Idea Management – A How To Guide (Part 1)

OMG, it's me

OMG, it’s me – and it seems I can’t believe it either!

I was excited, flattered and terrified in equal measure last week to be able to speak at the UCISA Support Services Conference about an Idea Management Programme we’ve been running at Surrey.

There’s loads of material from the conference available on-line and I have in mind a blog on the whole thing, but in the meantime (largely because my slides feature more pictures of snails and children’s TV characters than detail) I’ve promised to write “the blog of the presentation”…

I’ll skip the early bits of the presentation where I talked about the importance of innovation or what led us to invest in Idea Management – the presentation can be streamed if you’d like to learn about Lego and watch the audience chuckle (to my consternation) at a picture of Cilla Black. What I will do, though, is give you a guide to how I think is best to approach using Idea Management to drive innovation.

1 – Understand it is an investment

Slide86So you’ve had the thought, for whatever reason, that Idea Management is for you. Perhaps you’ve seen what other organisations are doing with it, or you saw a funky on-line tool and saw an opportunity. You’ve thought about it and reached the conclusion that this is for you. Good for you. It’s a worthwhile journey you’re starting.

Whatever led you to this point, there’s one critical point that you need to acknowledge – this is an investment. And don’t forget that as with any investment, it comes an element of risk.

“Investment” here means time and money – people and “stuff” – and over a period of time. And in two parts. As I’ll cover shortly, just running this thing takes effort. You also need something for realising the ideas that your programme will bring you. And what you put in will obviously need to be in proportion to the size of the programme you’re running.

2 – Have realistic expectations

You’ll already have a thought in your head about how you’ll use this, such as getting feedback from a community or more select group. One creative idea we had was using it as a way to prioritise requirements for a project with a large user base.

Slide87But don’t get carried away – while you don’t need the resources of Apple to cause “disruption” these days, very few people and organisations get to change the world! You need to have realistic expectations about what you’re going to get from this. Your mileage will vary depending on these environmental factors:

  • What you do – your “business”
  • How you do it – your culture and how it responds to new thinking
  • What your participants (if you’re not doing this internally) are like – their culture, their wants and their hot topics and pressure points

Base your hopes (and fears!) around your understanding of these factors. Your business (or subset of this – see constraints later) will define the scope and type of ideas you should invite. Your culture will define how your organisation responds to ideas (largely a function of acceptance/rejection of change). And your participants’ culture should give you a clue what kinds of ideas people will submit, in what quantity and the tone/tempo of the activity with voting, commenting etc. and what proportion of them will get involved.

So you’ll (hopefully) get some Ideas. They’ll (hopefully) be discussed and voted on. You’ll hopefully be able to take (some) of them further. Yes, plenty of Weasel Words in brackets there. Nothing is guaranteed!

But remember that the benefits of an Idea Management Programme aren’t limited to the ideas themselves – we found several times that we were seeing benefit away from idea realisation. Things like an increased sense of community and greater engagement, highlighting front-line concerns at an executive level and better communication. As with so many things in life and work, remember that the journey itself will have value.

A note on measurement

It’s by no means mandatory, but particularly if you’re going to run a big campaign have a think about how you’re going to measure for success. We didn’t really think about it at the start and have tended focused mainly on Idea count (received, in progress and realised). Yours might look at Ideas/Votes/Comments as an indication of engagement, or perhaps cost savings, or something more specific to what you’re using Idea Management for.

3 – Process

Slide88Yes, from measurement to that other sexy subject – process. The thing is, you need to have a clear understanding of how an Idea goes from being submitted to being realised – what route(s) it might take, how it moves from stage to stage, how that is facilitated… Make sure you consider things like what role votes will play in Idea progression – is the top voted idea a default winner? That shouldn’t always be the case…

Having your process set out for an Idea’s journey helps you understand the costs of facilitation and how you should go about resourcing Idea realisation. You’ll need that for the next step.


Surrey’s Idea Process

It’s also a useful thing to have when it comes time to sell this to your participants. It shows you’re serious about it, that you’ve invested time up front into making the most of their contribution.

Our process (left) looks great on a poster, but if I’m honest it’s a bit woolly. On more than one occasion we had to answer “process questions”, such as the priority (or lack thereof) given to top voted Ideas. And by not being terribly clear about circumstances under which ideas can progress we had good Ideas (from my admittedly subjective POV!) languishing while others went through by virtue of finding sufficient interested volunteers etc.

When planning this out, think back to the two cultural Environmental Factors I mentioned earlier – your organisation and your participant cultures. If your organisation is change/risk averse you’ll need to compensate through facilitation and champions (more of which later). If your participants are prone to flights of fancy or have a shared (unfixable) frustration that’s likely to surface during the Programme have a good process, a well defined scope and a moderation policy to steer people’s creative energies in a positive direction.

4 – Management Commitment

Slide89This one’s a biggie. Odds are you’re not in a position where you can decide your organisation is going to do this and assign people and funding to it – you’ll need to put together a case for it to your management / executive team to approve.

Similar to when you go sell this to your participants, you’ll need to explain why you want to do it, why it’s a good thing, how you’re going to do it and what it’s going to need to get it done. Standard “doing new things” stuff.

Where this is different for Idea Management is that the commitment is – to hijack the Dog’s Trust slogan – for the life of the Programme, not just for the meeting.

Why? Well firstly, unless you’re running a Programme focused entirely on something like developing new products, where it doesn’t impact on how people currently operate or what they work on, then your Ideas are going to impact on systems and practices your management / executive team are responsible for. They need to buy in to the concept and understand this might mean change. They can’t be precious about it.

Secondly, you want to stay the course. I’ll say more about possible constraints you could introduce later, but you want that commitment to be there right to the end. An Idea submitted towards the end of a Programme is no more or less valuable (potentially) than one submitted at the start. You’ll also need that commitment to ensure Ideas moved into “delivery”, or however you’re progressing them, don’t stall – as happened to us when support faltered.

5 – Tools & Methods

Slide90Here’s the bit that, interestingly, I found people didn’t quite get when I spoke to them after my presentation. I wouldn’t endorse any particular tool for facilitating this – in fact the tool (or non-digital method) isn’t a vital piece of this story. You need something (and it’s easy in IT to fixate on the technology aspect of something like this), but don’t sweat tool selection.

We settled on IdeaScale, which most importantly supported our process but was also affordable. We could just as likely have put resources into getting SharePoint doing pretty much the same thing.

University of Portsmouth have used a combination of pop-up roadshows, brainstorm sessions, feedback walls and other non-digital methods (as well as IdeaScale) to conduct a wide-ranging consultation about the University – and to great effect. Obviously if you take this kind of cross-method approach the planning is more complicated and more effort needs to go into running it!

6 – Have a Facilitator

Slide93I’m going to mess with the order of my presentation slides here, but really this comes next. If you haven’t got it from my references to it in points 1, 3 & 4 – you need someone running the show, a Facilitator. If this has you thinking of Jason Statham then you’ve been watching too much ITV2.

The Facilitator is part Process Owner, part cheerleader, part camp counsellor and part fixer. But they probably shouldn’t be the point that chooses or delivers ideas, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Your Facilitator delivers your Process, facilitating decisions made on moving Ideas along their journey, answering queries, chasing people for progress and monitoring / operating any tool you have.

Your Facilitator communicates to your participants how things are going, where they can get involved, what successes they’ve helped realise (see notes on Tempo later). Depending on your organisation and the size of your Programme, they might also be putting together reporting to management, organising meetings etc.

emailYour Facilitator joins in the debate, asks good & timely questions to encourage discussion and help ideas flesh out and gather support.

And your Facilitator does what they can to push selected Ideas through to delivery – how this will look will depend on your process and resourcing model. For us it was a case of identifying and approaching volunteers to take things forward, then going back periodically to see how it was going and what we could do to help.

If you decide to run a big campaign, or several small ones at the same time, then this is potentially a full time role for someone. And if you’re going “big” give thought to appointing Idea “Champions” – people out there doing the Facilitator’s Camp Counsellor role, soliciting ideas and comment, helping opportunities develop.

7 – Early Adopters

Slide91We’re getting closer to actually launching this thing – in fact it’s time to start thinking ahead. Early adopters are wonderful things here. We all know people in our organisation who seem clued up, energised, willing to pitch in outside their areas, ready to embrace new ideas… These are your potential early adopters.

Our early adopters (who represented less than 5% of the overall group invited to take part, but provided 100% of input in the first week) gave us a big boost when we launched, but this was by happy coincidence rather than design.

So brief your potential early adopters in advance of launch, let them know what’s coming and they’ll have Ideas lined up to give your Programme that early boost.

If you don’t think you’ve got any candidate self-starters out there, make some! Run some brainstorming sessions with likely participants to help them identify some Ideas of their own, then offer them an outlet for their creativity.

Next time…

Selling this to your participants, keeping things going, badges and a cat. In a box.

Update 10/07/14 – Part 2 is available!

You might also want to read the blog I put out during my presentation with links to all the homework I set!


5 thoughts on “Idea Management – A How To Guide (Part 1)

  1. Hutch Carpenter says:

    Excellent advice here Gareth. Your points are ones that are the critical elements of success with an innovation program. A couple follow-up thoughts here.

    In my experience, organizations do best with a campaign-based approach vs. an ongoing open suggestion box model. Campaigns are time-bound calls for ideas answering a specific question. Open suggestion boxes are always open, You mention campaigns here, so I think you’re aware of these two models. Campaigns have emerged as the better way to both involve employees and senior management, and to get ideas targeted at objectives of the organization.

    Your advice on Champions is spot-on. This volunteer army is vital complement to the work of the Facilitator(s). I’ll use military terms for how to think about Champions. The Facilitator represents the air force, providing air cover across the entire organization. Champions are “boots on the ground”. They’re seeing things locally and can respond as they see it.

    Look forward to Part 2 of your write-up.

    Hutch Carpenter
    Senior Consultant
    HYPE Innovation

    • Gareth says:

      Hi Hutch, glad you liked it.

      When I presented this last week I made exactly that point (and it’s in the 2nd part). It wasn’t something that really stood out as we ran the Programme ourselves, but came more on reflection. It’s great to get confirmation that my instinct was right!

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