I am certain that I am not alone in having had conversations with my friends and colleagues that start with “I’ve got this great idea for a new [xyz]… it’s going to do this and that and all these people are going to love it… “. These conversations happen everywhere; in meetings, out socialising, or even by the coffee machine.

In our business and with people knowing what we do, these conversations usually revolve a new app, or an online service; in general, something that people might use disruptive technology for and which they believe might have a lot of customers.

While conversations like this are interesting, they are usually short-lived, as it’s very rare that I’d go and do anything with the information. I mean I’m happy, things are going well, why would I go follow up on some idea that was discussed for 5 minutes at a coffee machine? Even so, there’s always that nagging doubt… what if I am missing out? Was one of those conversations actually a great idea? Would it have made me rich and famous? Would it have elevated my status and made me the next dot-com superstar? Probably not… but it could have been a good idea.

The question I wanted to explore is, should we try to harness ideas in our organisations? Should we find a mechanism for ideas to be suggested, evaluated, selected and progressed? And if we did, how would we know if it was a good idea…

Good Ideas…

A great idea is like a great night out

Good ideas are a bit like the best evenings out you’ve ever had. Before you head out there is a lot of anticipation, you have no idea if it will be good, but you have high hopes. While you are out you might think about how good the evening is going, but there’s still a chance for it to all go wrong before it ends. It is only when you’ve got back home, perhaps not until you get up the next day, that you can reflect on what a great evening you’ve had.

To improve the chances of having a good night out we often read reviews beforehand, we might ask our friends who’ve been there and done the same, we may even pick somewhere we’ve been before. Even with extensive background research, references from friends, or simply choosing somewhere we’ve been before – there’s still no guarantee that your night out, or your idea, will be something you will look back on as one you’d say was great.

So how can we improve our chances here? How can we be a bit more certain that our evening plans are going to work out… or more importantly, how can we keep finding and following great ideas more frequently, while avoiding those that aren’t going to be successful?

Well, if you stay at home every night you’re never going to have the opportunity to reflect on those great evenings…the same applies to ideas, you need them first for them to be good, so a good first step is making sure you’ve got a process for generating ideas…

Generating Ideas…

Collectively or individually, we all have ideas; we discuss them when we are socialising, we analyse them in our board rooms and we seek out others who identify with our viewpoint to help us work out how we could bring those ideas to reality.

Organisations are different though, people have their careers and day jobs to think about, things generally work and anyone who’s been on a change management programme knows just how much fun it is trying to get people to do things differently.

If you sat back though and thought about your organisation and how it collates ideas, you might be able to determine if you are in an organisation that is ‘idea poor’ or ‘idea rich’ …

Are you in an organisation that is idea poor…?

Some organisations have very few new ideas, or at least they don’t have an obvious place where these are registered and evaluated. It might be that their culture may not empower, encourage or reward people for putting forward ideas. Perhaps the process for proposing new ideas is unwieldy, or has personal repercussions when the results aren’t as expected. Or perhaps those in-charge believe it is easiest to continue with processes the way they’ve always been – after all, everything is working okay as it is… right?

Organisations like this are in more trouble than they know and often exhibit other characteristics that they don’t recognise as being related. Characteristics such as being poor at attracting and retaining employees, or having low scores in their reviews of employee’s motivation and dedication. You see, people want to work where their suggestions are taken on board and looked at seriously. They want to avoid the mundane and tedious tasks they do over and over. They want things to be made better.  For organisations, the benefit of improving their processes and the lives of their employees should be obvious.

If you are working in a professional organisation, take a look around. There’s likely to be a bunch of well-educated people around you that understand your business, who have perhaps worked there for years. Where are their ideas?  They will all have thought of ways in which your organisation could be improved, but are they doing anything about it?

Wouldn’t it be useful if these ideas were harnessed into a pipeline for improvement that was steadily worked on? Couldn’t that work alongside, or replace, the “5-year strategy” paper you last looked at.

If you are beginning to think it might be a good idea to understand the ideas that are floating around your organisation, how might you go about it?

An Idea Funnel

People form ideas in many contexts.

ideas are generated in different ways

Some ideas are linked to organisation or department strategies, they might describe the roll-out of a whole new line-of-business IT system over many years, or a new target operating model to reduce costs. These are valid ideas.

Departments may have ideas that describe the automation of an existing business process, or the ability to gather and analyse data from the occurrence of events, or perhaps a new process that will improve quality and lower write-offs. These are all valid ideas.

Individuals will have ideas that improve their lives; perhaps better working arrangements, collaboration technology, automation of mundane tasks or improved visibility of department performance for example. These are again all valid ideas. Gathering ideas like these needn’t be hard; in fact, the key is to make it simple. In many organisations employees are required to create a business case, to draft an impact analysis and provide costings. This then might all be put under scrutiny at a panel, perhaps with the employee present for a grilling of their ‘case’. Is it a wonder that there are so few positive business cases raised in organisations like this?

People like to contribute when their opinion is validated and when they are incentivised. There are many platforms out there that target doing just that and some that are well suited for the task such as;

Even though there are these tools, a simple first step might be something on your intranet such as a suggestion box site, or a forum. The main aspects to consider for a tool are that it provides;

  • A simple user interface to raise an idea; consider mobile as well, as we don’t always have all our ideas when we are sat at our desks
  • The option to be anonymous – sometime people just want to have a moan or be silly without the fear of being shot down. Just let them, there might be something valid there
  • The ability to rate, comment and review ideas; to post back to the originator and for them to add clarity and evolve their idea.
  • The ability to upload pictures, attachments and annotate/provide commentary on these
  • A way to progress ideas. Once you’ve got hold of one that everyone seems to congregate around, you’ll need to take it forward. More on that later.
  • The other major aspect to be considered is marketing and comms. In fact, often this is an initiative that should be run by your Marketing department. Getting the right message across to the organisation, selling people on the benefits it could bring and perhaps setting up some sort of incentiviation are all good ways to get people involved and to get some ideas out there.

As an aside, getting IT to run this initiative is not always a good idea. The old adage of using the hammer you’ve got seems to apply and you quickly end up with a vast collection of ideas to create, develop and implement. This isn’t always a bad thing, but not everything should be solved with technology.

Finally, make sure you consider having an Ideas Panel, which I’ll get onto later; the people in this Panel should provide an initial set of ideas to your tool; people like adding commentary and their own ideas when they get an idea of what should be there – a blank sheet is hard to add to.

Hopefully by now you are sitting there considering that some of this is worth a shot. After all, there are tools out there you probably already have, or could use for a minimal fee.

Or, perhaps you are thinking that getting a group of people together to formalise the business strategy, department objectives and employee’s suggestions (and moans…) into a structured Idea Funnel might just help you to become an organisation that is idea rich?

Perhaps your organisation is already idea rich…?

Some organisations already have a huge list of ideas they want to try. These ideas might create new services, improve existing operations, increase the growth of a business unit. The ideas might be concepts others have tried before, or perhaps they are completely new.

If you are in an organisation like this then you’ve already got some good things going. There’s clearly a way to get your ideas noticed.

Even so, do you ever think about how you are categorising or exploring your ideas? Or which ideas it would be best to implement next? Or how you will tackle that huge organisation changing one? Which one might bring you the biggest benefit?

As with our great evening out analogy, one approach might be to look for references and recommendations. Your colleagues and peers might be able to tell you how great their implementation went and the benefits this is bringing them, but how are you going to understand if an idea will work for you?

And for those huge ideas how much will it cost to determine if this idea will work for you? Does the implementation threaten the people or processes you currently have?

If you don’t have a process for selecting, progressing and evaluating your ideas, you risk progressing ideas that belong to the person who shouts the loudest. We’ve all seen where that has gotten politics lately.

In my next blog, I’ll tackle this process specifically. How you can assemble an Ideas Panel, establish their responsibilities and how you can chair those Idea Review meetings to gain a consensus on the ideas that should be next investigated. From there I’ll explore how ideas can be taken forward and how you can evaluate that important question of whether it was in fact…a great idea.

About the author

This blog article was written by Stuart McLatchie. Stuart is the Solution Delivery Director at slicedbread and provides clients with a holistic view of the solutions being delivered to ensure that the business analysis, technical requirements, solution architecture and delivery plans are at the right level of detail and quality.