Building an Ideas Culture – Is it a Good Idea?

Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Blog, Industry | Comments Off

Building an Ideas Culture – Is it a Good Idea?

A previous client of mine, O2 UK – the No.1 UK carrier – invited me to consult for them because I said, with a straight face and a good deal of zeal, that I could turn their business into a platform.

My whole pitch was about the virtues of (a large corp) adopting and adapting various modern Web patterns and paradigms, biz and tech.

The idea still has legs. For those that want to know how to run, I wrote a book about it.

After a few sessions with senior stakeholders, I was asked to finds ways to “increase innovation” throughout the company.

It was a departure from my previous roles where I did the innovation, not cultivated it amongst others, at least not overtly. I now wore two hats: Innovator and “Innovation Evangelist.”

I discovered and documented a number of possible changes, among them the notion of creating an “ideas market” within the company. The logic was simple: “lots of brains work here – why not use them to create new stuff?”

The general enthusiasm for “crowd sourcing” swept my proposal along. Before long, O2 had engaged a market leader (Bright Idea Inc.) to provide a cloud-based ideas management tool. The same tool was already used by various big “tech” names, including Cisco and HP. That too was encouraging, as the meme of “let’s become a technology company” had started to spread throughout O2.

The meaning of the label “technology company” was subject to a raging debate that probably continues, not just at O2, but at many carriers and companies who similarly invest deeply in technology, but don’t create anything technological. I recently discussed the “software DNA” aspect of this argument in a guest post on Vision Mobile’s blog.

Once launched, the ideas tool was promoted to the O2 staff via various campaigns, managed by an “Innovation Manager,” specifically assigned to oversee the process.

Later on, as an experiment, I used to the tool to run an Innovation Tournament following the methodology documented by Wharton Business School professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich in their book and website.

To cut a very long story short, one full of twists and turns and various fascinating insights, the biggest lesson that I’d like to share is in the failure to create an “ideas culture,” which is what I had set out to do.

I should hasten to mention that the project itself was not a failure – quite the opposite. The process produced many ideas, of various sorts. It also had the useful side-effect, one I had hoped for, of increasing employee engagement, although this was aided by a number of associated tools that we promoted concurrently, including Yammer, the enterprise equivalent of Twitter.

It wasn’t until I recently started consulting for a Silicon Valley company – an early dot.com success story – that I realised how hard the goal was that I had set for O2. Again, I found myself in the midsts of a mature company with an established culture.

This time it was a technology company, although that is also being debated (more on that another time). My role is to provide the technology vision for the next 3 years. I know, folks will tell you that you can’t envision that far ahead, which, of course, is nonsense.

Skipping the details, the engagement has involved me working largely independently of the existing technical staff. I have done the usual things, like interviews, observation and so on, but most of my work has involved building on a set of ideas that are “my own.” There are no crowd-sourcing initiatives or ideas markets in sight.

What I’ve learnt from comparing these two engagements is that there’s a time and a place for internal ideas creation versus external stimulus. The ultimate goal is not just to generate new ideas, but to implement some of them. The scope of what you’re trying to achieve with ideation must be considered in relation to the method.

If the scope is to improve employee engagement and motivation, then the ideas market approach can work wonders.┬áMy advice for launching an ideas market is to limit the scope to what we might call “incremental innovation” if there isn’t an ideas culture already in place. If you want to find the “next big thing,” which means thinking of a brand new product or service line, radically different to what you have today, then ideas markets will struggle and there will be a danger of implosion as the method fails to deliver any big ideas.

If you’re determined to involve employees in radical innovation, then I suggest a hybrid approach. This is something I tried with an Innovation Tournament inside O2. We gathered ideas from both internal folks and a hand-selected bunch of external folks with key skills and insights. Interestingly, whilst the approach produced some great ideas, it’s most valuable outcome was robust external validation of internal ideas.

For radical innovation, when the internal teams are stuck, using external consultants, advisors and mentors works. Depending upon the existing culture, you should be careful about how you involve existing employees in the ideation process. It is often better to get their inputs, in a controlled fashion, than to involve them in a free-for-all ideation process. Of course, you will need their buy-in later on to build or support the ideas, but there are various ways to achieve that without depending upon them to source the actual ideas.

In summary, it is a good idea to build an “ideas culture,” if your primary goal is to increase employee engagement and to improve incremental innovation. If your primary goal is really to discover big new ideas, then don’t fall for the “crowd sourcing” approach just because it’s become a fashionable meme on the Web. Where an ideas culture doesn’t already exist, it isn’t necessarily such a good idea to try building one.

Subscribe to Paul Golding's posts and other provocative content by email