How to: effectively canalize your company's creative ideas

Someone spoke to me recently during a seminar with this finding: “Our company is ready to dive into Innovation this year – we’ve been launching a new innovation process and the people are all set and eager to rock and share some nasty good thoughts. But now we’re bombarded with unsolicited ideas, which makes it so hard for our Innovation Manager to focus.”

“That’s where challenges come into play”, I answered.

“Challenges are what make life interesting…”

An Innovation Challenge (or Idea Challenge – some people call it campaign or project or seed) is best described as an invitation -usually defined by management and published by a dedicated company facilitator- towards the community to help focus on a company objective.

Creating a well defined, sharp-cut challenge encourages innovation with a maximum on impact. To make an ultimately effective innovation challenge, consider the following guidelines:

  1. Make sure you fully understand the need (or problem).
  2. Think of a short and ‘challenging’ title, preferably a question (“How to….?”)
  3. Write a clear challenge description:
    1. start with something catchy (a story, a rhetorical question, a picture…)
    2. describe the “state of the art”: what is the background of the problem, what is already known, what theories, concepts and tools are (possibly) relevant…
    3. make sure to make the description general enough to allow for creativity.
    4. focus on one worthy goal without prescribing the means.
    5. the final goal of a challenge is generating a lot of good focused ideas. So keep it positive! Don’t use negative sentences.
  4. Finish the description with a clear objective, using a format that states what you want to establish, and for whom (= a “call-to-action”). Use a specific action verb in your challenge description that directly appeals to the population you want to benefit. (E.g. “We want to improve/reduce/expand/eliminate the user experience of the visually impaired users”)
  5. Make your challenge time-bound. This way you create a sense of urgency and it encourages people to contribute. A challenge’s life cycle can last from a few weeks to up to a couple of months.
  6. Make your challenge measurable. As a challenge success target, quantity can be a possible metric (“if we can harvest a shortlist of 50 ideas in one month, it’s a success”)

“And what’s in it for me?”

Although not always advisable (I wrote a post on reward systems last week), incentive prizes (monetary or non-monetary) can accompany innovation challenges (or contests).

Let’s use Persuasive Design to get participation.  Most will agree rewards don’t work for radical innovation.  Whether it’s a T-shirt or a car or a badge of honor.  Just like the word “free” in an advertisement will get you a set of false response statistics, rewards will get you incremental ideas based more on the reward than the idea itself.  Persuasive design will entice folks to work on your project.  So a prominent invitation to an expert; a dramatic spotlight, a luring color will get folks to consider your premise (while the strength of your idea will get their participation).  And the intrinsic reward for participating is watching our company take our suggestions and doing something with them and getting peer recognition and personal enrichment in return.

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