Innovation is crucial to any business in today’s global economy. Companies are in a continuous hunt for better ways to capture, cultivate and capitalize on ideas. The team that can bring the best ideas to market first wins. That’s the essence of innovation.

Today, one of the most exciting areas for managers responsible for this is idea management systems. These systems help companies collect, manage and leverage the creative ideas from customers and internal people to drive innovation.

Sounds great. Here’s the reality. Like any product category, not all idea management systems are created equal. Especially in business-to-business markets, where a product management team is in place and wants to use the ideation system to generate and manage product enhancements, current idea management systems are sorely lacking.

Problems, Solutions

Here are four problems I see many of these systems having and suggestions for how to fix them.

Problem: It’s hard to keep the system clean

Idea management systems emphasize crowdsourcing. They are based on the notion that the crowd -- external customers and internal subject-matter experts -- will promote good ideas and push bad ones aside. In other words, “the cream will rise to the top.” But nearly all product managers know this doesn’t always happen. Bad ideas often mix with good ones, and become noise that makes the system hard to use.

For example, in our experience with a major U.S. retailer, we found the company had thousands of ideas in its idea management system. Unfortunately, many ideas were redundant with other ideas, and worse still, many of the ideas were for items already provided by the company. In fact, one of the submitted ideas stated, "Please clean up the idea community. There is way too much crap in here. I can't find the interesting ideas.”

Solution: Moderation, triaging

Product managers should be able to review submitted ideas and decide whether to publish them before they are viewable to users. This lets product managers delete bad ideas and junk, preventing the system from being clogged with noise that can develop due to crowdsourcing. Product managers should also dedupe submissions, and keep submissions that aren’t feature requests, such as bug reports, out of the system.

In addition, during this moderation step, product managers should be empowered to clarify an idea or fix misspellings, etc. Product managers should also be able to further tag and publish good ideas in custom-created categories, such as product X or Y. This organizes ideas and focuses users on reviewing and acting upon high-quality ideas. Moderation should also support publishing ideas in multiple categories, because they can often apply to myriad situations.

Problem: Finding relevant ideas is hard

With most ideation systems, there is no control over the idea submission process. Users and product managers are bombarded with ideas, and often get so bogged down looking through them that they miss good ones or run out of time to review all of them. In these situations, users need to be able to filter and sort ideas effectively after they are submitted. Unfortunately, most systems lack useful advanced search capabilities. After running a search, users (product managers as well as customers) must still manually search their results to find what they really want, which can be time-consuming.

Users of ideation systems usually want to know more than what the top five ideas are or what the last five submitted ideas were. They want to make sure that they see the new and innovative ideas that have not yet caught on. But if searching is only keyword-based, then good ideas can easily be lost within the system, never to be seen again.

Solution: Advanced searching

Search functions in an E2.0 idea management system should have advanced features to let users, especially product managers, quickly expose the most important ideas and information. Some of these features include the ability to search by specific fields (e.g., industry) or by number of votes (e.g., I want to see interesting ideas that aren’t the most popular and that were submitted by our banking customers).

Search should also allow product managers to sort these results across various dimensions, such as by product or company, and not just by most popular. This lets product managers quickly see the most relevant information for the task at hand. Search should also let users create email alerts and RSS feeds from personal search queries, so that they can be kept up-to-date on changes in the system.

Problem: There’s no way to slice and dice data

When it comes to innovation, the value of an idea is often more important the popularity of an idea. Product managers can often encounter difficulty selecting the right ideas to commercialize when they are not equipped with sufficient customer insight and support from leadership and management. Whittling down the popular to the valuable requires different views of information that take into consideration who it’s coming from.

Solution: Report writers

Report writers should be easy to use, and let product managers display ideas according to various dimensions, such as geography (or sales territory) and industry. They should also let product managers analyze data in various ways to understand trends. For example, are certain ideas resurfacing and taking on importance? Are all my retail customers asking for the same feature? Why do we see real differences between the popularity of ideas among domestic and international clients?

Problem: Customers don’t understand how voting works

Some idea management systems weight a customer’s vote based on their "reputation." This could be calculated by how popular their ideas are among their peers, the number of comments they’ve left in the system, and other metrics. Typically, the higher their popularity and participation, the better their reputation.

While this approach might make sense to some, it can be confusing to others, and can misrepresent an idea’s value to a product manager.

Solution: Simple, weighted voting

The voting system should be easy to understand and transparent to customers. If an idea has three votes, it should rank higher than an idea with two votes. Believe it or not, this is often not true in current ideation systems. The user interface should be intuitive. For example, it should allow one vote per customer per idea, and allow customers to retract their vote if they change their mind.

However, product managers should be able to have an internally used voting/ranking system. It should be able to weight voting based on criteria they define, such as customer revenue or potential revenue (and not by items such as user reputation). For example, is this a platinum customer? Or is this a new customer with little growth potential?

In addition, the ideation system should allow robust and granular discussions regarding the merits of an idea via a robust commenting feature. However, a tightly integrated discussion forum capability is also important. The forums enable customers to discuss issues related to ideas and other issues that are important to them.

This creates a less formal area for customers to have in-depth discussions, which often has two important results. By monitoring these forums, product managers are often able to gain deeper insight into customers’ needs. In addition, forums frequently generate interesting ideas or contain lots of additional information related to an idea.

It is important that the forums and the ideas can be simultaneously searched and that the results of both forums and ideas are displayed for users to review. This tight integration allows users to see much richer and deeper conversations than if ideas and forums are searched separately. Users should also be able to subscribe to forums via email or RSS for real-time updates.

Conclusion

In short, the idea management system should provide a means for ideas to be gathered, managed, shared and socialized in one integrated publishing and community platform. It should support a synergistic approach to ideation that integrates and leverages the knowledge and creativity of product managers and customers to drive innovation. 

Editor's Note: You may also like Allison Dahl's piece The Idea-driven Workforce: Finding New Ways to Engage Employees in Innovation