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The Suggestion Box Strikes Back!

How collaboration platforms can turbocharge your innovation efforts

The Suggestion Box Strikes Back!

GUEST POST from John Bessant

Organizations need to innovate. So far, so blindingly obvious. But they also need to innovate their innovation approaches; the best recipes may no longer work in a context which is continually changing. Smart players recognize that they need to add innovation model innovation to their repertoire — constantly reviewing what they do to organize and manage the process of creating value from ideas and, if necessary, adapting it.

Sometimes this will involve dramatic change. Think, for example, of the way Procter and Gamble have been re-engineering their whole business over the past twenty years from a model dominated by internal R&D to an open approach based on ‘Connect and develop’. Or how capital goods giants like Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce have shifted the entire basis of their business towards ‘servitization’, no longer developing and selling new products but rather renting out capabilities like ‘power by the hour’. This has required them to rethink the entire innovation model, putting customer focus much more center stage and involving extensive partnerships and strategic alliance to deliver the whole new package of service.

But often it’s a quieter revolution, a gradual change in which new routines emerge or existing ones are upgraded to work in new ways, deploying new mechanisms to make them work better. That’s been the story of the suggestion box.

Smart People Don't Always Have Smart Ideas

‘….the beauty of it is that with every pair of hands I get a free brain!’

It’s a very old idea, and an obvious one. People are smart so why not tap into their ideas to help with the innovation agenda? Ask them, and you might be surprised at what they have to offer. Elements of this approach can be found in the medieval guild system where it was used to help develop and improve craft skills and practices. It was an idea which the eighth shogun of Japan, Yoshimuni Tokugawa tried out in 1721 with his ‘Meyasubako’, a box placed at the entrance of the Edo Castle for written suggestions from his subjects. And the British navy pioneered a similar scheme in 1770, asking its sailors and marines for their ideas — significantly reassuring them that such suggestions would not carry the risk of punishment!

By the time of the Industrial Revolution innovation was recognized as a powerhouse — and not everyone thought that ideas should be confined to specialists with the workers simply employed as pairs of hands. In 1871 Denny’s shipyard on the banks of the Clyde began operating a suggestion scheme amongst its 350 employees; it enabled them to cut the time to build a warship from six months to four whilst contributing a variety of other quality and productivity improvements. And in 1892 John Paterson at the National Cash Register company in the USA began exploring ways of tapping into ‘the hundred-headed brain’ of his workforce; his success led the Eastman Kodak company to implement a similar scheme in 1896.

It wasn’t just innovation rates which improved; a growing number of studies, not least in the famous Western Electric research at the Hawthorne plant, found that asking people for their ideas and enrolling them in workplace productivity improvements had the by-product effect of better motivation and employee satisfaction. The great quality management writer Joseph Juran talked about ‘the gold in the mine’, describing how unlocking the potential of employees to add their mental weight to the innovation problem could dramatically improve quality.

By the late twentieth century these ideas were widespread; the 1980s total quality revolution gave birth to lean thinking and with it the core recognition that asking people for their ideas was a pretty smart way of driving up productivity, whatever the setting.

Thinking Inside the Box

Thinking inside the box

So a great idea — but not without its limitations. The trouble with suggestion boxes and schemes is that they bump up against some unfortunate logistical challenges. Even in the best-intentioned companies, with enlightened leadership supporting the concept and innovation facilitators trying to make it happen the idea of high involvement quickly runs aground on some simple arithmetic around idea management.

Suppose you have a workforce of 100 people and you convince them to join in the innovation effort and suggest improvements. By the end of week one you have 100 ideas, by week four 400 and pretty soon you can get into thousands of ideas. Lots of enthusiasm and there’s no shortage of good ideas — people generally have them and have probably been carrying a backlog around with them for some time. And when they tell their friends there’s an accelerator effect; the innovation wave starts to build.

Your problem is most certainly not going to be a shortage of ideas — quite the reverse. But what do you do with them? Of course, a good percentage will be simple things which people can implement for themselves — and your job is to encourage them (and also to track the changes they’re making to ensure they don’t end up conflicting with your established operating procedures).

But a lot more will need thinking about. They may need modifying and developing from a germ of a possibility into something polished. Juran’s raw gold ore doesn’t glisten straight away, it needs processing. And some of them will need quite a lot of effort and specialist input to yield eventually valuable results.

All the while you are working on these the inflow pipeline is filling up, hundreds of ideas every week. But with the ideas also comes expectation — people not unreasonably asking ‘what are you doing with my idea?’ So you need to spend your precious time not only processing the ideas but also feeding back; sometimes this means saying no to unworkable ideas or those which don’t fit, and doing so in a way which doesn’t discourage people from suggesting further new ideas.

Walt Disney Fantasia

It doesn’t take long before you’re like Mickey Mouse in the wonderful Disney film ‘Fantasia’ where he plays the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He tries to improve the way he deals with his household chores by a little magic spell which at first helps him out with brooms, buckets and scrubbing cloths working hard on his behalf. But pretty soon things get out of control, there’s water everywhere and an army of brushes and mops threatening to take over his world. The resulting chaos is only halted by the arrival of the master Sorcerer who magically puts things back to how they were.

It’s potentially the same with your magic spell of high involvement innovation. What began as a great movement towards innovation from everyone soon becomes a nightmare precisely because people are volunteering ideas. There isn’t the capacity to deal with them, they’re coming at you thick and fast but you can’t handle them all. And then things take a turn for the worse. People keep asking you what’s happening to their idea and when they get no response they start to grumble. They get fed up with seeing their great thoughts disappear into what seems to them to be a black hole. Nothing seems to happen and so they stop bothering to make suggestions and slip back into simply doing what they are told, albeit with a bad grace. And they tell their friends who nod their heads and agree that the system simply isn’t working, so why bother with it?

Pretty soon you’re back to where you started. Not only has the flow if ideas dried up but now people are resentful and suspicious. They won’t get fooled again; next time you come around asking for their suggestions they’re not going to give them up so easily.

Sadly, that kind of story is typical; the limitation of suggestion schemes is that they aren’t well-equipped to deal with a high volume of ideas or high levels of participation. There’s nothing wrong with the model which is why employee engagement can work so well in teams. Where the focus is local, based around workplace teams working on quality or lean six sigma a trained team can keep chipping away at its productivity improvement goals very effectively. There’s shared motivation, clear local targets and high visibility of the results. Getting everyone involved in innovation works and if you keep it going it delivers consistent bottom line benefits. The only trouble is that it’s hard to scale it.

Doctor Superhero

Technology to the rescue…

Fortunately, around the turn of the millennium things began to change. Faced with the problem of idea management a number of people began working on IT-based solutions. Their earliest attempts were little more than electronic versions of the old physical suggestion box and they had limited success. Feeding ideas into complicated spreadsheets wasn’t particularly exciting or motivating even if it was now possible to do some rudimentary tracking of those ideas.

But gradually things improved. The interface became more friendly and, with the growth of internal networks, the possibility of accessing a terminal and logging on to a screen became available to many more people. Instead of being a one-way posting process the beginnings of visibility emerged; people could see what happened to their ideas and get some feedback on them.

It wasn’t just the technology which was getting better and offering a closer match to the needs which organizations had for effective idea management. The wider context was changing too, undergoing a revolution at scale. Social networking began to emerge and quickly caught on, offering new ways to interact with people in an online space. By 2008 close to 120 million people were using the MySpace platform every day and by 2012 Facebook had a user base in excess of 1bn and growing.

This external shift opened up huge new possibilities for the ways in which interaction could happen across an innovation platform. People could not only connect but also share, like, comment, build the conversation — all features which developers of collaborative innovation platforms saw as rich in possibilities for their offering. User companies began to sit up and take notice as a new way of engaging employees emerged — one which offered the twin advantages of richness and reach. Through such platforms a high volume of people could be connected, forming the ‘neurons’ in a potentially giant innovation brain. And their activity could be extended way beyond simply posting up a suggestion; they could comment on other people’s ideas, like or suggest modifications, join into virtual teams building and shaping ideas into real innovation possibilities.

As if that wasn’t a strong enough impulse to regenerate interest in high involvement innovation we also discovered ‘crowdsourcing’ as an approach to collecting ideas. This wasn’t a new concept; back in 1714 the idea of taking a big and apparently intractable problem and asking a lot of people for their help with solving it had been deployed to great effect. Faced with the growing crisis in navigation caused by ship’s captains being unable to calculate their longitude accurately because they lacked a reliable portable timepiece the British Admiralty launched what we would recognize today as an innovation contest. With the support of the king and with the attraction of a significant financial prize the challenge was taken up and solved very effectively; the winning (and wonderful) design by John Harrison was soon being fitted to all the ships in the British navy as standard equipment.

‘Broadcast search’ of this kind undoubtedly works — the trouble was that in those days it was a difficult process to organize and manage. But with today’s powerful communications infrastructure it’s possible to set up and run an innovation contest in an afternoon and reach out to the whole world for answers. Idea marketplaces have sprung up all over the internet, connecting seekers of solutions with potential solvers; one such platform, Innocentive.com currently has a population of regular solvers over half a million strong offering their input to the various challenges posted on the site.

Tapping into such ‘collective intelligence’ in this way isn’t just about increasing the volume of ideas coming into the system. Its real value is in extending the reach, drawing in ideas from across the ‘long tail’ of different perspectives on the problem you’re trying to solve. Karim Lakhani and colleagues highlighted this effect in their detailed studies of traffic across the innocentive.com platform; the benefits came not from having tens of thousands of people working on your problem but from the diversity in approaches which they brought. Fresh minds, new insights, alternative ways of framing the problem.

Collaboration platforms 2022

Today’s collaborative innovation platform resembles its suggestion box predecessor in outline only; it’s still a way of collecting ideas from employees. But it does so in an interactive space in which challenges can be posed, ideas suggested, comments added and shaping and welding together multiple knowledge sets and experience enabled. And in doing so they open up the very real possibilities of high involvement innovation — getting everyone to contribute to the innovation story.

And it works. There are countless case studies drawn from contexts as different as aerospace and agriculture, medicine to microelectronics manufacture. High involvement works in in the public and not-for-profit world as well as in the commercial one, and the targets for such innovation range from straightforward cost-savings and productivity improvements to creating new crisis responses in the world of humanitarian aid or finding ways to improve access to shelter, health care and basic needs in the world of international development.

Where it was once the exception to find firms like Toyota reporting high levels of participation and harvesting the benefits emerging from millions of suggestions, it is now commonplace to find benefits reported in terms of million dollar savings. One of the founder companies in the idea management field, Imaginatik, has a running total on its website suggesting that their platform has enabled over 2bn ideas to be suggested, generating $1.1bn of savings; similar data emerges from other suppliers of the technology.

But it’s not just the raw return on investment which collaboration platforms offer — thought these benefits are impressive. Their real value lies in the way they have matured to enable systematic innovation routines to work at scale and across the entire process of innovation, not just the front-end idea generation.

Idea Plugin
Image: @studiogstock on Freepik


So you might think that the answer is simple — invest in a platform if you want to turbocharge your innovation activities. But you’d be wrong, and for several reasons. First we need to remind ourselves that platforms are simply tools. They may be significantly more powerful than their predecessors but just like a power drill with lots of shiny new attachments, in the hands of an inexperienced amateur it will not deliver — and may leave you with a series of unsightly holes and marks on your wall!

In particular they need embedding in a culture which supports the underlying values and behaviors associated with high involvement innovation. If you don’t actually believe that everyone can contribute, or if you believe it but don’t commit the resources to train and enable people to deliver their ideas, then your investment in a platform will simply be a white elephant. What makes it work is a culture, an integrated suite of behaviors which are articulated, supported, reinforced until they become ‘the way we do things around here

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Image credits: Pixabay, Wikimedia Commons, Pexels, Freepik

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