I am a great believer in simple systems. The ideal solution is one that is so elegant, that any complexity is hidden from end users so that they would never know it was there. As an owner of two iPhones (one for Europe, one for the US), I know this to be true at a deep, personal level.
And yet, I recall the first three hours of building Imaginatik’s Idea Central, the world’s first enterprise-scale Idea Management software. We built the basics of the system in an hour, and then started chatting about the system. The conversation went along the lines of:
“OK, what if I want to submit my idea, but I don’t want you to know it was me”
“Fine, we can have anonymous ideas”
“Right, say I do not want anyone to know it is my idea, but the evaluation team think that it is good, and I’d like to claim ownership, and maybe even work on the project team”
“Fine, you could submit your idea anonymously, and then control whether you reveal it or not, to whom, and when”
“And, say I did not want to reveal my name at all… but then the company needs to file a patent and they cannot file a patent on an anonymous idea”
“Fine. We could have an auditor function that would permit anonymous idea entry, and only allow, perhaps on a time-limited basis, certain individuals to find anonymous authors on a case-by-case basis”
“And what if I am in a regulated industry, and want to share potentially illegal ideas, or swap ideas across a Chinese Wall of an investment bank, or I am a contractor, or, or…”
And this was the easy work we started in 1998.
Now the world has got even more complicated. At least 35% of our clients have already implemented some form of Open Innovation system, working in a variety of ways with non-employees. The problems are even more complex, a LOT MORE complex.
So, time to break Myth #4 of the Top 10 Myths of Idea Management. For novice buyers – and for a select type of experienced buyer – there is a desire and a belief that a firm only needs to have a simple system to start with, and perhaps for all time. The novice buyers usually have not spent any serious quality time understanding the business and human requirements, perhaps delegating responsibility to a business analyst in IT, and so they want as simple as possible. The experienced buyer may have used several systems in the past, and having witnessed them fail – usually for a variety of human reasons – they now feel that the only way they can move forward is by deeply simplifying the task and starting again.
OK, time to myth-bust!
Complexity is Necessary – companies are complex systems with complex requirements. Something like intellectual property (IP) is the font and protector of wealth for many firms, and yet fully open systems allow that IP to be wasted or even stolen. Systems that engage non-employees add even more complexity to internal systems. This complexity cannot be argued away – it just is.
Organizational requirements are Complex and Changing – successful companies change (and who cares about the other ones). They merge, open international offices, expand into new business areas, restructure, and so on. They may have regulated and non-regulated areas. They may have entirely different business models within the same company. One part of the firm may compete with another part. One part of the firm may be the biggest supplier and partner to a competitor of another part of the firm. Organizations are complex. And they change. A simple system cannot keep up, even for a second.
Volume changes everything – Idea Management programs designed to handle a few hundred ideas or suggestions a year get swamped with a few thousand contributions. The simple programs massively under-estimate the time and effort required to evaluate and process ideas when required to do so at scale. A simple program may propose one person to manage and evaluate the ideas. The complexity of real life may mean that tens of people, all geographically dispersed in various business functions, have to coordinate to effectively manage a program and yield decent business results.
Focused Ideation yields 30X Returns over Simple Unfocused Programs – most simple programs are little more than open suggestion schemes. There is a significant body of research that shows that narrowing down the scope of an ideation initiative, and creating time pressure for contributions and evaluations, generates 30 times more high quality, high impact ideas than an always-open, anything-goes scheme [See Imaginatik Research White Paper on Event-Based Idea Management]
Simple Idea Forms, More Work for Evaluators – if the content input form is too simple, the evaluators find they do not have enough content and insight to perform an effective evaluation. This creates frustration for the evaluators – and the contributors. An idea form needs a requisite simplicity – simple enough to capture the right information for the evaluators to form an opinion.
Lazy, unengaged managers design Simple Systems – OK, I did not have to be that mean, but in my experience, a well-designed program that can really yield substantial business benefits requires time and input from a range of people. Focusing on a simplistic area of the system merely means that one is neglecting at least one core component, say reward and recognition, leading to rapid program demise. Most companies asking for Simple Systems are really highlighting the fact that the have not spent the time thinking about their business problem, and really just want to ‘tick Idea Management off the To Do List’.
Successful Simple Systems are Hide the Complexity – the iPod and iPhone are design classics. They take previously complicated devices and reduce them to simplicity. This is the same, albeit not to quite the same extent, for Idea Management systems. From an end user perspective the system should be highly accessible, easy to use, and require no training. From an evaluators perspective, it needs to have the right tools to do the job, but not be so intimidating that it dissuades evaluators from using the system. And from a program owner’s perspective, it needs to do the job required. Simplicity at the front-end belies a mountain of necessary complexity behind the scenes, and the best systems do both.
Going outside of Company Walls is Always Complex – as mentioned above, there are necessary complexities in the business world, and one ultra-strong one for Idea Management is the participation of non-employees in so-called Open Innovation Systems. If you thought the internal world had issues, these are nothing compared to Supply Chain systems, collecting ideas from the General Public, or fighting IP court cases with upset, vocal inventors. All systems that involve some form of open participation outside company walls become very, very complicated, and for excellent reasons.
Sadly for those who want the simple life, simple systems do not work. Whether they be simple firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail programs [see my white paper on ‘The Perils of E-Mail Based Idea Management‘] or classic suggestion schemes, as soon as a program starts getting successful, the requirements change dramatically, practically overnight. So, for those of you down the path of ‘simple Idea Management’ systems, be aware that you are highly unlikely to invalidate ten years of multi-company experience, so stop and think before you sign off on a non-workable approach.