Successful Innovation Programs Require a Comprehensive Inventor Care Program

Who is an inventor? Anyone within your organization who will contribute ideas to the program. Ideally, as many people as possible within the organization.

In our view, the best programs are enterprise-wide, but in some organizations, you may need to restrict it to a smaller group. In one organization, a major retailer we worked with, we ran the program within the e-commerce group (around 3,000 employees), with an eye to eventually extending it to the entire organization (which at the time had 2M global employees). The reason for extending it to everyone? You never know where your next billion dollar idea will come from. In our experience, it could come from anywhere within the organization, even some far-flung sales office. It usually never pays to exclude anyone. (Although, for IP purposes, you may need to exclude all non-full-time employees – consult with your legal department on this)

Beyond selecting who will submit ideas, you will also need to decide if you wish to allow for anonymous submissions. While these are not truly anonymous, since the login system will likely know the identity of the submitter, this may provide a layer of comfort for inventors with truly radical ideas to allow them to come forth. It really depends on the culture of your organization – some organizations will not allow it, others may believe that those are the best submissions, as the inventors are free to disconnect themselves from the idea, and therefore pose very disruptive and challenging ideas. We prefer allowing anonymous submissions – they free the inventor up to submit even radically disruptive ideas without fear. You may also wish to allow for anonymous voting. Again, letting your people speak freely.

At one event, I recall someone once posting anonymously that “half of the middle management team should be fired as non-essential”. While the CEO demanded the name of the submitter (as well as the names of the hundreds of voters who upvoted the idea as well), eventually, he relented.

It is absolutely essential to keep your innovation program a “safe space” for your inventors to invent. If they ever think it may not be, then the ideas will dry up pretty fast. That is the last thing you need.

Remember, your inventors are your lifeblood. Without your inventors your program will fail miserably, so make sure that you take extremely good care of them.

Essentially:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate and again, communicate. Never stop talking to them. Never stop touting successes, numbers, and results, as broadly as you can.
  2. Never let them think that their ideas have fallen into a black hole. This is worse than rejecting the idea.
  3. Respond quickly to all queries, even if you have to tell them that you are still working on reviewing them
  4. Once you know the disposition of an idea, let your inventor know immediately what will be happening to the idea, even if you will not be moving forward with it. Not knowing is worse than hearing someone say “no” quickly
  5. Provide feedback via the crowd. Don’t let yourself or your team be the only responders. Don’t be the bottleneck. Build a system to allow the crowd to review and vote on the ideas
  6. No one (or no idea) left behind. Decide on the disposition of every idea, and let the inventors know as soon as possible what will happen to them
  7. Recognize their contributions to the program in some way:
    1. Hook their stats in with HR and let them know how many ideas, votes, and reviews they contributed.
    2. Make engagement in the program part of their KPIs.
    3. Bring the top inventors onto the stage at the monthly or quarterly all-hands meeting and let them talk about their ideas.
    4. Award the top inventors with lunch with the president, a ball game in the corporate box, a monetary award (typically for filed patentable ideas only) or just plain old very public enterprise-wide attaboys and pats on the back.

Once your people see ideas being submitted, voted on, and actions happening on them, once they see inventors with good ideas rewarded, once they get that you have created a safe space to truly listen to their ideas, only then will your program thrive and succeed.

Be your inventor’s protector, fight for their right to speak, and speak freely.