It’s Not Just About Ideas; It’s About Culture

One of the standard practices companies frequently use to jump start innovation is the “idea campaign.” It’s a fairly easy way to build interest and demonstrate some early success. An “idea campaign” simply uses one of a variety of approaches to ask employees to submit their ideas. It’s an updated version of the old-fashioned suggestion box.

The good news about this approach is that it will generate lots of ideas—perhaps thousands. The bad news about this approach is that it will generate lots of ideas—perhaps thousands.

When you have that many submissions, you can barely sort them all, much less implement or even thoughtfully consider each one. What message does that send to your employees? It tells them that it’s not really about them. It tells them that most of their ideas will never be seriously considered. It tells them that each of them really is just a cog in the machine, and management will listen to them when it gets around to it—maybe never.

In other words, if an idea campaign isn’t done thoughtfully, it can be profoundly counterproductive. Companies have proven over and over again that you don’t have to do very much to get ideas out of people—good ideas. They’re ready and waiting to give them to you. But if you want that to happen in a reliable way, you have to reward that behavior with appreciation and recognition and results.

Idea campaigns, like brainstorming, have their place but they tend to work best when you’re addressing a specific challenge, when the problem is fairly well defined and the process isn’t open-ended.

An idea campaign may be a great idea—and there are some great technologies available to help you launch and administer one. But it’s just as important to launch an innovation culture campaign. One that will help your people better understand how to think and work creatively. That will let them know that their input is valued. That creates management structures and techniques that promote innovation and build buy-in at all levels.

That may sound obvious but it involves a great deal more than saying, “Your ideas are important to us.”

The ideas will come, plenty of them, but only for a while if you don’t create a culture in which both the ideas and the idea generators can thrive.

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