If you are a corporate innovation manager, no matter your level or official title, I have one question for you: Are you doing Idea Management?
It’s not a trick question. If you are, you’re doing your job. If you aren’t, then I would say your job is in danger. Maybe not today in winter 2008 as I write this, you may be safe for a time, but someday someone will ask why an idea management system was not put in place. Your excuse will need to be a better answer than “they were unproven” or “it wasn’t cost effective.” My wish for you on that fateful day is a good severance package — because both of those concerns are frightfully lame. Really you deserve the corporate equivalent of a tar and feathering because you’ve let down your organization.
Sorry for being a bit harsh there. You’re not lame, let’s just call it risk averse! I really do believe that Idea Management is a huge opportunity. What is it exactly? In a word, a database. More elaborately, it’s a system, or place, to store ideas and selectively and deliberately develop them. There are software packages that do this (and they also permit online brainstorming) but it could be as simple as a notebook. Amazingly, many large corporations do not catalog ideas in any way. Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest” – wise words that should be heeded today!
Let me say something very clearly: if you are not doing Idea Management you’re not doing deliberate or continuous innovation. I would go as far as saying if you are not doing deliberate innovation than you are not doing innovation at all. Do you really want to leave innovation to an informal system? Is there anything more strategic to an organization than its innovation efforts? It’s your future! Why would any organization not implement some kind of idea management system? There really is no excuse for not doing it.
As an innovation consultant one of the most difficult things to help an organization with is measuring innovation. Idea Management systems address that challenge. It’s challenging to assess the innovation culture within an organization, and arguably, it’s even more challenging to measure the impact of innovation efforts over time. This is particularly true if there is only an informal system in place. Didn’t Demming say “that which isn’t measured doesn’t improve?” He also said “Learning isn’t compulsory … neither is survival.” Interesting how these quotes from the quality guru apply so well to Innovation. In a sense, Idea Management is a type of quality system, it’s measuring the quality and quantity of an organizations intellectual capital.
Stated simply Idea Management is a concept whose time has come. We must measure our innovation efforts in order to improve them. Ideas are the most strategic asset of any organization. Ideas are the first products of the minds of employees and owners. Ideas are what improve systems, improve processes, improve morale, generate new products, new services, and new ways to better serve the customer. If they are not recorded they are left in people’s heads (and people leave) or scattered across desks in a sea of memos, messages, and cocktail napkins. In an informal system ideas are often lost forever, some great ones are ignored because they are out of sight, some are given away free to the competition, and others diamonds in the rough are not developed and implemented. Further, you don’t know who’s pitching in with lots of ideas and who’s slacking off.
I stated earlier it’s hard to measure an innovation culture. It’s a touchy-feely thing isn’t it? You’d need to measure attitudes and feelings, and that is notoriously hard, although not impossible, to do. My hat’s off to those who make the effort by doing qualitative interviews, observational research, and in-house ethnography. These techniques can go a long way to measuring what kind of innovation culture your organization has, but given the “inexact science” nature of these techniques it is hard to justify those kinds of studies to the bean counters.
Idea Management on the other hand provides hard-core metrics. Doesn’t that give you goosebumps? What CEO or CFO doesn’t want hard-core metrics? How many five star new product ideas do we have for next year? Who thinks they are five stars? What are the ideas for moving them into production? Who thought of that brilliant idea for the line extension that is working so well? These are all questions CEO level managers should be asking, and they should be able to get quick and accurate answers.
I’d think that getting approval to buy idea management software would be a piece of cake. As a job protection measure you should ask for the money even if you know it will be refused! Those software companies, and there are some very good systems out there, are doing quite well right now. I am impressed with Imaginatik. Brightidea’s website has an interesting system. There are others that I haven’t looked at closely. Surprisingly, these systems are very reasonable in cost given the value they deliver. It’s hard to understand why everybody doesn’t have one. Is it risk aversion or lack of vision?
There are so many benefits of idea management that it should be a “no brainer.” It protects intellectual capital, it saves money in ideation (virtual ideation/online brainstorming alone could justify the cost) it allows for continued consideration and development of seed ideas, it tracks employee contributions, can be used as a factor in compensation, it saves re-invention of the wheel, it helps instantiate an innovation culture — and this is just a starting list of benefits!
Idea Management should be formal. Nearly everyone does it informally — but of course without real black and white measures informal idea management has no power to inform and educate our efforts.
Now, let me address the cost concern. You might be an independent consultant working alone, or a small company without a lot of money to throw at an expensive software system. You still need Idea Management, in fact it could be a competitive advantage. My suggestion is this, you can start with a spreadsheet! Even saving your ideas in a word processing document would be a start. You could also start with a free or inexpensive web-based system – they are available. Really there is no excuse for not systematically tracking ideas, reviewing ideas, and choosing the best ones to further develop and put into action.
So, if you are not doing Idea Management, and Innovation is your charge, I’d say get after it! Or, polish up that resume because you must have a secret wish to be doing something else. I’m joking but please, do yourself a favor, take advantage of Idea Management it’s a powerful tool for innovation.
Gregg Fraley is the author of Jack’s Notebook, a Business Novel About Creative Problem Solving – the first business fable about deliberate creative problem solving and personal innovation. Fraley is a recognized expert on creativity and innovation who speaks internationally and consults with many Fortune 500 companies on new product development. Visit Gregg Fraley
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