To Innovate, You May Have to Repeat Yourself, Repeatedly

To get to the good stuff, you may have to repeat yourself.

In running several innovation programs in many different companies over the years, it’s quite rare for employees to come up with good, incredibly profitable, and interesting ideas right from the start. It happens, but not often.

In most firms, this is not their first rodeo. In most firms, something like a crowdsourced innovation, patent or foresight program has already been tried. It could be something as simple as an email address to send ideas to, an internal forum or mailing list people could throw ideas into and talk about, or it could even be the implementation of a “suggestion box” style of innovation management software, something so simple and easy to use that whoever’s ideas it was figured that all they need to do was sign up for the software, send out an announcement email, and sit back and wait for the billion dollar ideas to roll in.

When we go into new client situations where the customer has already run one or more innovation programs in the past, we do a deep dive to determine why the previous programs weren’t successful. The answers range from the most common, which is a lack of communication with the inventor once the ideas have been submitted (what we call the “black hole effect”), to the loss of an executive sponsor, and many other reasons in-between. Unfortunately, all it takes is one unsuccessful program (and by unsuccessful, I mean one where the inventors didn’t feel heard and they didn’t feel that their ideas were properly evaluated) to turn the tide against you.

Unless this is the first time you have done something like this, your employees may feel burned by program after program which has not produced results. It’s a matter of trust.

Jaded people are tired people. They are told, repeatedly, that their contributions are valuable. But once again, the next program comes along, (full of sound and fury!) and nothing happens with their contributions or they get little to no communication on their contributions and eventually, they stop contributing.

This time it’s different. It’s not going to be a quickly selected and lightly rolled out software only solution, it will be a full program, meticulously planned, with challenges, goals, recognition, rewards, review committees, full communications and marketing, a theme, and complete buy-in from executive sponsors to HR people, finely tuned to map to your corporate culture. Plus, some software to help your teams to collect and review the ideas.

We’ve found that most of the time when we go into a situation where there have already been multiple innovation programs in the past that have not done well, that we typically do not get the best ideas the first time we run a new program. The best inventors or their best ideas are least, are held back due to this lack of trust. They may test the waters by submitting some of their less stellar ideas, just to see what happens. You need to get to your best inventors; the serial inventors, who have a range of ideas, from the best to the not-so-good. They will most likely throw in a middling one, the first time out, since they may have been burned in the past.

In these cases, the first proper program is sometimes a gimme. If you have a jaded employee population you’re going to have a tough time getting the best out of people right away. You may not even get a very high turnout. You may not get very good ideas. You may think that the whole program is a bad idea. You might decide to shut it down immediately as a failure. That would be wrong.

The first proper program you run may come up with no really good ideas. But that is beside the point. The only goal of the first program is to rebuild the trust of your employees. To show them, without a doubt, that you want to give them a safe space to reveal their ideas, they you value their ideas, that you recognize their ideas and the work that they put into their ideas, and that you present those ideas, suitably reviewed, recognized, and rewarded, back to the organization.

It’s key that the very first time you run a program is not the only time you run the program. You must have a plan to run the program multiple times or continuously over a period until you get that buy-in from your inventors. Until you rebuild that trust.

If you have a unengaged workforce, it’s doubtful that you will get billion dollar ideas right out of the gate. However, once you have rebuilt that trust by providing assurance that all ideas will be heard, you’ll be surprised by what you’ll get.

Imagine the power of your senior leadership asking your entire organization to help to plan the future of your organization. Imagine the power of anyone, in any role, no matter how distant from leadership, having a voice with that leadership. Imagine the massive engagement you’ll get from your people once they know that not only are you listening to them, you are hearing them.

This won’t happen without trust. This won’t happen if they feel that their ideas will be treated as poorly as all the other times. You’ll only get the billion dollar ideas once they feel right in releasing them to you.

Once you celebrate their ideas and trumpet their success throughout the organization, and they see other innovators with their ideas being presented on a stage with other innovators, or when they see recognition and rewards for others, those with the best ideas, will finally reveal themselves.