In our previous blog, “Where should we focus our innovation efforts?”, we explored the premise that by increasing the frequency, quantity and current, real-time relevance of engagement with staff, an organisation can create the conditions in which more potential issues can be identified and tackled before they become real problems, and more opportunities to improve and pivot can be maximised before the opportunity is lost.

Having identified where to focus, our follow-up blog “Why should we focus there?” opined that our employees, through the expertise that they possess across our business, are the best placed people to tell us why these are the areas we should focus on – and traditional surveys (or even just good old face-to-face communication if the group is small enough), are a great way of delving deeper.  

Together, therefore, using a combination of ‘constant-listening’ employee Pulse techniques (the “where”) and rapid, targeted follow-up traditional surveys (the “why”) to gather the real detail , leaders not only demonstrate to the workforce that engagement is important to the organisation, but also benefit from the deeper understanding of the key issues/concerns/opportunities that the organisation faces.  Engagement of this nature can create a powerful foundation for empowering the workforce to make change happen – BUT ONLY IF the good-will that is garnered is consolidated by demonstrating a willingness to use the learnings to improve and innovate.

Going Deeper Down the Rabbit Hole

This leads us to the next question:  What are we going to do with the information gathered and insights that we’ve learned to consolidate that good-will?  We have already surmised that the organisation needs to follow through with tangible improvements in order to engender workforce buy-in and build on that sense of employee empowerment, so what is the best way to proceed? 

In our (ok, we admit it, slightly biased!) view, the single, most powerful follow-through tactic at this point is to go further down the empowerment rabbit hole.  Our employees across the workforce are blessed with detailed knowledge of our processes and products, and how they could (or should) be improved, so why don’t we ask them?    Crowdsourcing ideas for change through idea ‘Challenges’ that specifically address the findings from our earlier engagements is a sure-fire way to build on that early engagement momentum, increase trust and ultimately benefit from the empowerment that our employees are beginning to experience. 

Creating great idea Challenges isn’t rocket science, but we regularly see enough poorly structured Challenges – which are unlikely to generate excitement and meaningful results – to know that this is an area that many organisations struggle with.

Show me a Challenge!

In our view, 6 vital elements are key to communicating an effective Challenge:

First, the Challenge Background which sets out why we are running this Challenge in the first place; having already obtained this information from the responses to our where and why workforce engagements, we can clearly articulate these findings supported by clear data and statistics that have emerged from the responses themselves.  People will always respond better to Challenges that are put in front of them when they can see hard facts that clearly demonstrate the need for ideas and change.    

Next, the Mission Statement which sets out what we would like to achieve in a very short, unambiguous  sentence.   To work best, our advice would always be to craft a mission statement that is able to complete the sentence “We are looking for ideas that will…”,and has some hard targets in it wherever possible:

  • Example 1: Reduce waste from the factory floor by 15%
  • Example 2: Help us to reach our sustainability target in our 5-year strategic plan
  • Example 3: Increase the level of diversity across our Management Teams 

Next, we set out the Challenge Deadline – the date after which their idea submissions will no longer be received.  Nothing gets the momentum going more than an immovable date that is getting ever closer!

We then move to the Challenge Constraints which give idea contributors a clear steer on the tramlines that they should stay within when considering new approaches and solutions.  Constraints should always be able to follow the simple sentence “We’re not looking for ideas that would…”.  Whilst it might be tempting to skip Constraints (and in our experience many Challenge Sponsors do), every Challenge has them, and their omission will simply lead to more ideas that are immediately discounted. 

As important as Challenge Constraints are the Challenge Assumptions.  These help idea contributors understand the types of things which might be acceptable, and can be especially helpful when they include aspects that might be considered slightly controversial and would otherwise have put the employee off posting their idea in the first place.  

The final piece of the jigsaw, and crucial for obtaining diverse, meaningfully unique contributions from the workforce, are Idea Starters (we like to call this ‘Brain-fuel’!).  Seeding your challenge with 25 to 50 snippets of information, data, links, or anything at all – and even better where they are from other business sectors and solution areas – that might be considered provocative to this challenge can really get idea contributors thinking about different ways of solving the current issue.

Stay Local

We’ve all heard “Stay Local” more times than we’d like lately!…but we’re always of the view that Challenges should be launched at the most local level possible –  that is, the Challenge should be addressed to those with the most intimate knowledge of the challenge issue or opportunity.  Sure, there will always be challenges that are appropriately addressed to everyone in the organisation but if, for example, we are looking for ideas to improve the effort expended in the hiring process it may be that we want to focus the involvement of our HR department and hiring managers.    This doesn’t necessarily preclude others from contributing if they wish – but, in the main, we want ‘local experts’ focusing on ‘local challenges’.  

Working towards and achieving decentralisation of innovation programmes to the most appropriate group(s) of individuals should be, in our view, one most important goals of business leaders striving to adopt a sustainable Employee Empowered Change programme across the organisation.

It’s a 2-Way Street

Once the Challenge is launched, one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s now just a case of sitting back and waiting on great ideas to flow in – but as we all know life is never that simple!

Empowerment, driven by successful engagement, is a 2-way street.   Leaders can be as clear as they want on the Challenges that need to be addressed, but it is just as important that idea contributors are equally clear on what their own idea is – after all, someone is going to have to sift through and quickly understand all of the ideas that have been submitted if they are to have a fighting chance of shortlisting those that look the most promising.  Guidance, via a structured, easy to understand and repeatable framework, is required on how to submit ideas that are easily and quickly understood by others.

For effective 2-way engagement that lays the foundations for change to happen, our experience has taught us that the following structure for idea communication is highly effective:

  • Idea Title – A short title that distinguishes this idea from other ideas.  “A combined E-ink and OLED smartphone”, for example is a nice short title.
  • Description – What is the idea?  Key to effective engagement is clarity in communication, and there is no reason why this shouldn’t apply to ideas. Any idea should be clearly explainable in 100 words – without explaining the problem it solves (we’ll come to this later!).  If the contributor can’t explain what a combined “E-ink and OLED smartphone” is in less than 100 words, it won’t be easily understood by the reader either.
  • Customer – Ideas should bring benefit to our external customers or stakeholders or to someone or group within our organisation. Describing the customer forces the contributor to really question who the idea benefits, and can often lead to them reconsidering what the idea is in the first place.  For our Combined E-ink and OLED smartphone example, is the customer all smartphone buyers, or smartphone users who read regularly in sunlight?
  • Problem – What problem is the idea meant to solve?  What issue is the customer experiencing that the idea addresses?  It might seem obvious, but if an idea isn’t actually solving a problem for anyone, then it isn’t likely to get very far.  Asking the contributor to really think about this can help to increase the quality of ideas, and reduce wasted effort during the shortlisting process. For our example idea, we would suggest that the problem is that “OLED smartphone screens are difficult to read in bright daylight, and impossible to read in sunlight!”
  • Benefit – What does the idea deliver that relates directly to the problem?  What main benefit should the customer experience?  Whilst it is often tempting to think that this is the converse of the problem (i.e. the screen will be easy to read in daylight), in actual fact the real benefit to the customer may be better described as “the customer will only need to buy 1 device.”
  • Newness – Explain how this idea is different to what is done at present?  How is this better than what is currently available?  This answer to this simple question helps those that will be shortlisting ideas to more quickly group interesting ones into “Just Do It” (small improvements, no uncertainty), “Plan & Do it” (big improvements, little uncertainty), and “Explore It” (brand new concepts with lots of uncertainty”) – which helps get some early wins, build momentum and grow trust.

Effective, clear communication and guidance at the outset of an idea crowdsourcing process is key, therefore, to empowering managers to set exciting, engaging challenges, and employees to structure and describe their idea submissions clearly.  Just as importantly, the whole approach of involving employees to solve problems that they themselves have alerted the organisation to  further consolidates the 2-way engagement that leads to true empowerment – and ultimately meaningful outcomes – for individuals, teams and the whole business.  

Our next blog in this seies will look at the role that engagement plays in turning ideas into reality – we’ve got some great ideas, how are we going to use the views, feedback and input of our people to make them work?”