When is the best time to ask your team for ideas?

You first have to come to accept the fact that some times are better than others to ask all of your smart people for to spend time on collaboration.  It may be as simplistic as putting aside some time for ideation (“Join us for innovation week!”).  But human nature is a bit more complex and your organization can wring the creative juices out of your team more optimally under some conditions more than others.  At least if we extrapolate from the social, psychological  studies out there.

Right after the big push

One of the best times to ask your people for their support in the collaborative process might be right after they have just completed a big project.  If everyone on a team who has just finished “the big project” delivery is solicited to vote on a list of ideas, they might be at their most “ripe” or generous with their time.  Studies have shown (see note 1) people who are first depleted by a tedious task wrote more favorably than those who did not complete a tedious task.  The depleted people performed just as well, just more favorably.  So if the new product is finally rolled out (“whew”) or the ribbon cutting ceremony just wrapped up, then think about soliciting everyone’s opinion before they steal away to take a few days off.

While people have their fingers crossed

Although folks might grouse about giving up their time to pay attention to the “ideas of the future” (so caught up are they normally with their day to day responsibilities), you can get their attention best while they’re waiting for news.  Taking this further, maybe the ideal time to ask for collaboration is the time period between when everyone submitted their next year’s budget request and the time when they hear the final budget results.

People are more charitable with their time in a bid to improve their karma.  (See note 2).  Moreover, people are more charitable in these situations so they also become more optimistic about the outcome.  While managers are waiting to hear what their budgets will be might be the perfect time to ask them for their time, their help and for their opinions.  You might find they want to put some time and thought into answering your questions whilst believing the new innovations you present might address the future needs of the organization.

Find and ask the risk takers

OK, this section is looking at the nature of our (human) hunter/gatherer past.  In a recent study, researchers set up a virtual hunter gatherer environment where men and women could interact anonymously.  The uncertainty of our hunter gatherer past might give us an insight into why groups of people are inclined to collaborate at all.  (See note 3).

People who cultivate resources with small payoffs but low uncertainty (“gatherers”) share little.  Ergo, it might be difficult to get those at your organization who follow the path of least resistance to work in collaborative teams.  On the other hand, people who cultivate resources with big payoffs but high uncertainty (“hunters”) almost always evolve into sharing groups and, as a result, are more successful.  If you can identify those on your team who are “risk takers” you’re likely to easily channel their energies into a collaborative effort that produces the kind of innovative thinking your company is hoping for.

By the way, good social media technology can monitor the behavior of your user community and help you identify “early adopter” types making it easier to figure out who should be invited to talk to whom.

Make sure you reward the right behavior

You may already know some of what follows but bear with me for a few sentences.  Once you’ve identified the best times to ask for ideas you want to keep people engaged in the process.

Here’s the part you may know already:  Sometimes it isn’t so smart to give out a cash prize for the best idea.  It usually works in a counter intuitive manner if your goal is collaboration. Instead of people working together, they hoard their ideas to the end of the contest for fear of having someone “steal” their idea and taking the cash prize.  Plus if you give out $25 this month and $50 the next, pretty soon you’re escalating from beyond the world of giving out t-shirts to iPods to iPads to Cars…and then what are you going to give out next year that can top that?

What you need to do is reward contributions with acknowledgement.  The best ideas will come by themselves if you can just get a bunch of people to collaborate.

Here’s the new info you may not already know:  Recently Nathan Schneider wrote an essay explaining “the Templeton Effect” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  He tells the story of the world of academic philosophers.  John Templeton started a foundation giving multimillion dollar grants for answers to the “big questions” like “the scholarly investigation of character”.  A non-Templeton grant to a philosopher is usually closer to $25,000.  Suddenly every contributor is paying attention to the “big questions” but less spiritual inquires are being ignored.

If you give out large amounts of rewards in any one direction you might find no one is paying attention to the other field of endeavors that you’re hoping to have the group pursue.  Instead consider posting a list of the top contributors for the month and sending every contributor an email to acknowledge their submission.  Spread out your acknowledgement and rewards across all the areas of interest your organization wants to go after.

The job of an innovation manager has many component parts.  You have to be able to encourage others to give their time in order for you to succeed.  One of the best methods to make your job easier to is to leverage the use of technology to make your job easier.  It doesn’t hurt to use human nature to your advantage as well.

Note 1:  Derrick, J., “Energized by Television: Familiar Fictional Worlds Restore Self-Control, “ Social Psychological and Personality Science
Note 2:  Converse, B. et al., “Investing in Karma: When Wanting Promotes Helping,” Psychological Science.
Note 3: Kaplan, H. et al., “Risk and the Evolution of Human Exchange, “ Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (August 7, 2012)

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