Monday 11 January 2021 9:40 am

Crowdsourcing ideas only works if you do it right

Tom Humphreys is an innovation expert and CEO of Pollen8

You’re the boss who knows change is necessary to keep your customers and colleagues on board – and even more so after a few rocky months. 

Like many in the same situation, you’re thinking: “My employees are a rich source for spotting problems, I’ll ask them what they’d change.”

In theory, the approach has mass potential: ask your people, who are closest to the real problems for their best ideas, and you’re bound to succeed.

Better still, it’s easy to set up. Launch a digital ideas box with little effort and before you know it, you’ll have a constant stream of potential innovations – all while driving employee engagement to new heights… 

Read more: Listen to Chancellor Rishi Sunak on the City A.M. podcast

If only it was that easy. 

In reality, most crowdsourcing efforts surface overwhelming volumes of uninspiring ideas and daily bug-bears. “After asking 10,000 of our talented employees, our most compelling insight is that we need nicer coffee machines….” 

Finding meaningful ideas needs a wider purpose, and a structured process, especially if you want to tap into underlying, deeper concerns. 

Worse still – open the floodgates to employee ideas with no ‘what next?’ and you’re in real danger of losing your people’s trust. Innovation will be seen as theatre rather than a vehicle for strategic change.

The issue is not with the logic or simplicity of crowdsourcing, these are both great. It’s more that crowdsourcing is often set up without the necessary guardrails to ensure success.  Fortunately, these can be straightforward and few in number. Getting them right will embed an innovation culture that gets results.

Make ideas matter

Let’s jump inside your people’s heads for a moment. They’d be forgiven for thinking: “Why should I care about innovation and creativity? What’s in it for me?”

The key is to focus not on the path to innovation, but the results; how improvements to the business will benefit every individual. If new ideas for streamlining admin processes are adopted, for example, colleagues could see time pressure in their daily work eased. Having a new product idea chosen could improve the company’s competitive position in a tough market, enabling job security or opportunities for promotion. 

Explain what types of ideas you’re looking for, and why. Start by reflecting on the overall strategy of innovation efforts. What information do you need to gather, to pass the first gateway? Then work back from there. 

Be crystal clear around the ‘what next’. How will this influence the business? How will you take people’s ideas forward? What are the metrics you’ll hold yourself accountable to?

Lead with integrity and honesty

Avoid saying “there’s no such thing as a bad idea” – people won’t believe you.

In reality, you’re going to progress the opportunities that will be good for the business, and park others. Build transparency around the company purpose. Hold yourself accountable to specific metrics. Leadership should be at the forefront of every innovation message.

Create a common language 

Walk in the shoes of frontline colleagues who are facing problems every day. They know their space inside-out. However, they might lack the vocabulary and tools to engage with your innovation process confidently. Spend time getting this right, and provide encouragement and support. This will lead to higher quality inputs.

It’s not about having the shiniest solution or random sparks of genius. Anyone who can identify a problem, is an innovator. Invite participation, embrace individuality within a structured, purpose-driven innovation culture, and celebrate successes.

Creativity can come from the most unexpected corners, but making it part of your innovation strategy requires far more than ad hoc crowdsourcing or a detached ideas box. 

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