Data From 3.5 Million Employees Shows How Innovation Really Works
“Sales and marketing were once disciplines ruled by emotions. But somewhere along the way, we recognized that they were based on definable pipelines and applied technology to manage those pipelines. … What if we applied the same thinking to innovation? After all, innovation, like marketing and sales, is a pipeline. In one end go raw concepts and notions. Out the other end come actionable ideas that can move the business forward. With the right technology, could you manage this pipeline the way you manage a sales pipeline?
Our research shows that you can. One of us, Dylan, has analyzed five years of data from 154 public companies covering over 3.5 million employees that have used an idea management system called Spigit. For the millions of employees of these companies, the idea management system functions a little like Facebook – people can post ideas, get votes, deliver or respond to feedback, and develop the ideas into innovations that make a difference to the company. … We used linear regression to analyze every potential measure the system includes over every 3-month time period when the system was active within the company.
But what we learned from our analysis of all this data is that innovation is, indeed, a science. And surprisingly, the variables that make for a successful innovation program are independent of whether the company is seeking disruptive or incremental innovations. It doesn’t matter whether they’re asking for process or product innovation, what industry the company is in, or even, for the most part, whether the company is large or small.
The key variable that we identified across all the companies in our analysis is the ideation rate, which we define as the number of ideas approved by management divided by the total number of active users in the system. … After reviewing dozens of variables that could potentially affect ideation, we identified four that drove the ideation rate. They weren’t what we expected.
- Scale – more participants. To succeed, an innovation program needs lots of participants. It’s the wisdom of the crowd: a large mass of participants will always out-ideate a small group of smart people. On average, companies generate one idea for every four participants in the system.
- Frequency – more ideas. To get to a set of promising ideas whose implementation would make sense, you need to sift through a lot of candidates. To succeed, a company needs to create frequent idea challenges for its employees. These challenges reinforce a culture of innovation and generate more ideas going into the pipeline. While there is a great deal of variation based on the types of ideas and the companies reviewing them, on average, it takes five idea candidates to generate one idea that the company judges to be worth implementing.
- Engagement – more people evaluating ideas. It’s not enough to get some people suggesting ideas. You need lots of other people figuring out whether those ideas are worth working on, or what it will take for them to become better. A successful idea management system is a ferment of commentary, with lots of feedback.
- Diversity – more kinds of people contributing. You might think the most productive innovation system would be full of engineers or other problem-solvers. You’d be wrong. A successful system needs contributions from all over the organization, especially staff who are close to the front lines: sales staff, support workers, or people in close touch with the company’s manufacturing processes, for example.”