Innovation is no longer the preserve of specialist teams and departments — and it shouldn’t be.
The risk of not listening to our workforces is too high. Our markets are complicated, technology is disrupting how we work, and our clients’ expectations are changing fast. Responsive companies are using digital social networks to tap into the views and expertise of the wider workforce, flattening lines of communication.
If you want real innovation from your workforce, running an “innovation campaign” will foster creativity. If you treat innovation as an open-ended suggestion box, the result will largely be suggestions for improvements or solutions looking for problems to solve. The chances of genuine creativity are slim.
Innovation campaigns are a means of facilitating the generation of new ideas through a specific event, something all employees can understand and get behind — one that will inspire co-creation of solutions or individuals to submit ideas on their own.
What makes a good ideas campaign? Here are some tips and tactics for using social collaboration tools to encourage novel and creative thinking.
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Give It a Time Limit
Giving your campaign a time limit focuses the activity and provides momentum. It could be as long as a month — as long as you offer regular updates and feedback during that period. Or it could be as short as an hour: You could run it as a hackathon and open it up to just a specific group of employees for that period of time.
However long your campaign lasts, you should build up to it, generate interest and ask employees to book it on their calendars. This ensures people will commit the time to participating and contributing. It also turns the initiative into a true “event.”
Ask the Right Questions
Build your innovation campaign around questions you want employees to answer. Questions not only encourage responses; they also help shape responses. Sending out an open-ended request for ideas can generate a large number of suggestions, many of which won’t be practical. Asking questions puts a real focus on a particular business need or issue. Asking the right questions will increase your chances of getting effective and practical ideas.
Your need for innovation may be broad, so to elicit ideas that are more likely to work, you need to hone in on tangible areas.
For example, if running a campaign to find ways to win more business, look at specific markets, perhaps even the trends driving activity in those markets. Then ask for ideas: How we can take advantage of those trends? What successful applications of these trends have we seen elsewhere? These questions start people’s minds on the creative journey toward invention.
Tell a Story
To really get creative, tell a story. Storytelling is a proven way to get people’s minds away from the repeated and predictable. Each individual will interpret a story in a different way. Stories facilitate connections with other concepts and ideas that may be on our minds. They help us develop empathy with the author, giving us more motivation to get involved.
If the goal of your innovation campaign is to find ways to influence government policy, for example, tell a story about a time when you attempted to do that in the past. Share details that paint a picture of both the positive and negative aspects of that endeavor. In what ways were you successful? Where were you not successful? That story lays a foundation to work on.
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Reward Good Ideas With Ownership, not Gifts
Offering financial incentives for ideas may improve the number of submissions, but will not foster intrinsic motivation. You want a holistic approach. You want your people to emotionally invest in the campaign. What better way to get that type of response than to give the authors of promising ideas ownership of those ideas?
If an idea is deemed worthy of developing, ask the person or people who submitted it to be responsible for turning that idea into action. Reward them with the training and support they will need to prototype the idea. Whether you provide training in design thinking, give them their own budget, take them away from their day jobs or offer a combination of those incentives, let their passion drive the idea forward.
Understand What You Want to Change
Running an innovation campaign implies that you want something to change. But if you don’t know exactly what you want to change, then don’t carry out the campaign. (If you do launch a campaign without a specific goal in mind, it could turn into a “What sucks around here?” campaign, which can generate some amazing responses, but you probably don’t want to hear them.)
Understand and articulate the “why.” Why do we need to change? What is holding us back? What trends are unsettling us? The “why” gives focus to the campaign — a central theme that you can use to promote it. But it also ensures that you are prepared to actually do something when ideas start coming in.
Assign an Owner to the Innovation Campaign
You want your innovation campaign to be the opposite of a suggestion box. An innovation campaign needs passion and enthusiasm behind it. That means you need someone to be the face of the campaign. Crucially, that person needs to own the campaign. He or she needs to provide visibility on the behind-the-scenes workings of the undertaking while leading evaluation of ideas and providing feedback.
Innovation campaigns will die if there’s no sense of momentum — if people think nothing is happening to their ideas. The owner of your innovation campaign must have enough authority to move the ideas forward and take action, but he or she must also be someone who has the time to evaluate progress and provide feedback. Therefore, it's not usually a good idea to ask a member of the C-suite to run the campaign. A C-level executive may be there in spirit, but in reality, have a thousand and one other things to think about.
If you have an innovation manager, then great. This is that individual’s domain. If not, rising leaders from any department can make great owners. You need someone with passion and energy. But please, be sure give that person the time necessary to do the job right.
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Think About What Will Stop People From Joining In
An innovation campaign run on social tools is a very open activity. The eyes of the company are on those involved in the campaign. And for many people, that would be an insurmountable barrier to joining in. Engaging with the workforce on any campaign is critical to gaining adoption. Find out what people are concerned about, and make sure that their fears are allayed.
Ensure that the campaign has its own rules. For example: No idea is too crazy; everyone is an equal contributor regardless of role; this is a safe place to be honest.
An innovation campaign is also an important business initiative, so ensure that there is a senior sponsor with enough clout to get people involved. People are too busy at the best of times, and a big risk is that they just won’t have the time to get involved.
Well-run innovation campaigns will engage your workforce, open the door to creative thinking and send the message that the organization wants to hear from everyone. If you can get your people to step away from their day-to-day jobs and think about the future, you’re on the right track.
There is no such thing as a bad idea, but a good innovation campaign will ensure you get ideas that might actually work!