Most companies have Marketing, Research & Development (R. & D.) and/or New Product Development (NPD) functions staffed with professionals and managers who are responsible for innovation. The vast majority of the products/services are created and launched by these functions.
Outside Innovation Help
There are a couple of other innovation sources that are used inconsistently. The first is outside innovators, from large well-known companies like Ideo or Nottingham & Spirk, to small shops. Using a larger firm gains access to its breadth of expertise but is also more costly. This cost may be prohibitive for small or mid-sized companies. Using small shops is much less costly, but equally less predictable in the results. Check out the track record and skills/experience of whomever you plan to use.
There is another source of innovation that is often ignored or underutilized. This is the innovation that resides in the minds of the company’s employees. If a company has hundreds or thousands of employees, there are many high potential, undiscovered ideas for innovation that remain untapped. The obvious approach is to ask managerial employees not working directly in Marketing, R. & D. or NPD. But I am referring to the larger group, “the rest of the employees,” professional, clerical and hourly in all kinds of jobs.
These people’s jobs all depend on the company and its products or services for their living. They work with or around the facilities, products/services, customers and suppliers all day, every day. They inevitably talk about the company and “what it does” with friends, neighbors, relatives, and so forth. Ideas pop into their minds regularly about how products could be improved, or totally new products developed. These ideas almost always get lost because there is no process to capture share.
A Process That Works
The collective ideas of hundreds of people are a powerful source of innovation that is just waiting for management to tap into it. If your company doesn’t have such a process, it should. A sponsor that is a member of C-suite management must be named. This person will “oversee” the process and make sure it progresses and gets the support and visibility it needs. Three major factors are involved in this CIF process:
1. Collective Innovation Forum (CIF): Creating a regular periodic forum in which people who do not usually present their ideas can comfortably do so. They can know when these are scheduled and present concepts to a panel of “experts” from Marketing, R. & D. and NPD. I have seen this done most successfully on a Quarterly basis. Step two is an essential step to making this process successful.
2. Screening & Classification of Ideas: Assigning “help” to the person(s) with ideas, including professionals to do renderings, make prototypes, and organizing presentations will reduce the fear/intimidation factor. A small group of professionals, the Screening & Classification Action Team (SCAT), would receive all ideas submitted and classify them into three categories:
a. “Interesting’ (Ideas to be saved, but of small or no likely immediate use)
b. “Familiar’ (Similar to something already in existence, or a concept that is a near duplicate of ideas previously tried and found unsuccessful)
c. “Potential for Use” (Ideas which are genuinely interesting, innovative and worthy of presentation, review and consideration.
3. Follow-up & Feedback: This is a very important step which can “make or break” the CIF in several ways - how well it is done, how it is handled, and how well outcomes are communicated.
The first premise of this entire CIF process is that “there are no bad/dumb ideas!” Some are just less useful or immediately appropriate than others. Every person who submits an idea, with the supporting “form” explaining their concept and why it has merit, receives a personally signed thank you letter from two appropriate senior executives: one who is directly responsible for their area of work and the other from the head of the Collective Innovation Forum. They also receive a “certificate” designating them as a Contributor to the “Collective Innovation Forum.”
What the SCAT Does
The SCAT gives all submissions identifying numbers, acknowledges and files them ideas according to what they involve: new product, new process, methods improvement, cost reduction, etc. If duplicate ideas are submitted, it is important to recognize and manage this. Groups can submit ideas (since there is no direct financial reward, who gets credit can be shared). Feedback on the status of submissions should be both actively communicated, and easily accessible.
By now you are saying, “this will take someone to manage all this.” That’s right. It will also require time for making renderings, prototypes and presentations. But so what? This is a treasure trove of ideas from people who live and work with the company and its products every day.
Somewhere in here will be some real gems. Many of the submission will not be ”winners” but if every idea is treated with respect and appreciation, there will be a positive motivational effect among those who submit them.
Someone tactful will also have to be chosen and prepared to explain honestly, but tactfully to these people (and there will always be a few) who are upset why their idea was not “used.” Making this kind of feedback timely, honest, tactful and appreciative in tone will resolve all but the most difficult issues. The SCAT has a tough but important and potentially very lucrative job.
Meanwhile, there must be capacity and willingness of the marketing, R. & D. and NPD staff to improve, refine and implement the best ideas. If there is any organizational NIH (Not Invented Here) factor, it must be addressed and discouraged. Making this point clear is the job of the senior management sponsor.
The CIF Recognition Dinner
Finally, when some truly excellent innovations have been submitted, implemented and launched, it is time for recognition. An annual Collective Innovation Forum dinner should be held and everyone submitting an idea invited. This dinner should be attended by senior executive management who address the group about the importance of innovation and their appreciation of the number of submissions (which can be reported and tracked as they come in).
First, Second and Third Place “best innovation awards” can be given along with a number of Honorable Mentions. Everyone should be given something small, but tangible and symbolic, at the dinner (e.g., A key chain—innovation is “key” to our success). Everyone who has submitted an innovation should stand to be recognized.
This Collective Innovation Forum process will generate many new product concepts and other improvements. It will show employees at all levels that they can contribute in a whole new way. Communicated and managed correctly, a CIF it will also confirm how important innovation is to the future of the company its employees.
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John L. Mariotti is President and CEO of The Enterprise Group. He was President of Huffy Bicycles, Group President of Rubbermaid Office Products Group, and now serves as a Director on several corporate boards. He has written eight business books. His electronic newsletter THE ENTERPRISE is published weekly. His Web site is Mariotti.net.