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December 21, 2011

Innovation is work (Part 1: Generating Ideas)

Hero platform 2When we set up our sharing system, the HERO Platform, here at Forrester Research, one explicit goal was to improve innovation. There's a virtuous circle: the innovation element would get people further into the sharing platform, and the sharing platform would give us the structure we needed to innovate. I'd like to tell you how things came out (so far). We learned a number of lessons, things that may or may not be intuitive, which I'll call out here in bold italics. Today I'll describe how we got started; tomorrow I'll get into winnowing ideas down and launching innovators forward.

If I learned one thing, it is that making innovation happen is hard work -- for the person running the process, for the innovators, and for the people making the judgments and the company management. So why do it? Here's the big takaway:

Innovation systems require a carefully thought out and clearly described processInnovation systems should help find good ideas and create a path to put them into practice. If there is no clear path from ideas to implementation, you're just fooling around.

This is how we started. Forrester Research is a company full of innovative people, in my experience. But we did not have a systematic process for encouraging those innovations, and as we near 1300 employees around the world, it's not getting any easier. People say "I have an idea" and then get frustrated that nothing happens. This is a problem at a lot of companies. So our explicit goal was to create a path by which innovators and their innovations could get traction and move forward.

Know what problem you're solving with your innovation system.

We launched the HERO Platform in August. We declared October "Innovation Month" and officially launched an idea community within HERO. I made a decision that there would be one email to the whole company and no more. All of the other promotion was within the HERO Platform. The innovators themselves would do a lot of the promotion, by requesting people to review their ideas.

Don't promote innovation  with a barrage of email.

Innovation communityThe innovation community included the key features I've seen in every successful innovation system: the ability to search, vote for, comment on, and share ideas (and see the ideas with the most commentary and the most votes). It took a couple of weeks to really get going, and there was a flurry of activity at the end, but for the most part it just worked. There were hundreds of votes and comments on 65 ideas. Of the 65 ideas, most were pretty good or excellent. While some companies have a continuous process (Intuit is one), we specifically time-limited it to encourage contributions and then take the contributed ideas and select the best for implementation.

Use deadlines and time-limits to encourage contributions -- position your innovation process as a "challenge" or "contest."

We asked people to classify their ideas as Quick (easy to implement now) or Detailed (requires further budget or study), since we wanted to evaluate the two types of ideas separately from each other.

One thing we added to the off-the-shelf system was fields that required people to think about the benefits and the cost of their ideas (and we encouraged people to use the effort-value evaluation to discipline their thinking). We also asked people to choose one from "I want to lead the launch of this idea," "I want to be a part of the launch of this idea," and "Someone should take this idea and run with it." (I recently spoke to a client who had a bunch of undifferentiated ideas in his system and had become frustrated with suggestions that included no indication of how much they would cost or who would make them happen. I was pleased that we didn't fall into this trap.)

Ideas have costs -- systems should encourage innovators to think carefully about them.

At the end of all this we had indications of which ideas were popular. But were they the best, and how should we implement them? This was the second part of the process, which I'll describe in tomorrow's post.

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