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Why do the best organizations democratize ideation?

by Michael Williams in Culture
September 8, 2016

A critical element of a product manager’s job is to bring the voice of the customer into internal product conversations. But communicating the customers’ perspectives and problems doesn’t necessarily mean that the product manager also needs to be the only source of creative solutions. Key innovation and product stakeholders, as well as employees across the organization, have experiences and insights that are critical to this process. The most forward-thinking product and innovation teams already recognize that and have effectively democratized the ideation process within their organizations.

We surveyed employees across various departments at large companies across the U.S. and found that nearly 70% participated in at least one brainstorming session in the past year. Digging deeper, we learned that many of those brainstorming sessions end up impacting customer-facing solutions.


58% of respondents presented their ideas from brainstorming sessions to management. For those who presented their ideas to management, more than 65% say their ideas were actually implemented.


After interviewing product and innovation teams across the Fortune 500, we discovered that democratizing ideation has two key benefits. First, it increases the quantity and diversity of ideas which is strongly correlated with an overall increase in quality ideas. Second, collaboration benefits the organization’s culture by engaging employees in the product development process. And, for product and innovation teams that already feel inundated with what’s on their plates, there are a number of ways to implement self-regulating mechanisms so that the most promising ideas rise to the top. We outline the key steps to execution below.

Empower employees to be customer-centric

A key principle of the Toyota Product System is Genchi Genbutsu, or “go and see.” The ethos encourages stakeholders to appreciate the perspective that is gained by going to the source of work. If there’s a problem in the factory, you have to literally go to the factory to solve it. Otherwise, information gets diluted by the time it makes it from the observer to the decision-maker.

Genchi Genbutsu makes a powerful case for empowering employees who have perspectives unique to their positions to participate in the product development process. Indeed, we’ve already seen numerous product teams rely on sales and customer support teams for gaining insights into customer perceptions and behavior. But this mentality only scales if an organization empowers employees to be customer-centric so they understand what to look for and are motivated to act once they find it.

Having empathy for remote customers may be difficult, but it is most definitely an art and science that can be learned. A recent survey suggests that company leaders can put employees on a path to customer centricity by “aligning perceptions among functions and enabling better cross-functional sharing of customer data.” Beyond having a common mission statement and encouraging employees to share customer insights they discover internally though, Fortune 500 companies we spoke to host numerous in-person workshops and remote webcasts to teach employees to interpret and act on customer feedback.

The luxury bag manufacturer Tumi serves as a powerful case study illustrating the benefits of these practices. Tumi “orchestrated much of its initial innovation at headquarters with a handful of visionary leaders.” But as they scaled, the organization needed to empower employees to participate in the innovation process. Today, virtually every product in their highly successful portfolio began with an employee deeply embedding themselves in the life of a target customer, often a business traveler. For Tumi, “the only way to sustain customer R&D is by putting customer-facing employees behind the wheel.” This approach made employees want to “win with the customer” and “take intense pride in doing so.”

Once employees embrace a customer-centric mindset, leaders need to unlock the organization’s potential. According to the Harvard Business Review, they should “act more as coaches, giving direction and support” to employees. Furthermore, research shows that “even the least powerful employees will commit to finding ways to make their organization more efficient if given the autonomy to make decisions and execute the improvement measures they find most useful.”

Solicit and prioritize ideas

While the benefits of tapping into a large employee base may be straightforward, the process is anything but. That’s why, according to one report, more than three-quarters of companies are “consistently disappointed in their innovation results.” So what’s the recipe to success?

Companies that innovate effectively routinely “create stronger idea factories” by specifically “paying much more attention to the front end of innovation where possibilities first come to light.” In practice, these organizations have taken a simple and traditional approach and scaled it seamlessly. While suggestion boxes have existed in one form or another for more than a century, research shows that “innovation-vanguard organizations are taking these suggestion systems online so that they become a powerful, energizing force for corporate creativity.”

But don’t succumb to the misguided philosophy of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ It’s not that simple and many suggestion boxes are scarcely used. Organizations and innovation teams have gotten impressively crafty when it comes to motivating employees to submit ideas.

For example, MasterCard offers an exciting opportunity for employees. “Any employee with a concept can apply to receive a desert island kit full of everything you’ll need to advance your idea,” explains John Sheldon, Head of Innovation Management. The box includes $1,000, a timer for 60 days, and weekly meetings with the organization’s innovation team to assess market sizing, prototypes, and to ensure concept advancement.

But offering a compelling reward can have the opposite effect: an inundation of ideas to sift through. Certain organizations automatically prioritize ideas from employees who work in departments that spend a significant amount of time interfacing with customers and suppliers. Other organizations leverage a voting mechanism whereby employees who submit ideas then go on to evaluate other submissions.

Filtering ideas

No system will guarantee that the most viable ideas float to the top. But by combining the right participants with the right incentives, innovation teams can greatly increase the number of quality ideas entering the funnel. And that leaves just one more key phase.

Close the loop with iterative testing

Far more important than soliciting or prioritizing ideas is making it clear that your efforts are about more than just ‘innovation theater.’ Employee participation is a fickle beast that requires careful attention. Author and consultant, Ron Ashkenas, provides innovation teams with some sound advice:

With the right encouragement, people will submit ideas. But they’ll want to know that their “brilliant” ideas are given full consideration — and if they’re not chosen or implemented, they’ll want to know why. Managing these messages in a personalized way, when hundreds of people are involved, can be logistically challenging. But without this kind of feedback, ideation can be demoralizing…unless you have a process to manage these ideas, you run the risk of wasting not only the content, but also the goodwill that comes with it.

Proven techniques range from simple thank you emails to all participants to enabling participants to continue working on their idea in some capacity if it is selected. The innovation and product teams that we work with at Alpha take this one step further. Every single idea that scores high enough in employee voting receives special designation and automatically gets turned into an experiment that leads to meaningful customer insights.

chartsBut at this early juncture, it can be nearly impossible to get the buy-in and resources to engineer an early version of an idea and put it in front of existing customers. It’s simply too risky and expensive. That’s why forward-thinking teams embrace experiments that instead leverage interactive prototypes and generating qualitative and quantitative feedback from targeted user panelists. If a concept shows promise, it will typically undergo multiple iterations, each time becoming more clearly defined. Facilitators then export this data as a report that they share directly with the original submitter.

Closing the loop with iterative testing is key to democratizing ideation, as it greatly increases morale across departments. Employees perceive their ideas as getting a fair shot and generating meaningful user insights reinforces the ethos of customer-centricity.

Key technologies and techniques can enable an organization to tap into a diverse employee base, and greatly improve the total of quality customer-facing ideas. Innovation and product teams that follow the steps outlined are positioned to not only impact organizational culture, but also prepare the company for the future of their industry.

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Michael Williams

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