s offer a prize!” mindset at work - are overused, demeaning, and ineffective.

If you want to improve work, there’s a better way to bring good ideas to life.

How to disappoint people 97% of the time (or more)

The problem with most innovation programs is they ask for ideas and then apply a filter to reject most of them. This week, Nick Milton posted a cogent argument on “Why the Funnel model doesn’t work for small process innovations”:

“I saw a presentation the other day from one company which included a description of their Ideas process. This process was like a suggestion scheme, based on a funnel model, with online submission, and a series of filters which refined the idea until it was accepted. The presenter describing the system said that ideas were sought on improvements at all scales, and that to date they had received 35000 ideas and implemented 1000 of them.

You can hear this statistic, and think ‘Hey, great, 1000 implemented ideas’, or you can think ‘Hmmmm - 34000 disappointed people and wasted opportunities’.”

This kind of ratio applies to most idea programs. mystarbucks, for example, is one of the most celebrated suggestion programs, recently celebrating their 5th year and the 275th idea they've implemented. But that was out of over 150,000 submissions.

Of course it’s nice for people to have a voice. And sometimes, like Starbucks, you need significant resources to change products or processes. But for most improvements, the act of filtering out the vast majority of ideas using a central decision-making body, typically people who are far removed from the work, does more to kill innovation than promote it.

The place for prizes

One of the motivations for people to submit a suggestion in the first place is often a prize of some sort. Perhaps an iPad or gift card or recognition on a corporate website.

And sometimes prizes do produce results. The Royal Society of the Arts, for example, produced 1000s of innovations in the 1770s from the spinning wheel to advances in naval construction. The more modern X Prize helped launch the private spaceflight industry.

But in the successful examples, the money wasn’t simply for an idea. Instead, it was to provide resources to implement the idea or to otherwise reward people who had to expend considerable resources on implementation. The real motivation comes from the ability to implement as well as the potential rewards after the idea is implemented.

At work, a small reward for simply having an idea is patronizing and perhaps worse. There’s plenty of research showing that offering monetary rewards actually limits creative thinking. And when there are successful programs - as with Toyota’s famous suggestion program seeing over 80% of the ideas implemented - it’s not because of better prizes, but because people intrinsically wanted to make their work better. And, as Nick Milton points out, because the suggestions they made were approved in a localized, distributed process by people much closer to the work.

A different approach

Want innovation? Connect people.

And so, the best innovation program isn’t a program at all. Because what firms need isn’t soliciting more ideas and waiting for managers to do something with them.

What they need are new ways of  bringing ideas to life. New ways for people who are passionate about something to find each other and experiment with implementation so they can drive change.

One of the best and cheapest ways a firm can increase innovation in this way is to connect employees with a corporate social network and encourage them to use it. Since creating such a environment, we’ve seen improvements in customer service, elimination of waste, executive communications, and other areas. The innovations with the biggest commercial and cultural value never came out of a program and there were no prizes. Instead, the spontaneous online movements were motivated by intrinsic rewards of peer recognition, learning, social connections, and making their own work better.

Want more innovation? Remember that passion and perseverance among connected individuals trumps an idea in the hands of management.