In our previous blogs in this series we looked at identifying where our employee-driven innovation efforts should focus, why those areas should be our focus and, in our last blog, what types of solutions we might need to make change happen; solutions that can be identified through exciting, stimulating challenges that invite employees to contribute their ideas using a structure that makes them easily understood by others.
Easily understood ideas are, in our view, the key to unlocking meaningful change and improvement; they pave the way to a proper 2-way conversation between the workforce and management that ‘walks-the-talk’ of effective engagement, and help cement the organisation’s commitment to employee empowerment that is crucial for making sustainable change happen. Effective idea engagement enables us to improve both bad and good ideas, simplify and speed up the identification of those ideas that can be implemented and those that can’t, and create a continuous feedback loop that improves innovation capability through increased organisational knowledge.
“We should invest in people not ideas. A good idea is often destroyed by bad people and good people can always make a bad idea better.”
At smartcrowds we promote an organisational design approach to empowerment and innovation, enabling each employee to subscribe to different functional groupings (we call them ‘Crowds’) which relate to their areas of responsibility, experience, interest, knowledge and – most importantly – their potential for meaningful contribution; so the Chief Operating Officer might be a member of the ‘All-company Crowd’ where challenges are set that are relevant to everyone in the organisation; the ‘Operations Crowd’ where challenges are relevant to employees within the Operations department; and the ‘Exec Team Crowd’ where challenges are relevant to the Senior Management Team.
Get together and do your magic!
But often real empowerment comes from extending engagement beyond the 4 walls of an employee’s immediate department, and creating higher value connections between people with different, yet complimentary skill sets. The formation of cross-functional Crowds enables problems to be solved and opportunities advanced where multi-disciplinary collaboration and working is required.
For example, Crowds tasked with looking at improving safety; achieving environmental targets; or improving efficiency in supply chain processes will normally best be solved by people with complimentary skills, background and experience collaborating together. Here, we are building communities with intimate knowledge of multiple, connected aspects of business areas which should facilitate more effective engagement between the people involved, and empower those same people to solve challenges using their own meaningful, innovative ideas.
Let’s look at our environmental targets example; imagine that that we have set a challenge to reduce our energy consumption by 10% in the next 18 months. Our ‘smart crowd’ might exist of people from product design, manufacturing, distribution, logistics – and even better might include supply chain partners and possibly even some customers.
After following the principles of effective challenge design (with a clear, target driven, exciting mission) as we described in our previous blog, communicating the challenge using well-trodden principles of good marketing, and seeding the challenge with a wide variety of ‘brain fuel’, we should be confident that we’ll see the contribution of a large number – certainly upwards of 100 – of ideas from the Crowd. But this is just the start of the magic of ‘smart’ crowdsourced empowerment.
The connected network of people in the Crowd means that all angles are covered during the all-important idea development & refinement stage – the stage between idea submission and idea selection where the Crowd uses its collective knowledge and experience through agile, online discussion and debate to turn the seeds of a good idea into one that knocks the ball out of the park; “Have you thought about how it will solve this?”, “Maybe you should speak to … ” “Why don’t we bring […] into the conversation” and “What about if we changed it slightly to do this…?” are regular examples of conversation starters which lead to the original idea being refined into one that is meaningfully unique and potentially implementable.
Puuush!… Get your weight behind it!
The power of the Crowd is also a great momentum enabler. With voting (thumbs up and down), ratings and survey feedback (quantitative and qualitative), an organisation can get a rapid, early feel for the ideas that are most likely to meet the challenge objectives because that feedback directly expresses the level of excitement of those with the best knowledge of the challenge area. With potentially hundreds of ideas to sift through, this ‘crowdsourced shortlist’ is a must have tool to identify the likely set of candidate ideas that we should (at least for now) explore further.
But the weight of opinion plays another vital role in momentum building; for those tasked with evaluating and selecting ideas, and taking the most interesting ones to the ‘board’ for potential investment in time and money for further exploration – idea confidence is now key. Without idea confidence, many innovation projects stall at this stage – people are often just not good at making big decisions.
The weight of the Crowd, luckily, delivers idea confidence in spades. Not only for those responsible for shortlisting & selecting, but also for the sponsors who will be committing hard money to the project. And better still, by backing those ideas that the Crowd has put its weight behind, the organisation’s leaders demonstrate further that empowerment really does mean empowerment.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Unfortunately, too many wasted hours continue to be spent on ideas that are pushed to the implementation team too early – with that sinking feeling that comes from discovering that the idea was always impossible to implement in its original form. This might lead to the project being paused while a work-around is identified, or worse, termination of the project. In either case, valuable project resource has been wasted along the way.
“Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty.”
Empowering the workforce with the skills and confidence to remove idea ‘uncertainties’ with speed and agility quickly becomes a key goal of any would-be innovative organisation.
We promote use of three categories of exploration to reach the point where we have confidence (to at least 95%) that an idea can be implemented effectively: 1) Is there a proven need or demand for the idea? 2) Is the idea technically feasible?; and 3) Is the idea financially viable? There will almost always be more detail hidden within this that will normally translate to multiple cycles of idea exploration – and further commitment to engagement and empowerment is key to obtaining fast yet reliable exploration outcomes.
Effective exploration starts with small teams – which normally include the idea contributor – who are equipped with the necessary skills to analyse and remove (or not) an uncertainty about the idea over a short 1 or 2 week cycle. Trust needs to be put in that team to document their work and findings, but they will need the help of others across the organisation to carry out that work. Furnishing the team (and the wider workforce) with the right tools to easily engage, share work, and request and analyse feedback (which might be from a large survey, possibly including customers) therefore needs to be a major consideration of any leader looking to walk-the-talk of creating an empowered workforce.
In the final part of this blog series we will look at one of the most fundamental challenges that an organisation needs to tackle when starting its empowerment journey – “Creating the Conditions for Empowerment”.