Virtual idea generation is a growing trend in innovation. A trend I wholeheartedly endorse because it widens the cohort that normally contribute to “brainstorming” efforts. It gives people time to think and then post ideas as time allows in the nooks and crannies of their day-to-day jobs. It’s a great way to make idea generation and innovation part of the culture of an organization.
It’s usually done with an Idea Management System (IMS) but in a pinch, it can be done with something like GoogleDocs or even email. Basically, you put out a focused innovation question and you ask for ideas. The virtual session could be as short as a few days, or as long as a few months. In my view, based on experience, the sweet spot is two or three weeks.
It’s been observed that most of the ideas contributed in a virtual idea generation come from about 20% of the people involved. It’s the old 80/20 rule of thumb, except you’d wish the 20% were those who contributed very little, not the very most. How does one get a better level of participation? Here are my suggestions, and they are a build on my previous post about the concept of Scaffolding. In brief, providing mental scaffolding helps people be more generative. So, if you have a virtual session planned, try these things:
- Give advance warning before it starts. Priming-the-pump, put the seed of a question in a person’s head. Send an email or a note to everyone involved giving them a notion of what’s coming up. I wouldn’t send the exact question, I would just indicate you’re “looking for ideas around the issue of…” Let them know when the system will be turned on and available.
- Have a focused, but not overly complex question. Research shows that if the question is too narrow or fenced-in with guard rails or “avoids” you’ll not get ideas outside of that box. On the other hand it should be specific enough to answer a real problem, challenge, or white space opportunity you’ve identified. It’s an art crafting these questions, but when in doubt, simplify. “How Might We…” or “In What Ways Might We…” are good starters. Finish with a direct inquiry, such as “How Might We…better market our subscription service?”
- Remind them this is not Extra Work. Innovation ideas feel like extra work to a lot of people who don’t normally contribute in the innovation process. Let people know that their contribution is important and expected – part of their job. Social Loafing is a well documented behaviour, if you let it go on, it will go on.
- Stimulate frequently. Since this is not a normal day-to-day activity for most, it might be lost in the shuffle of scheduled events. Frequent touches, via email, or even in person, is a way to remind folks to enter the ideas they have. As you see trends emerge in the ideas, ask for more of this, less of that, more elaboration, or pose “what-if” questions. The point is keep them thinking.
- Set a Quota of Ideas. I’d actually set two quota’s, one for the group as a whole, and an individual one. It’s uncanny how the group, and each person, tends to rise to the occasion.
This could almost be #6, but I’ll leave it off the list because it has to do with what happens afterwards. Show people what you are doing with the ideas. If you don’t, people will think it was a waste of time and you’ll have a steeper hill to climb the next go round.