One of my favorite things about working in innovation is that - like fashion and the weather - it has cyclical tendencies. There’s always something from history that can guide us or inspire us to make decisions for the future. Take idea management for example. This isn’t a new business concept. In fact, idea management has been around since emperors started using suggestion boxes outside their palaces in the early 1700s. However, hundreds of years later, we still find ourselves asking the same question - how do we encourage and support new ideas outside of our own circle?
This is why cyclical innovation is so exciting. Even though we understand the importance of idea management and the programs that have worked in the past, we know that there is always the potential for a new and advantageous way of doing something.
But before we jump into some of the innovative ways that companies are now looking at idea management, let’s recap what it is and why it’s essential.
Idea management, by definition, is ‘a structured process of generating, capturing, discussing and improving, organizing, evaluating and prioritizing valuable insight or alternative thinking that would otherwise not have emerged through normal processes.’ Lots of verbs in there, but mostly what idea management tries to do is produce new, worthwhile ideas. These ideas don’t necessarily need to be financially viable - although that always helps and is typically one of the main goals. Alternatively, these ideas can be worthwhile to your company by providing an outlet for creativity and entrepreneurship for employees, thus improving their engagement and satisfaction; or ideas can be generated externally, giving companies a way to improve their relationships with customers, vendors, and partners.
However, with great programs come great challenges. The two main issues that companies face while implementing idea management is quantity and quality. Mass amounts of ideas and solutions tend to come in during the kickoff of an idea management campaign, but dwindle shortly after creating a quantity shortage. On the flip side, when you have lots of ideas coming in it can be hard to manage their overall quality. But again, that’s what makes innovation of these ideas so appealing. It allows us to experiment with new solutions to overcome the obstacles.
Improvement #1: Digital Community
Idea management has evolved from the days of slipping hand-written notes into Michael Scott’s ill-forgotten suggestion box. Today, many companies are using digital platforms to encourage feedback. One great example of this is Starbucks’ ideas portal. It’s a simple page that encourages the user to submit an idea, “revolutionary or simple.” Not only does this provide Starbucks with feedback on their customer's habits and preferences, but it was also the inspiration behind many ideas that have transformed Starbucks’ business model - including free Wi-Fi and the world-changing Pumpkin Spice Latte. And this implementation was key. By showing the community that their ideas were important, it empowered others to continue to submit in the hopes that their idea would also be put into action.
Starbucks has been using their website for idea management for over several years now, but the core concept of Digital Community is something that’s still evolving to this day. Take Cisco DevNet, winner of the 2018 DevPortal Awards, who updates their digital platform frequently to find new ways of creating ideas. Currently, their platform allows developers to share ideas directly with the ecosystem for a chance to be voted up and highlighted. Cisco’s platform also hosts a code exchange for developers to share ideas one on one. Both of these idea management tools use a digital community to quantify their ideas allowing quality to be determined organically.
These are just two of the ways that a digital community can improve your current idea management system, but there are many more opportunities in the space. From online competitions to forums and AMAs, a digital community is an ideal place to start capturing and discussing ideas. Once you have this foundation in place, then it’s time to start looking at how to improve sourcing quality ideas and grow their outcomes.
Improvement #2: In-Person Events
Let’s start with sourcing quality ideas. Two ways to increase the quality of an idea is to provide the submitter with education or mentorship. These things can be difficult to offer when looking at the online suggestion-box-approach. You can write articles or provide a mentorship program, but it doesn’t ensure that people submitting ideas will take the time or will know what to do with the information. This is where a hands-on method is beneficial. There’s a sizeable quality leap when you have the chance to get in front of your employees, customers, or partners, and provide them with the time and space to ask questions, watch demonstrations, and work closely with mentors.
How do you get a program like this off the ground? It’s not as easy as hosting an office-wide meeting or roundtable hours, but it’s also not as difficult as it was only a few years ago. There are now many resources and case studies on how today’s companies are finding idea management success with in-person events such as Hackathons, Ideathons, Workshops, and Meetups.
For example, last year AngelHack partnered with Block.one EOS.io to host a series of global Hackathons for the launch of their first product, EOS. Hundreds of talented developers came out to learn about EOS’ technology and work with mentors to create solutions to pressing problems. Not only was this event series a successful way to promote the EOS blockchain, but it also provided Block.one with a huge pool of ideas that they could accelerate or build on in the future. Which brings us to...
Improvement #3: Acceleration and Incubation
Sourcing ideas is only one part of idea management. Companies who are taking an innovative approach to their idea funnel know that R&D is what makes those ideas disruptive. However, getting results from traditional R&D methods can be a long and costly process. Instead, today’s innovation teams are investing in talent and access to that talent’s pre-designed ideas.
An example of this is AB-InBev's corporate accelerator. Last year, AngelHack partnered with AB-InBev to bring startup mentors and workshops in-house, so that AB-InBev’s internal team could focus on creating new ideas to tackle important issues. This allowed internal staff to bring pre-developed and vetted concepts to different branches of AB-InBev, who in return provided them the time and resources to launch new and needed products.
This type of innovative relationship is the ultimate goal of idea management. Where external and internal forces meet, they discover ideas to pre-existing or unknown problems, and both sides mutually benefit from each other's opportunities and skills. Some other examples of companies in the corporate accelerator space are Disney - whose Star Wars’ BB-8 was developed from an idea produced during an Accelerator, Autodesk’s innovation lab, Anthem’s health insurance incubator, and many others.
This list is only the start of what transforming the Idea Management landscape looks like. At AngelHack, we’ve also seen companies build leadership programs, use creative surveys, build-in collaborative Slack integrations - all in the name of authentic feedback and ideation. What direction is right for you or your company depends on a variety of factors, but by prioritizing fresh ideas and innovative programs, you’re likely to see strong products and communities come out of it.
What is your preferred way to share ideas with your team and favorite brands? Any amazing ideas you’ve seen come out of a company’s community platform? I would love to hear your thoughts!