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
11 days ago

8 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
11 days ago
I wish I could give you more points for this...terrific input, thank you! - Thomas 11 days 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
11 days 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
8 days ago
Great thanks - Thomas 6 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
7 days 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
6 days 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
6 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
8 days 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
7 days ago

Have some input?