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Montreal, 13 September 2012

The suggestion box is the first response organisations put in place to stimulate innovation within their walls.  It is simple, easy to organize, democratic, cheap and unthreatening to middle managers.  It requires little commitment and literally no change in processes or practices.  In other words, it is safe, and as a matter of fact, who knows what gold nugget we might find inside the box!  There is a widespread belief that creativity, plucking ideas from employees, leads directly to innovation.  Only sometimes, at best.

More often than not the suggestion box looks a lot more like a box of crackerjacks, with lots of small puffy ideas.  The suggestion box traditionally yields a high volume of ideas of small or modest impact.   These mini and small C ideas (C for Creativity) fly in all kinds of directions, as employees look around their immediate work space to tap on what gets on their nerves or what stands as an immediate problem.  These ideas are rarely connected to the customers.

And why would the employees really care?  Most office employees have minimal clues about their company strategy, the competitive landscape or the market priorities.  Not surprisingly they would not even know what to look for and where!  Furthermore, it is not sure for most of them that carrying a good idea forward, is just the right thing to do.  Like a running back on the football field, the employee is likely to face headwind, resistance tackles, and political vetoes.  Fear of an adverse reaction from the boss is an understatement in many organisations.  It all seems a lot better and safer to concentrate on where the next budget cuts will fall upon!

Yet once in a while there is indeed a toy gift in the crackerjack box.  Good enough, there are always a few low hanging fruits ready for the picking.  It shows that at least some employees are listening to cues. Sometimes the suggestion box can be scaled up into a corporate challenge or innovation program.  Brainstorming sessions are added.  New media tools are implemented.  Much good comes out of the effort, such as internal improvements, cost savings, employee participation and the impression of finally being consulted.  But when the focus centers mainly on the suggestion box, most companies feel disappointed.  Because senior management actually hopes to encounter the gold nuggets and magic bullets in the suggestion box.  Yet the really big C ideas that lead to projects with big impact don’t fall off trees.  They are not either in the crackerjack boxes.  No, they usually come from hard, constant and conscious work to search for the best ideas.  In other words, sweat is required.

The really good ideas come from passionate observers with deep knowledge of the industry, markets or cutting edge technology.  Like successful fly fishermen, they pick up on signals, clues and new trends that others don’t see.  They get the first hunch about what is changing out there.  They catch the first whiff of a new opportunity.  Smart entrepreneurs lead this category.  They are on the lookout for their next vision.

Others, and they are few, are particularly astute at keeping conversations with their customers.  Most companies see themselves as client focused, but by-and-large, they mostly mean they are in regular contact with their customers:  Exchanging information on order processing, transaction status,, billing, daily chit-chat, etc.  Real conversation requires time and observation in the field, time for interviews and special conversations where emerging needs are tapped in, habits detected, hidden discontent revealed, ill-defined desires spotted, etc.  It is essentially from those conversations that critical patterns are detected.  These are the gold nuggets, signals of market potential.   They don’t usually sit at the bottom of the suggestion box.

There are not many gold diggers to be found in companies.  Gold diggers need free time and an inherent passion for hunting the nuggets. They excel in open forums, in chats around coffee tables and in wanderings across odd networks.  Once they get a good idea in their hands, they know the idea has to bounce off other viewpoints and criticism.  They know their idea will grow through collisions with other ideas.  They will find missing bits around conversations in meeting rooms.  They will find encouragement and advice when the idea is tested with potential customers.  They may at times benefit from a dip into crowd sourcing, when a tricky problem lingers. Possibly years of incubation may be required to turn a good idea into an attractive proposal or even a commercial object.

Crackerjack boxes are fun.  But the real innovation work is done with customers.  There is no shortcut.


André Du Sault, MBA (LBS), MPA (Harvard)

DS&H teaches innovation as a new competence for leaders.

Forthcoming:  Innovation topic (2)  The transformation of good ideas

Posted in Innovation & organisation, Management ideas.

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