A dishonest take on Ideas are Free

Categories: Innovation Insights

I have been trying to crack a tough idea management problem recently – how to make ongoing programs work. Luckily my research methods have yielded some successful conclusions, thanks to my combination of quantitative data research on masses of customer data generated from our Idea Central system, speaking to friendly clients and unfriendly prospects, reading up on the existing literature and sitting in coffee shops thinking.

Sadly most of these findings go into the realms of ‘secret sauce’. But I can share an observation on how not to do it, despite some published best practice.

There is book called Ideas are Free, written by Alan Robinson & Dean Schroeder. The book attempts to put a new world spin on the old fashioned suggestion program. The authors premise is that lots of incremental ideas, and a curious and engaged workforce, adds up to a significant form of hidden competitive advantage. I wholeheartedly agree with this view (I would just add a whole lot more on besides). What I rejected was the supporting case studies that were supposed to prove the point.

In one company, Broadcom, the CEO mandated that every employee needed to provide two written ideas per month. He did not mind what the ideas were, or even if they were duplicates. He was following the book’s premise, that all ideas and contributions are good. Failure to provide these ideas would result in potential loss of end of year bonus – you were measured on the volume of ideas. This, naturally, resulted in rampant idea duplication and trading. Employees would had lots of ideas would submit very few, and trade the ideas with employees who had none. They would hold ideas back in order to not exceed their monthly quota (there was no upside benefit).

OK, we could say that this was not a bad thing. They were, after all, engaged in an innovation program. But it was fundamentally a dishonest program, from the top down. The CEO knew what was going on, but did not care to make any changes. Employees knew that they were cheating the system, but felt obliged to continue. And, worst of all in my mind, these failures are largely self-evident, especially for an industry expert in innovation management, and yet this is held up to be a success story.

I find this attitude unacceptable, and although this is one mere case study example, a few pages in a book, it is a dangerous illustration of what might happen if we do not question the wisdom of experts, and carefully read and think about so-called ‘best practice’ methods. And, I am happy to be open about it, I include myself in this category. As my mother used to say to me (and still does) “you have a brain on your head – use it”.

One Response to “A dishonest take on Ideas are Free”

  1. This is dumb.

    How many people who work in such companies and play by the rules instead of thinking and pointing out the obvious flaw and doing something about it?

    On a similar point I have recently heard of two ways that I don’t think really engage the appropriate behaviour around patent generation. The first company only rewards ‘ideas’ when a patent is filed. Therefore, all ideas become patents no matter if it’s appropriate or cost effective. In addition, if you hire scientists you expect them to create some patantable work. Does more equal value? Should we reward managers who produce endless reports? I think we know the answer here..A second and sometimes all to common scenario, is that a small financial reward is given once the patent has been filled (often many years later). I was talking to a senior-head for a large research organisation who some 4 years ago had filed a patent and had just been ‘rewarded’. After 4 years he’d a) forgotten all about it.
    b) didn’t really find the small reward all that rewarding.

    Anyway to come back to the topic…

    I always like to do/think about the maths behind this. How many employees does this CEO have? How many ideas are they duplicating? How much does that cost the CEO? Why then does the CEO create such in-efficiency in the organisation? Answers on a postcard…

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