By Steve Sponseller
Is your company’s idea of creating an innovation culture to simply schedule a few brainstorming luncheons scattered throughout the year? I’ve seen this tired approach at dozens of companies.
Predictably, companies schedule a mandatory brainstorming meeting with their engineers and developers. The team members are “rewarded” with pizza and soda and asked to come up with creative ideas.
Unfortunately, most of these ideas are specific to the projects the engineers and developers are currently working on. This approach does not solve big problems or generate disruptive innovations. Instead, it’s merely an opportunity to think about the team’s current projects.
These traditional brainstorming sessions are usually limited to the engineering/development team members, which misses out on huge opportunities to get input from people in other departments. And, the really valuable ideas rarely come out of unstructured sessions like these.
These old-fashioned brainstorming sessions are boring and end as soon as the pizza is gone.
If you want to foster teamwork and develop an innovation culture that produces a steady stream of innovative ideas, you have to try a new approach used by the most successful technology companies today…
Make Innovation Fun
Here’s a strategy I’ve used successfully with multiple technology companies to gamify the innovation process. Create an innovation contest along with other creative activities that make idea generation fun. Team members love these events and the ideas start flowing!
Best of all, the fun activities stimulate creative thinking that continues long after the actual event is finished.
Here’s how you can create your own innovation events that foster teamwork and develop a company-wide innovation culture.
“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin
Instead of trying to create ideas from one large group of people, create multiple innovation teams. Be sure to call them “innovation teams” – using the name “brainstorming team” will scare people away!
Each team has 6-8 people from different parts of the company – a cross-section of the company’s departments. For example, each team includes people from sales, marketing, customer service, engineering/development, manufacturing, and so forth. This diversity of company roles generates a broader range of ideas and provides perspectives from different parts of the company.
The first task for each innovation team is to create a clever name for the team. This is the first step in the innovation contest (explained below) because points are awarded to the team with the best name.
Create A Contest
To gamify the innovation event, create an innovation contest in which the teams compete with one another. Explain the purpose of the contest, the contest rules, and how points are earned during the contest. And, explain the prizes for the top innovation teams. Make the prizes something significant – something that is highly valued within your organization. One company I worked with gave the winning team members custom jackets embroidered with “Innovation Champion” and an attractive logo – lots of bragging rights for the owners of those jackets!
Some companies do a one-day innovation event and the contest ends after that single event. Others companies spread the contest across several weeks with two or more shorter innovation events during that period.
Contest points can be awarded in many ways. Some companies give points for each problem identified and for each possible solution. Additionally, judges can evaluate the identified problems and/or solutions and award additional points based on the creativity of the idea or the potential value to the company.
Each team starts by identifying problems that need to be solved, such as problems with the company’s existing products or “gaps” in the marketplace, where a new product could fill the gap.
This is where the diverse innovation team creates significant value. Often, people from the customer service and sales department can identify problems with existing products because of their direct interaction with customers.
After identifying problems, the team decides to focus on one or two of the problems and identifies multiple possible solutions to the problems. Initially, the solutions should be general in nature – specific implementation details can be discussed at a later time.
The goal is to identify many possible solutions without criticism, judgment or editing. Every idea gets recorded, regardless of its commercial feasibility. This is critical because one idea, even if it’s not commercially viable, can lead to another idea, which leads to another idea, and so on until a valuable and commercially viable idea is developed.
After generating a large group of possible solutions, the innovation team ranks the solutions and discusses the top 3-5 solutions in more detail. These discussions may spawn additional ideas regarding how the solution might be implemented.
You must provide a tool to display all of the ideas. Typically a white board or flip chart works best. If you use a flip chart, get the kind that has adhesive on the back of each sheet so they can be easily stuck to the wall. It is important that all ideas are visible to all team members.
Don’t forget to record all of the identified problems and solutions. This is valuable information for the company and can help generate “seed” ideas for future innovation contests.
As mentioned above, contest points can be awarded in many ways. In addition to points for identified problems and possible solutions, consider additional points based on fun categories. For example, “most creative solution,” “craziest problem” or “most unusual problem.” These award winners can be selected by a panel of judges or voted on by all of the contest participants (but team members cannot vote for their own team’s ideas).
“Fun is good.” – Dr. Seuss
Prizes and Celebration
Select contest prizes that are valuable to people in your organization. You will receive significant value from the innovation event, so make the prizes something of value that will encourage strong participation in the current event as well as future events. I mentioned the custom jackets that are highly sought after in one company.
If you need ideas for contest prizes, ask your team. Find out what your team members consider most valuable and provide those items as prizes (within reason).
The goal for these innovation contests is to get teams of people from different parts of the organization working together to solve problems in a fun environment. This can improve morale and create a strong team environment. And, it gives people a fun break from their usual work routine. These types of events generate many new ideas for the company to develop new products and improve existing products.
In my experience, the creation of innovative ideas doesn’t end when the contest is over. The innovation contest creates a creative spark in the contest participants and they continue thinking of new ideas over the coming days and weeks. I frequently hear stories about team members who “kept thinking about one of the problems from the contest and just came up with a fantastic solution that ….”
Make innovation contests a regular activity in your company and enjoy a steady flow of valuable new ideas throughout your organization.