Fresh Thinking

Innovation

“No one feels happy walking away from the suggestion box”

July 25, 2008

In a recent discussion about some fresh entrepreneurial ideas, one of my colleagues at Intel suggested some ways to improve Intel’s operation, but commented that “no-one feels happy walking away from the suggestion box”. Why does no-one feel happy sharing a suggestion after dropping it in a box? I felt my colleague’s statement reverberate over and over and knew there was something deep behind his frustration. Hence, my exploration of the truthfulness of that statement and my ultimate conclusion–that the company suggestion box is dead! Here are 10 reasons why the old-fashioned company suggestion box leaves employees unsatisfied…

  1. The suggestion box is often a physical “black box” where ideas are locked up rather than an iterative process. It’s not that motivating to lock up your good thinking in a physical box where you might be unsure if the idea is ever read. Moreover, a consistent and clear process where the ideas get reviewed is often lacking. Thus, the analogy of the “black box”–because it’s not clear what output results from your input. Innovation must be addressed from three pillars: people, process, and technology. See the 3 pillars of innovation here. Throwing a box out there is not good technology, is often a bad excuse for an innovation process, and does not motivate people.
  2. If your idea is read, you are not assured of feedback to validate consideration of your idea. One of the tried and true ways to eliminate the sharing of great ideas is to not respond or give feedback to ideas shared. Even if the feedback suggests why an idea won’t work, any feedback to a new idea is critical if you want to encourage ongoing sharing. And accountability is important if you want to re-stock the funnel. This was pointed out in a BNET article on how CEOs are getting low marks for managing innovation.“Employees often don’t get feedback on ideas that aren’t adopted. By their nature, businesses can only adopt a small percentage of change-making ideas, lest they rewrite the business plan every week. For this reason, it is just as important to let employees know why an idea isn’t being adopted as it is to give them credit when an idea is implemented.”
  3. Value is not placed on the ideas. If you have a great idea that could transform the business, dropping it in a suggestion box for someone else to interpret its worth is not that encouraging.
  4. Articulation and support is difficult. Suggestion boxes are often limited to shorter ideas that fit in a box hole. While limiting the explanation helps during review of suggestions, limiting your free thinking/expansion of the idea can be discouraging and a summary can easily be required. A business plan to take forward new ideas involves much more than the idea alone and needs the support of many people to make it move.
  5. Review is cumbersome and inadequate, especially with large companies. This is one of the reasons why the suggestion box is so dysfunctional. Whoever reviews the ideas spends enormous amounts of time reviewing the suggestions. The sheer quantity of ideas can be overwhelming.A good example of this was shared in another BNET article entitled Why Great Ideas go to Waste:
    “Some years ago, inspired, perhaps, by Toyota’s performance-improvement suggestion scheme, a group of eight colleagues agreed that we would each think of one idea a day to do something at work better, faster, cheaper, more easily, more enjoyably or more efficiently.We agreed not to share any of the ideas, but just wrote them down and put them in a sealed envelope on our boss’s desk every morning, having explained the process to him with the first batch.It only took until the next weekly meeting for it all to come to a grinding halt. The boss, a genuinely nice, open-minded person, pointed to the 40 sheets of paper in front of him and asked: “What am I supposed to do with these? At this rate we’ll have 2,000 a year to process. We won’t have time to do any other work.”Moreover, those that need to consider the latest ideas and are in charge of the strategy of the company probably don’t have the time to review the ideas, especially when they have to sort through so many bad ones. And even if they delegate the review, it is often left to those with less decision making power. The handling of paper without invoking on the power of software to connect, organize, or categorize ideas is ancient.
  6. Ownership of intellectual work can easily be usurped. Ownership is given away the moment someone drops their suggestion in the box. Whether you put your name on it or not, it could be difficult to claim ownership. The idea could easily be claimed by the lower management in charge of reviewing the ideas.
  7. Collaboration is not encouraged. Innovation works best when there is open collaboration. Rather than encouraging collaboration, the suggestion box encourages to not share your thinking openly and get buy-in from key stakeholders. Good ideas need to be progressed and built upon. The fastest way to do so is by sharing with others and incorporating their feedback. Additionally, there is no connection to others with similar ideas. It is often one idea with the combination of other’s half ideas that make for a great connected idea worth iterating. Connections that can be made via software packages are foregone.
  8. The ideas are left to the judgment of a few people. New ideas need visibility and transparency so that there can be dialogue and discussion and traction, especially since people are naturally resistant to change and hostile to new ideas. Moreover, the few people charged with reviewing the ideas is management and for many management types, new ideas from others below them can be seen as a threat to their position.
  9. Rewards are not clearly connected to the great ideas. If the suggestion is the next big paradigm shifting idea that takes the company into great growth, why would anyone go lock it up in the suggestion box. Employees have numerous ideas to improve the company, but without a clear tie to recognition and reward, why would they share their ideas?
  10. Ideas get diluted/lost when there are so many mixed up with a multi-functional box. The suggestion box can be both a complaint box and suggestion box and a place to whistle blow anonymously. While anonymous complaints and problems shared may spur some solution thinking, it does not cultivate innovation. At a minimum, separating your suggestions for improving the business from the place where people can leave concerns or whistle blow gives the suggester more comfort that the idea might be more properly handled.

The founder of Engage Thoughtware, Doug Harris, who has a PhD in this space, said it well:

“For an idea to be accepted it must repetitively argue its case in progressively superior circles, laying out each crucial point of impact and then methodically connecting one point to another until the new pattern appears as a comprehensive gestalt or “Aha”. Only when enough people have engaged in the discourse are there sufficient “Ahas” to propel the new idea forward. Merely digitizing a suggestion-box only amplifies an already dysfunctional model. Effective Ideation needs a fluid environment where discourse is unencumbered.”

The future of your company is in new ideas that create value. Over the long run, everyone must innovate to thrive and survive. But innovation is not encouraged by introducing a suggestion box and can cause opposite behaviors. 
While some may argue its better than nothing, I would rather share my ideas verbally before I locked them up for the mystery man to review and decide if they have any merit. Getting feedback and sponsorship from key stakeholders before you present to the decision makers and having an iterative review process where others weigh in is only the beginning…and it certaintly doesn’t progress by dropping your idea into the black hole.

Feedback
Why else is the suggestion box dsyfunctional? OR have you found some success? Do you agree with my points above? Do you have any good / bad case studies or experiences to share?

Founder and CEO of Fresh Consulting, student of all things creative, innovative, and fresh, professional snowboard instructor trainer, father.

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