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Innovation campaigns; The good, bad and ugly

Innovation campaigns are popular. They are an excellent way to get your organization engaged in innovation activities. The yield in numbers of ideas is typically very high. However, what happens thereafter?

The good

Engagement

Innovation campaigns enable an entire organization, across multiple locations, to focus on a critical issue over a brief period. I don’t know of any other approach that more effectively can get a whole organization on its feet. It is an excellent way to access and use all available brainpower in an organization and identify possible solutions.

Employees love participating, as it gives them the opportunity to be heard.

Connect employees across organizational boundaries

Innovation campaigns are also a great way to bring people from various parts of the organization together. Today’s software tools can connect people across organizational boundaries, who did not know each other, let alone they were aware they had similar interests and passions. Through submitted ideas and review comments, employees will interact with each other in ways they never get to do in their regular job.

Great software tools

Which brings me to the next point, there are many great software tools to help you prepare and run your innovation campaign. I know of only a few: Spigit‘s employee engagement software,  the Idea Factory by KPMG, and Betterific. There are however many of these tools.

External input

Most of these tools allow external parties to participate. Few organizations I spoke with allowed external participants to submit ideas for their first campaign. That is wise. It takes experience to run a campaign successfully and you don’t want to get it wrong when external parties are involved. At the same time, from the research I did, it seems that externally facing campaigns are most successful in terms of new product and service outcomes. Basically, such open-for-external-parties innovation campaigns are a modern, open, and flexible version of the traditional request for proposals. A version that casts a much wider net of responses.

To summarize: Most organizations I spoke with were thrilled about the number of ideas produced by the campaign. They were also impressed by  the enthusiasm of their employees. They experienced how an innovation campaign can bring the whole organization together. Absolutely awesome!

The bad

Costly

Innovation campaigns are costly. While it may look like a low-cost endeavor – as you are just collecting ideas from employees. It actually is expensive after you add up all the costs.

To be clear, the software is not what makes it expensive. The biggest costs come from the hours that go into the preparation, and the collective time that your employees spent on submitting and reading ideas.

How you formulate the challenge matters – a lot

The preparation starts with formulating the problem. The success of an innovation campaigns depends on how well you formulate the problem. If the problem is defined too broad, the campaign will yield too many off topic ideas and you probably won’t get enough good ideas for your most pressing problem(s). However, if you define the problem too narrow, you will capture the imagination of too few people and not get enough ideas at all. Formulating the problem for the campaign in a succinct way, while nailing the message, was considered a huge challenge by the companies I spoke with.

Time consuming

During the campaign, you need moderators to give feedback and keep the process going. Thus, an innovation campaign entails much more, than just putting out a call and waiting for the ideas to flow in. Depending on the size of your organization, it takes one to a few people to monitor all the incoming ideas, make sure all ideas get feedback, and group similar ideas together.

How an idea is formulated matters

Organizers also struggled with the fact that certain departments are much better at formulating ideas than others. Ideas submitted by employees in the sales and marketing received a lot more up-votes, just because they were clearly formulated and therefore easier to understand. Whereas on the technology side, the introvert brilliant geniuses – to stereotype – were not that talented and skilled to pitch their ideas eloquently. As a result, their ideas received little to no attention.

In general, easy to understand ideas attract more attention. In one of the campaigns an idea for a recognition bulletin board was voiced. A type of idea that the organizers had not anticipated to be part of the campaign. Before the campaign facilitators realized this idea was out there, it had received already a lot of up-votes. It became the most popular idea! Yet, the organizers had hoped their winner would be the kind of ideas that got totally overlooked in the popular vote. Such as “a better methodology to reduce the costs our clients incur from inefficient data hosting”. This idea that did not attract much attention in terms of up-votes or input, but turned out to be an easy to implement multi-million dollar idea cost saving.

Popular vote does not help to identify the best ideas

It is thus no surprise, that one of the software vendors even recommended that the organizers should not use popular vote at all. They literally said “The feature is in the system because people like it, but it has no value for your campaign. Popular vote should not be your selection criteria.”. Research supports this notion.

After going through the campaign, one organizer attested that the popular vote was not useful, yet, he felt he had to do something with it. He recommended to either give a popular vote winning team a free pass to the next round – where they get vetted with the other teams -, or use it as one of the selection criteria. “You cannot completely ignore it, as people will ask what happened with those ideas”.

To summarize: Most of the issues brought up under the “bad” are manageable, as long as you take the time and invest the necessary resources to prepare and manage your innovation campaign.

The Ugly

Where it seems to become ugly, is if you ask for the results 6 to 12 months after the innovation campaign. What happened with the ideas that made it through? What are the results?

No new services or products as the outcome

Most of the organizations I spoke with, had nothing to show for a few months after. For example, in one organization, the campaign had yielded over 250 ideas. 8 projects were selected for further detailing, of those 4 got funding. Six months later, all four projects had lost their stamina or had come to a halt. What happened?

The most common reasons the projects stalled were:

  1. Nobody to follow up with. The idea submitters were not interested in bringing their idea to practice. The business unit did not find anyone that passionate either. So nothing happened.
  2. Insufficient funding. Too many projects were selected, with none of the projects having sufficient funds to be executed with 100% dedication.
  3. Lack of momentum. The teams that full enthusiasm started to work on their ideas, all had full time jobs on the side. Spending a half to three days a week on their project, made even the most die-hard teams lose momentum quickly.

To summarize the ugly: Despite all the effort, energy, and money these organizers put in their innovation campaigns, in the end they had nothing to show for, except for a rejuvenated workplace.

Some final remarks

Given the popularity of innovation campaigns, I was surprised by the stories I heard. I expected these campaigns to be more effective. A dive into the academic literature on the topic showed that there is a lot of research that focuses on idea quality and selection bias of innovation campaigns. Less can be found about their long-term benefits. Yet, crowdsourcing – a special kind of innovation campaign – does seem to be effective. This entails for example a Heineken or a Target asking consumers for input, a municipality asking citizens to help address a pressing community problem, or a company asking the research community to help solve a specific problem. In all these cases, the external parties that are given the opportunity to run with their idea, are subject matter experts with a vetted interest in the solution. Either because they live the problem daily, or because they are experts in the field. That is very different than employees suggesting ideas, with no commitment and potentially no interest to see these ideas come to fruition.

If you think an innovation campaign is going to help you address and solve a critical need, make sure you think the whole process through from start to end. Otherwise you may end up empty handed, in spite of a successful and energizing campaign.