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We all know that old, wooden idea suggestion box that was flamboyantly presented during the Q1 openings but ended up tucked away under someone’s desk. It started off great, with people adding various ideas with equally different purposes but after a while, it died and became part of the company relics. For companies, these inputs for change are highly welcome. By tapping into the wisdom of the crowds within the organization, they can innovate their business for the better. Of course, this ballot box for ideas does not fit anymore in this day and age of digitalization. 

Many companies including Dell, Airbus, Liberty Global, and Innogy have organized a virtual equivalent of the ballot box: an online platform that makes it possible for employees to post their ideas, get direct feedback, be steered in the best direction and finally see their innovations realized. In this way, Liberty Global has already generated an ROI of more than € 15 Million.

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Though not all these idea generating initiatives within organizations are this effective. A big struggle that a lot of companies face is that due to the low threshold for employees to take part and the broad scope of ideas posted, they are generating too many weak ideas. In the Dell Ideastorm campaign, almost 9000 ideas were submitted, and less than 4% of these ideas moved to the next phase in which the idea was conceptualized. You can imagine that the grading and assessment of these ideas, even if structured very efficiently, leads to high overhead costs that press down on the potential success of the campaign.

Of course, a company can start off by setting up a rigorous grading scheme, or even auto-grading of ideas. But this could also quickly lead to very high costs and missing “hidden gem” ideas. These gems might not look that interesting at the surface, but have the potential to catalyze business immensely. This quick assessment can also be seen as cheap fixes when companies should be looking at the source of the ideas.

How can you make these ideas better to begin with? 

Scholarly research has pointed out that it is possible to improve the quality of ideas in these kinds of efforts and make the idea generation campaign more successful.

In this study, we looked at the various contextual and personal traits that could improve the creativity and the innovativeness of employees. A complete menu of 54 personal and contextual business characteristics were discovered and tested with innovation experts from Liberty Global, VodafoneZiggo, Airbus and Innogy. The critical view of these experts narrowed the menu down to a subset of nine relevant factors. To see if these factors did not only work in theory but also in the real world, the input from almost 3000 ideators was requested. 

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It turned out that several characteristics significantly improve the chances that employees submit high-quality ideas. With this knowledge, innovation managers can better streamline their ideation campaigns and get better input from the employees. 

First of all, task autonomy, the freedom and self-determination an employee has over his or her day-job increases the odds of generating good ideas. Although it will not be that simple to increase all employees' task autonomy overnight, it is possible to target the employees that are already in high task-autonomous positions to actively participate in the ideation efforts.
Second, the employees that showed proactive personality traits catered for high-quality ideas that had an impact on the business. A proactive personality is not just somebody that takes action all the time, but more even a person that tries to combat the status quo and seeks change.
This kind of employee is often that quirky guy in the office walking around in shorts when it is -5 degrees outside. Get in touch with this person to herald epic ideas. That autonomy and pro-activeness are positively related to an employee's innovativeness is due to his/her ability to form and defend an own opinion.
If you always just follow prescribed processes and are a conservative thinker, you might have a hard time to conceptualize out-of-the-box innovations - not saying you cannot come up with significant continuous improvements.

But also things that are easier to change could heavily impact the success of the ideation campaign. Information sharing within the company turned out a predictor of quality of ideas that are put online by employees. Information about the direction of the company is vital, and it scopes the domain in which employees will come up with ideas. This guidance already cancels out a lot of redundant ideas that typically get posted in open suggestion schemes. (e.g., getting a clown in the office on Fridays often does not fit the strategy of the company, even though it might improve employees' enthusiasm and engagement).

Isn't limiting the number of submitted of ideas harming the program?

Providing direction might limit the number of ideas submitted, but each idea will have a better quality. And when you give guidance up front, it also makes it easier to deny not fitting ideas as opposed to the situation where you just ask for any idea your crowd has. Sharing tacit and explicit knowledge can also help the ideation efforts. A company can facilitate in this by both giving directions on the campaign and realizing information sharing spaces next to the ideation platform. Finally, trust is of vital importance to the quality of ideas. 

The participants on a platform need to have the feeling that they are being heard and that they will benefit from their efforts. Having a protocol on giving feedback on every idea that gets posted would already enhance the chances of the following ideas to have an impact. 

Innovation managers can use these insights to improve their ideation efforts already on running platforms. Another great opportunity arises when new hires perform a short test that identifies their characteristics, like proactive personalities – the crazy ones. These key people in the ideation space can join an innovation task force that can be called upon when the need is there to find ideas to a problem quickly. Many companies are teaming up these people into innovation advocates that can help promote the ambition to innovate and take new idea generators by the hand to help grow and eventually pitch their ideas.

>>> Want to know more about the traits and contexts of the individual employee profile that generate the highest rated ideas in intra - corporate crowdsourcing for idea initiatives?
Have a look at Maurice Smulders master thesis where he's exploring the motivations to run high quality innovation and ideation: http://essay.utwente.nl/73078/1/Smulders_MA_BMS.pdf 

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Co-writer of this blog post is Maurice Smulders. Maurice has been working on innovation management assignments throughout Europe, focusing on patent management and innovation community building. He has always aimed to combine academic insights with business acumen to give projects a pragmatic yet creative touch. Maurice is passionate about streamlining innovation efforts within both start-ups and large corporates and recognizes a lot of synergies by integrating both worlds.

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Roel de Vries

Roel de Vries

Roel has lived and breathed innovation management for the most significant part of his career. It's where his heart lies. Roel founded, designed and led the global collaborative innovation initiative Spark at Liberty Global for seven years. Roel studied at the renowned Dutch University Nyenrode where he received his Master's degree in Business Administration and the Entrepreneur Award for best startup. Now – as Innovation Management Consultant - he wants to apply this knowledge by helping other organizations in their innovation efforts.

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