Business owners are always on the hunt for new ideas -- ways to cut costs, increase revenue, and improve products and services. Often the most cost-effective source of ideas is right in front of you. "More companies are turning first to their employees to tap into those free ideas lying around in their heads," says Jeffrey Phillips of OVO, an innovation consulting firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. But what do you do when employees are too shy to speak up?
That's the predicament in which Mike Hall found himself. Hall, the CEO of Borrego Solar Systems, an El Cajon, California, company that installs solar power systems, says many of his employees, especially the engineers, are introverted and were reluctant to come forward with ideas. "Other people just didn't see it as part of their jobs to speak up," says Hall.
Last year, Hall decided to organize an internal contest he called the innovation challenge. All 50 of Borrego's employees were encouraged to submit ideas about improving the business. After everyone had a chance to review the submissions hosted on the company's intranet, employees used SurveyMonkey, a free online survey tool, to vote for their favorite idea. The prize for the winner: $500 in cash.
The competition drew only a handful of suggestions, but nearly all of Borrego's employees participated in the voting process, which encouraged Hall to stick with it. He now holds the competitions quarterly and receives more than a dozen submissions per contest. Several of the winning ideas have already been put into place, such as using software to help the sales and engineering teams collaborate. Once employees began to see their suggestions being put into action, says Hall, participation increased. "We knew we had people who might be shy about submitting ideas," he says. "We gave them a forum that encourages everyone to share."
With a standard suggestion box, employee ideas sent to management often seem to disappear into a black hole. Using technology to track and rank each submission can help ensure that every idea gets a fair shake. In the past few years, several companies, including Imaginatik, Spigit, and Brightidea, have launched applications designed for collecting, discussing, and ranking employee ideas. These programs look and function like a cross between Facebook and Digg. With Brightidea's software, for example, each employee has a profile that displays his or her ideas, the number of times he or she has commented on the ideas of others, and whether co-workers felt the ideas and comments were good ones. The program uses this information to tabulate scores for each employee and then ranks the top idea generators. The rankings are intended to create a spirit of competition that encourages participation. "Recognition from their peers is a powerful motivator for many people," says Murat Philippe, a consultant with HR Solutions, a workplace consulting firm in Chicago.
Such systems are helpful when in-person meetings become awkward, whether because of introverted employees or a scattered work force. Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm with more than 2,000 employees and 80 offices around the world, began rolling out Brightidea's software to 150 of its employees in July. The software, which starts at about $15 per person per month, is a way for Fleishman-Hillard's dispersed staff members to pitch ideas together. "We used to brainstorm in face-to-face sessions using whiteboards and Post-it notes, which was a laborious process," says Kathie Thomas, a senior vice president at the company.
No matter which system you use, you had better be prepared to turn employees' ideas into action. "There's nothing worse for morale than when employees feel like their ideas went nowhere," says Larry Bennett, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. Companies need to develop a process to bring those ideas to life. At Borrego, each idea that Hall wants to use gets assigned to an executive sponsor. Projects are often spearheaded by the person who made the suggestion, but if an idea is generated from outside a department -- for instance, if someone in engineering comes up with an idea for the marketing department -- a sponsor will be nominated. Employees can track the progress on the company's intranet.
But Hall makes it clear to employees that the winning idea won't always be the first one implemented. After a recent competition, one of the runners-up was quickly put in place. The idea was to begin offering power-purchase agreements, which involves paying the upfront costs to install solar equipment at customers' locations and then charging them monthly for electricity. "We've been able to generate a lot of great ideas by tapping everyone's brains," he says.