Why The Employee Idea Scheme Doesn’t Work

Staff suggestion schemes are where innovation goes to die

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The origin of the staff suggestion box is somewhat hazy – but is believed to be at least 300 years old.

Yoshimune Tokugawa was a shōgun warrior who ruled the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan during the 18th century. He is often credited as the first person to introduce a suggestion scheme. A meyasubako (complaints box) was placed outside Edo Castle which encouraged locals to place ideas about how the province could rid itself of debt. Only Yoshimune himself had the key to the box.

The concept of asking employees to share their ideas to drive innovation is always a good one. Unfortunately, the traditional suggestion scheme is, in my opinion, not the way to go about it.

You’re asking people to literally put their ideas into a box. You’re shutting their ideas away in the dark, and storing them indefinitely. Suggestion schemes have become a joke, the perfect illustration of hands-off, out of touch management tipping the nod at innovation without wanting to put in any hard work.

So why are Bromford Lab in the process of re-introducing one?

Well, as Simon Penny wrote – for innovation and design activity to be sustainable at Bromford, we believe that we must democratise it; supporting colleagues and teams with a super light to medium touch in order to undertake their own innovation activity, freeing up our limited resources to concentrate on higher risk, higher yield, transformative and radically different activity.

To do this we believe we need to hand over the management of new ideas to our fifty most senior leaders -what we call Leadership50. Through developing a much wider group of colleagues we can diversify our innovation approach. Innovation thrives on diversity – it’s a team game. It comes from having a culture where everybody can openly challenge and question one another.  

People like to think that innovation happens because of a genius working alone – but that’s almost never the case. For instance, Steve Jobs insisted he would never allow Apple to make a phone. After his team finally persuaded him to reconsider, he banned outside apps and it took another year to get him to reverse that stance. Much of Apple’s success came from his teams pushing him to rethink his positions. If he hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world. 

One of the first subjects we tackled as part of Leadership50 was about being bold and daring to disagree with each other. How could we, as leaders, become more receptive and open to challenge, welcoming new ideas from our teams and from across the business? 

Well, working with my LD50 colleagues we made a pitch for what we are calling an Ideas Hub, a central place we can all raise bright ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. It’s high risk.

As Chris Bolton has written – post COVID the suggestion scheme has had something of a renaissance. All of them have a high chance of failure, indeed several reports have attempted to outline the reasons why many schemes fail . The literature, while extolling the many virtues of suggestion programs, makes it clear that achieving the expected results from these programmes is quite challenging. Suggestion schemes will not yield results without the active involvement of everyone in the organisation together with the required
resources and support from top management. It is also evident that sustaining a suggestion scheme is not easy, it’s hard work.

As Chris says over on his blog , it may be beneficial to take a ‘meta view’ of all the small bright ideas schemes which could identify opportunities that don’t work for the individual schemes, but could work elsewhere. And I agree that having lots of ideas is like spreading your bets at a horse race. The more ideas you have increase the chances of winning.

The problem is most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Having the idea itself is the easy part. Suggestion schemes on their own won’t tackle a culture of no. Even where organisations purposely attempt to generate creative ideas, such as through brainstorming events, hacks or idea boxes they often kill ideas off too early. Sometimes they even kill ideas during the idea-generation activities.

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

What do managers do? Typically, managerial work. Not creative work. Not radical, reshaping work. Involving management in the cultivation and protection of early stage ideas changes how managers do what they do.

And that’s why I think our latest approach could work. If it’s the leaders themselves that are publicly taxed with the development of bright ideas then they live or die by that particular sword.

More ideas certainly. Better problems, definitely. However – if we are to shift our innovation efforts across the whole enterprise, we need more management experiments.

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

3 thoughts on “Why The Employee Idea Scheme Doesn’t Work

  1. Perfect timing on Yoshimune Tokugawa Paul. I’ve been talking about staff ideas schemes and our friends at Ricoh as an example of a Self Improving System.
    Just wondering if there’s a link between the Japanese manufacturing approach and that ancient history of suggestion schemes – that then go corrupted by the Western bureaucracy and hierarchies? Burying the voices of the staff in a ‘suggestions box’.
    I really like the Leadership50 idea. Distributing the responsibility and creating a bit of interdependency is helpful. It’s got to be better than placing it with a small (select) group. Diversity, dispersed and widespread involvement are the way.

  2. Thanks Chris – we’ve tried to build a bit of the Ricoh thinking into the ‘model’ albeit at a low maturity level. We are trying to distinguish between simple ‘ideas’ that lend themselves to a suggest/implement approach with a complete acceptance of failure, and more complex/higher risk problems. Yesterday evening we received the first colleague pitch on a more complex problem/idea. We’ve been coaching some of the Leadership team using nemawashi principles which I’m sure you know is the japanese approach of decision making through consensus. So the rule of the pitch was that you couldn’t shoot the idea down – or even criticise it – just ask questions. It worked really well though I know some people argue this kind of approach doesn’t help radical innovation. Anyway – it’s an experiment , so we’ll see how it goes!

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