Innovation Isn't About Ideas, It's About Process

Ideas are cheap. It's all about your plan to implement them.


There’s a common misconception in the business world about what holds us back from creating “the next big thing.” While every company would surely love to do so, they think they don’t have good ideas.

In reality, if you’re only thinking of innovation in terms of the C-Suite - you’re probably right. A ground-breaking idea may not exist between four or five like minds.

However, if you’re thinking of your company as a whole, I’d challenge that between 400, 500, or even 4,000 minds, there exists some fantastic ideas.

But that doesn’t matter.

Ideas Are Cheap

Innovation isn’t about the best ideas, it’s about the process for voicing, vetting, and nurturing those ideas.

The first version of any idea is unlikely to be the best it can be, but it can be a seed for something far greater when nurtured through additional research and feedback from coworkers. In addition, seemingly small or unimportant ideas, when implemented, can spark a domino effect of changes that lead to groundbreaking innovation.

Many employees have good ideas, but few companies have good processes for managing them. It’s the process that enables you to innovate; not the ideas.

A Good Process

Every company is different, and the process that works for a tech startup in the Silicon Valley may not work for a tire factory in Nebraska. Even still, there are some general best practice all kinds of companies can use as starting points.

1) Encourage Employee Suggestions With an Official Program

It feels appropriate to explain this point with a quote from the movie The Internship.

Guy 1 (in a meeting): “Can I say something?”

Guy 2: “Sure, you can say something. We’ll all resent you for wasting our time, but don’t let that stop you.”

Red tape, unrealistic deadlines, and a lack of employee engagement lead to a negative attitude toward change in some companies. It’s so hard just to get work done and maintain the status quo that new ideas are actually discouraged. They just seem like they’ll create more work. And for what? The new ideas won’t see the light of day, anyway.

This toxic attitude is often what causes organizations to fail.

While solutions can vary, a formal employee suggestion program might be the the answer. With clear ownership for the suggestions and an obvious way to voice them, an employee suggestion program sends a message internally that the organization is serious about engaging employees and hearing their ideas.

2. Get Management Buy-In

Management has to participate in employee suggestion programs in order for them to be successful.

If the entire management team isn’t on board, one person could attempt to be a bottleneck and sabotage idea implementation. Getting management to work together is a key part of supporting employee ideas and achieving an innovative process. It also sends a clear message to workers that the company is committed to employee suggestions, and therefore, it’s worthwhile for them to participate as well.

The right innovation management software addresses this. For example, in Vocoli, managers (or anyone, really) can post “Challenges” to workers and request solutions to nagging organizational problems. This is a great way to engage managers and get them to delegate ideation to staff-level employees. With their bird’s eye view and insight into the longer term strategy of the organization, it’s likely they know of many problems that need to be addressed. They just may not have all the answers. Challenges invite employees to provide them in an organized process.

3. Invest in More Than A Box on a Wall

It’s common practice for companies to follow the path of least resistance with employee suggestion programs and choose a simple solution such as a wooden suggestion box for the wall, a PDF form to be filled out, or a simple form solution using Sharepoint.

Although you’d assume something is better than nothing, a badly designed process doesn’t hold leadership accountable for actually checking the suggestions and it doesn’t hold employees accountable for thinking through their ideas before submitting. This causes some major issues. Most people are good at thinking of problems, yet few are made accountable to think of solutions. Traditional informal processes are a magnet for anonymous submissions and encourage complaints. Also, with no defined process to collaborate among peers to improve ideas or a workflow to ensure ideas are reviewed in a timely manner (where the contributor gets feedback in a reasonable amount of time)the suggestion program that was supposed to ENGAGE the workforce actually backfires and causes anger and disengagement.

And after a failed process, good luck trying to revive the concept again down the road. Too often, the concept of a suggestion program fails, yet it fails not because it’s a bad concept. It fails because of a lack of a defined system to capture and move ideas through the queue.

Digital suggestion boxes circumvent these issues. The user flow of a digital suggestion program can require that people sign in with their real names. It can also require a certain level of detail in the suggestions they submit, provoking them to research and think through their idea before submitting. The accountability of having your name associated with whatever you submit can’t be overlooked.

And as mentioned, there are clear ways to involve managers and earn and keep their buy-in, such as with Vocoli’s Challenges.

4. Promote Your Program

Once you’ve established the basics of choosing to make an employee suggestion program, selected a platform, and gotten management buy-in, it’s time to launch your program.

Be prepared to promote the launch and use wall signage, internal email newsletters, and company meetings to explain the program to employees, teach them how to use it, and communicate the company’s commitment to the initiative. And continue to market it internally, so that it becomes habit within the organization. Without this crucial last step of promoting your program, you won’t get employee participation. And of course, without that, this innovation process won’t work.

Key Takeaways

Your employees have great ideas, and for your company to maintain a competitive edge and to retain those employees, you have to find a way to channel those ideas. For most corporations, great leadership and an open ear from individual managers is not enough. For innovation to work on a broad scale, a full-on process needs to be conceived and needs to be committed to. But luckily, you don’t have to start from scratch. Employee suggestion programs are a proven method of innovation and it’s worth your company’s time to entertain the possibility of one.

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