Question in: Other

Quality of Internal Innovation - low or really low


Open innovation programs often rely on the inputs of internal employees for ideation. What are companies doing to try to increase the quality of the ideas being generated?

Idea Generation
Ideation & Innovation
Innovation Management
Thomas O'Malley
3 months ago

21 answers


In 2011, I launched the employee open innovation program at UnitedHealth Group (Fortune 6). In our first year we ran 11 events (all time-based challenges), and by 2015 we were running 150+ events (75% challenges). The difficulty with the quality of input was immediately apparent and something that has been an ongoing need. The issue is that quality is a function of effort, both for the participants but also for the filtering/selection process. I probably can't outline everything we did to improve quality but keep in mind that there is also a balance. The side effect of an open innovation program is engagement. So the harder you make the process, you will naturally have a decrease in participation unless you create other actions that users can take to stay engaged. No matter what you do, improving quality means you will decrease ideation. For metrics driven organizations, where more=better, getting less ideas will seem like a contradiction. For example, every year we ran a CEO challenge. By topic, year after year, we implemented more and more strategies to increase quality which also reduced the total volume of ideas. When your CEO and executives want to see the year over year number of ideas and you show them a smaller number each time, that causes some head scratching and takes some explaining around strategy and intended results. BTW, we also increased total engagement year over year, but that's a different explanation.
Here are just a few ways you can improve quality.
Form fields: The default for any idea challenges is title and description. This will yield maximum idea count and also introduce the biggest range of response quality. We saw that some people were better at articulating their ideas and the context/need than others. So we increased the number of fields to get better information and to put ideas on an equal playing field when filtering and selecting. For example, our "standard" form became the following questions (there where various wordings as we iterated but this will give you the gist). Problem. User/Audience. Status quo (what is the user doing without the solution in place). Solution. Value proposition (how is the solution better than the status quo). Add more fields, improve quality, reduce idea count. It's a simple and reliable formula.
Teamwork: Having ideas submitted by teams is guaranteed to produce better results. In fact, running lunch-and-learn workshops and collaboration sessions tended to improve the overall quality of submissions.
Coaching/Mentors: Having a trained and capable idea mentor assigned to each idea to read and give feedback was one of the best methods for getting quality. An idea coach is not supposed to pass judgment or otherwise engage too deeply in the concept (thereby potentially altering the idea submitter's value through their own bias). Rather, it was intended to be a feedback mechanism reflecting understanding. When the ideator describes the problem, does the coach understand the submitter and if not, why not. And down the form for all of the responses.
There are many more strategies. And that's the point, be strategic. Don't think that a crowd of people and a digital submission tool is the magic bean to grow breakthrough ideas. Ideation is by its very nature raw and unrefined. Quality comes from processes designed to produce quality.

Gregory Hicks
3 months ago
I wish I could give you more points for this...terrific input, thank you! - Thomas 3 months ago
Teamwork and collaboration as you mentioned are the most powerful tools i've implemented; increasing the diversity of the innovators has significantly imrpoved quality, especially if that diversity is someone completely unaware of the problem. Mentors/coaches strongly resonates with me since most ideators are not good salespeople or have true understanding of thier customer. - Cory 2 months ago

Thomas O'Malley What drives true innovation in a company is going to be culture and employee engagement.
This question you asked made me think about an article from a few years ago about how Google supposedly encourages their employees to spend 20% of their time on innovation. I considered this when I worked at SpaceX, because even though we spent a lot of time on innovation, we also often worked 150% or even 200%+ of the typical work week for Americans. If you are spending 20% on innovation, but you are working 50 hours (120%) a week to create are you really gaining anything? There is a lot of evidence out there supporting that people are not more productive when they work more hours. I like to think that quality work is more important than quantity of time. So where does that leave us?
Increasing quality work at a company comes down to a few factors:

  1. Hiring practices
  2. Employees feel valued
  3. Management supports employees (put the money where their mouths are)

With regards to innovation, in practice this means:

  1. You hire well. Forget about "behavioral interviewing" and actually follow-up on references. Don't choose people based on what they are on paper, but instead by their experience and how well they interact with your team.
  2. Make employees feel valued by showing you value their time and appreciate their efforts. Monetary reward systems have been shown to be ineffective. Instead, innovation drivers like managers and c-suite should take time in their day to make genuine connections with employees at all levels and spend most of that time listening and not talking. It's amazing how positively people respond to just being heard.
  3. That you give employees protected time at work to spend on innovation without affecting work-life balance. Maybe instead of all employees getting time for this, you hire a few full-time innovators and let them spend time with different job functions/departments to help educate and inspire them. Play around with it and see what works.
Katie Switzer
3 months ago
you make a great point. I believe making employees feel appreciated and their input valued is particularly important for internal innovation and intrapreneurship. - Vitali 2 months ago
Wow Katie, interesting approach - especially your pont on full-time innovators. Thanks, its triggered a few ideas - Matthew 15 days ago

You get what you measure or reward. It is important to define clear objectives to inspire ideation. It is also important to publicly reward the types of ideas you are looking for to drive ideas in the right direction. However, when leaders say they have a problem with quality of ideas, I question whether they are familiar with what they have. Often I have seen great ideas languish due to lack of resources (people or funding). Actually developing innovative ideas can be very risky and expensive.

Dawn Houghton
3 months ago

This is a very rich topic, one that I have many thoughts on.
Thequestion as posed, assumes that the quality of internally generated ideas is low. I think a good place to start discussion on this topic is to create a common definition for idea quality and also, to decide who should evaluate ideas to determine their merit.
In corporate open innovation operations, the standards for adoption of any submission (internal or external) are often exceptionally high, as one might expect.
As a result, only ideas that have the strongest technical validation supporting them can survive intense scrutiny.
In most open innovation operations, submissions are evaluated by technical people who judge technical merit and fit with existing needs, versus business persons who might judge the idea's business building potential...separate from technical merit.
As you can see, there is a lot more to the question than might appear at first glance.

Michael Fruhling
3 months ago

We've worked with many companies do accelerate and improve innovation, especially for the transformative type.
What we can say from that 30 plus years of experience is that without powerful leadership creating and communicating the context and principles of the company such that the customers, the spidererd set of other influencers from from competitors to suppliers to stockholders to the customer's customers you will fail. I do not care who you hire, i dont care about incentives or culture. Without a strongly comunicated, peristently evolving and analyzed context driving decision making at all levels versus micromanagement and a thousand commitees none of the latter matter at all.
That said, you can now understand how you and your firm fit and how you as a firm and as employees will behave. Now you can then much more clearly and with far less direction understand as an employee or other stakeholder exactly what you need to do, what your role is and act accordingly. yiu cna collaborate more effectively and broadly and interact with the outside world to understand needs and serve them appropriately.
The next requirement is autonomy but within clear, crisp principles and guidelines of what success looks like generally versus to a bizarre Nth degree. People need freedom to not only act upon and pursue and evaluate opportunities but also the general measures and the ability to evaluate and test for compliance and validation to gain consensus and assistance to move forward. Whether a line worker, an analayst or division president, thismis critical to innovation.
In the end, highly varied industries will compensate as needed but without the chance for an individual to have a big win, whatever that is to them, they won't care about innovation. No powerful compensation as they see it no innovation.
All that above is only the start, the foundation. Innovation itself is vastly misunderstood. its a topic for another response. Still, do the latter starting with a kick ass CEO and youll likely have far more success than failure.
Open innovation...its an over rated fad that's not produced much beyond too much consulting revenue typically for folks who have likely never really innivated much themselves. It's just a tool and its great in certain but not many cases that needs the right folks at the right time and no more.

Adam Malofsky, PhD
3 months ago

FYI - Using the term "internal innovation" is a giant mistake unto itself.....all innovation, one way another should involve the whole ecosytem. Whether using a service like Convetit, your own staff and partners and customers and or external consultants and colleagues, nothing should exclusively internal but the simply incremental. That of course is not innovation - its simple evolutionary progress.

Adam Malofsky, PhD
3 months ago

To add some aspects that haven't been mentioned yet, the answer to a question will often varry on how the question is worded and what medium the answer is given. If an engineering team is asked to develop an innovative solution within a set of (percieved) customer requirements with a solution formulated with "words", the propositions may not be any different than what currently exists in a product or a repeated concept.
To increase quality, break your problem statement down to its basic function (Screwdriver = transit torque), and ask how else to provide that function utilizing various non-traditional mediums like drawing pictures, modelling clay, pile of grass, children's toys, or random assortment of items.
This works with the premise that nothing new can be created, and everything already exists; innovation ocurs when 2 or more things are combined in a new way. My method attempts to increase the potential for random interactions never before seen when solving the problem.

Cory Nation
2 months ago

Area's that are most helpful imho

  • Campaigns based on strategic area's that you want to see solved
  • using diverse teams
  • making sure that all teams have a coach if they want
  • exposing employees also to other environments/companies to get inspired
  • teaching employees idea-improvement methodologies
Frank Dethier
3 months ago
Great thanks - Thomas 3 months ago

This is a rich topic indeed.
From a pure impact point of view (unlocking incremental growth), there are several ways to help innovations.
The obvious one which most industries have adopted is to ensure a stage gate process is estsblished, with clear decision milestones and requirements to pass each gate.
Aspects like technical feasibility, manufacturing and consumer testing sre part of these.
There are today very robust methodogies to assess the potential of new ideas with great accuracy, very early in the process (i.e before any investment is made).

Giulia Iorio-Ndlovu
3 months ago

The question I always ask around internal innovation is, how do you measure your output?
What criteria do you use to measure the ideas that are generated?
As a lifelong creative director, I've written at length about this, and the article below presents my views in simple terms.

I've added the text below too.

Do you create value? Do you have values?
We’ll start with a different question. Can you recognise valuable ideas?
There many prefixes to the word ‘idea’. Big ideas, good ideas, bad ideas, new ideas, old ideas, crazy ideas.
The only ideas that truly matter, and gain traction, are valuable ideas.
And I don’t simply mean commercially valuable. I use valuable as a term in its truest definition: The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
We can all critique an idea, but do most of us actually have a criteria with which to judge an idea against? The answer, surprisingly, is no.
So let us look at a simple criteria.
Ideas have two aspects. Their nature and their purpose. Their nature is binary but their purpose can be wide reaching.
Arguably, all that really matters is their purpose, this is where value lies, but let’s begin with the duality of their nature.
An idea will be either innovative or inventive. The difference is quite simple. Our world is a collection of systems. And each system has component parts.
An innovative idea will create a better component part within a system. An inventive idea will create a better system. Russ Ackoff (your Google homework) talked about this as continuous improvement and discontinuous improvement. If you understand this, it becomes easier to judge an idea. Is it innovative or is it inventive?
If the answer is neither, chances are you’re looking at a variation of an existing idea. Reject it.
The purpose of an idea is a little more complex. However, it invariably begins with human behaviour. Understanding behavioural psychology is critical in developing your judgement of an idea’s purpose. To this end I urge you to consume the works of Danny KahnemanBJ Fogg and Clay Christensen. Danny and BJ focus on our human nature, whereas Clay takes a more commercial viewpoint.
His new book ‘Competing against luck’ introduces Jobs Theory. Which looks at balancing the job someone needs done, against the capacity for a product or service to fulfil that job. And the jobs we need done are not always rational or intuitive, as Danny will tell you.
Defining the ‘job’ is where you can understand an idea’s purpose.
Don’t sell a pencil to someone who needs to make an indelible mark.
There is no academic course that I know of that combines these theories and methods to teach better assessment of ideas. So whether you’re a creative director, a CEO or a venture capitalist, the above approach will help you assess whether an idea is valuable.
If it is innovative or inventive and has a purpose, it is valuable. And potentially disruptive.

Don Smith
2 months ago

“Disruption” is in fashion today, to stop the current and give opportunity to the new. Disruption does not automatically mean that something will be implemented, but that a break can be used to think about the status quo and potential alternatives. A new decision making process will choose between continuing on the known path or change to a new one.

For an individual regular disruptions are required to avoid a “tunnel vision” and related behavior risks. In our modern times it gets more and more complicated to get a break, as thanks to connected smart devices employees read and answer their emails not only inside their regular working hours, but also before and after, including on week-ends and holidays. Even the classic TV-evening does not give the required escape, as tablet and smart phones became a regular “second screen” to switch the eyes between TV and computer.

Important possibility for disruption are the employee’s holidays or also business travels. “Traveling educates” is not only a phrase, but new locations and meeting other people are always a source of inspiration. The individual connects the new impression with his or her actual life and tasks. After the time off, such new ideas can make the person re-think his or her tasks and, hopefully, make such more effective, including to invent.

The company’s HR department shall ensure that employees take their annual holidays and furthermore that over-time gets limited. Employees with a “private life” receive input from different settings. Inspirations and fresh ideas get back to the company and due to this, the employee gets more valuable for the organization. Bill Gates understood this relation and once said: “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” He formulated it provocative, because being outside the office does not mean being lazy, as leisure time can be used actively.

Especially today, where jobs get automatized by robots and AI, the company shall be aware that on positions where we need human employees, we have to treat them as such and not similar to machines. If not, humans are vulnerable for failures and errors. Humans treated as humans, develop the skills to protect themselves against negative psychological biases.

Patrick Henz
2 months ago

To increase the quality of innovation and ideas -- below are 3 ideas, spurred by companies seeking revenue growth (through services, software and digital/tech-infused products)

Michael Franken
12 days ago

A way to improve idea quality is to define clearly what constitutes a "good" idea, given the problem at-hand:
For instance:
-Represents a meaningful point of difference versus existing market offerings.

  • Must have demonstrated technical proof of efficacy,
  • Must be a protected or protectable idea,
  • Does not require new capital equipment in order to implement.

The above are only examples. The point is, if companies are very clear about what success must look like, only those with qualified solutions will participate. Conversely, many people will elect not to participate. And that is perfectly fine, if the company is seeking real, close-in solutions.

Michael Fruhling
3 months ago

Structuring innovation is more likely to fail than succeed given the bureacracy and culture in most organizations today.
More innovation is typically external to the larger organizations from what I've seen - and increasing over the past 10 years.

Randy Vogenberg, PhD
3 months ago

the way i look at innovation is as following:

  • Everone in the organization need to understand why they come to work and how they make a difference. At the end of day - humans, we :) create innovation to solve a problem not machines or software. Do we really know how to delivery the value to our customers and what are the issues in our sales, marketing, product development and support services. To understand that we need a good quality management, if you look at any organizaiton which has good quality management philosophy in their organizations they are most of the time innovating as quality brings up the issues and customer feedback provides the insight. That is the reason digial assurance is the way to innovate.
Parminder Sohal
3 months ago

Everyone....hope this is all somehow helpful. This is how we do transformational innovation rather successfully.

Heres our White Paper on Adaptive Innovation.

The best innovation book somewhat recently? "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson.

Here's his Ted Talk - one of the best I've ever heard.

Adam Malofsky

Adam Malofsky, PhD
2 months ago

It depends on what you mean by innovation and by quality. If you are looking for something that impact your customer base (as most processes and products do) there should be input from voices outside the immediate business unit.
Being too insular by only engaging internal employees in innovation can be limiting. Even if it is an internal issue, it might be good to incorporate outside thinking.
If possible include:

  • Customer voice - the impact of any changes or innovations have on customers cannot be underestimated
  • Internal "outside" voice - sometimes when too close to the issue at hand and outside the business area voice can help see the forest
  • Consider looking at external boards such as these to help incorporate out of the box thinking

Vera Rulon
2 months ago

My simple answer is that culture is upstream of innovation. If you have a culture that is receptive to, and encourages innovation, you will get more, and better quality ideas. We can implement all of the stage gates, forms, etc that we can come up with, but if the culture doesn't support innovation well, you aren't going to get much of it. Along with (perhaps part of) that culture needs to be senior leadership support, not just permission, but active, involved support even to the point of cheer leading.

Michael Meehan, CMRP, CRL
2 months ago

I've organized and participated in several corporate ideation programs, sometimes resulting in up to 100 idea's. Lot's of idea's were good, but not applicable, eg because not realistic for the business unit or not fitting in the attention span of management. So giving more guidance, increases the quality a lot. More over guidance decreases the amount of idea's which saves time in the assessment and doesn't demotivate the people that came with good ideas, but will not have a followup.

Ad Bresser
2 months ago

we try to follow best practises ,ask lots of questions from our customers .send out satisfaction surveys . and have benchmarks and metrics which we are follow when have customer engagements

amit patel
10 days ago

this is really depends on a company and and what position employee has in it . some jobs are dead end jobs and some companies also in this category .also lots depend on a management and access to capital

amit patel
10 days ago

Have some input?