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Create an employee innovation challenge in five steps

Embarking on a big digital transformation project? Here's how to inspire and incentivize your team

As part of a broader digital transformation strategy, I once led an employee innovation challenge that culminated in a "Shark Tank" competition, creating more than 350 useful ideas within a few months. My goal was to involve the entire company in generating innovative ideas or challenges that would impact customers or employees. We included challenges in the program, because often the best innovations emerge through unsolved problems.

Ultimately, 12 employees pitched their ideas to an executive leadership team. The winner moved forward to the proof-of-concept stage, and several of the other ideas were selected for further evaluation.

The idea is to use innovative ideation to take advantage of your most valuable resource: your employees. Any company can create an employee innovation challenge to engage teams, opening the floodgates of technology innovation. These challenges can be particularly valuable for companies embarking on a digital transformation initiative. Innovative ideas from employees often produce customer experience wins, such as the ability to:

Digital transformation is a broad concept, but its foundation is built on a number of specific solutions, including design thinkinglean start-up principles, the scaled agile framework (SAFe)cloud accelerationDevOps, and cloud-native architectures. I refer to this solution set as the innovation enablement value chain. A holistic implementation of this solution set can dramatically influence your ability to test ideas from your employee innovation challenge and improve the customer journey.

The five-step employee innovation challenge process

Using ideation to gather, store, and filter ideas is simple. Begin by choosing or developing an ideation tool to manage the innovation pipeline. There are several ideation platforms, such as Imaginatik or Spigit, that can help you manage the process efficiently. It's also simple to create a workflow process via Microsoft SharePoint, for example.

Regardless of the tool, the multistage workflow described can be tailored for any company. I've broken it down into five major stages: solicitation, filtering, preparation, delivery, and idea incentives. Adapt your initiative to fit your company culture. This model is a starting point for gaining employee engagement during idea sharing. Innovation starts with a challenge and collaboration, rather than just saying, "We need to be more innovative."

1. Solicitation

Assemble a core team to solicit the ideas that come out of your employee innovation challenge. During this phase, momentum and enthusiasm are key. The CEO or another executive kicks off the program. Ideation should use multiple communication forums to get the message out: HR, marketing, and internal communications teams are crucial.

Ask employees to share their experiences serving customers. Employees know the challenges that customers face when doing business with you, where opportunities to expand exist, how to reduce internal friction when getting work done, and how technology streamlines execution.

Transparency is important for building trust and credibility, so make all ideas available for everyone to review. To add momentum, the ideation process should enable peers to vote and comment. However, at the solicitation stage, the ideation platform should not share submitter names (more on that later).

2. Filtering

In the filtering phase, anonymity is key. You want to evaluate ideas based on merit alone. To ensure the top ideas move forward, create a panel of domain experts from across the organization to make the selections. Choose these cross-functional leaders based on their experience and understanding of the mission, capabilities, technology, and lines of business.

Once ideas are categorized, narrow down idea possibilities to only the best. The domain experts may vote to narrow submissions to a final list of distinct ideas over a couple of weeks. This panel of judges should determine the number of ideas that make the finals. In our case, between 10 and 15 was optimal, as it represented the top percentage of ideas while facilitating a single review with the executive team on executive demo day.

3. Preparation

Once you've selected the final ideas at the preparation stage, reveal the submitter names. Implement a robust communication plan that champions finalists by means of interviews and articles that highlight their ideas.

Simultaneously, assign an idea sponsor to each finalist to help prepare for the finals. The idea sponsor should be a subject matter expert and leader within the organization who is familiar with executive-level presentation delivery. During this phase, submitters refine their idea and sponsors prepare the finalists for presentation delivery. Give finalists two weeks to prepare their presentations.

The core employee innovation team then assigns the remaining ideas (those not selected as finalists) to other leaders in the organization for follow-up. The expectation is that every submitted idea gets consideration and every submitter receives a response (even if the response is, "Not at this time"). In our case, many of the ideas warranted additional consideration for future implementation.

4. Delivery

Invite executive management to act as judges. Finalists should be prepared to pitch their ideas in a short, fixed period, much like entrepreneurs do in start-up demos for investors. In our case, we wanted to complete the executive demo day in 90 minutes. Therefore, idea submitters were given four minutes of presentation time plus two minutes of Q&A for the judges. This schedule permits a reasonable time frame to evaluate final ideas and select a winner.

You will likely have a diverse set of ideas, each with unique characteristics regarding how they can impact your business model. These characteristics may include improved optimization for internal processes or new product opportunities for your clients. In our case, the ideas covered the entire spectrum, including employees, customers, and products. Executed well, ideation spreads enthusiasm and encourages employees to share positive feedback.

5. Idea incentives

As mentioned, your employees know your business, customers, and operating model best. They're on the front lines with customers. They implement processes that make up your operating model and understand what it's like to do business with your company. That's why employees and incentives are crucial for successful transformational change.

Most engaged employees just need outlets to provide ideas. Those outlets can occur when companies offer incentives, such as recognition, confidence that their ideas will be heard, or compensation if possible. You'll find that as enthusiasm builds, employees want to know the ideas submitted and vote on favorites.

In my experience, successful incentives include guaranteed continued involvement through a proof of concept, funding of POCs for winning ideas, oversight and ownership provided by assigned idea sponsors through the POC, and bonuses given to the finalists and winner.

Pulling breakthrough ideas from your top resource

The innovation that separates you from your competitors is likely waiting in the minds of your current employee base. Enabling employees to share ideas via ideation is critical. The steps described here are repeatable and can build momentum each time they are implemented. Once employees see the company demonstrate a commitment to idea sharing and action taking, most will engage and share. Your employees want to find easier ways to work, more efficient customer engagement methods, better solutions, and improved outcomes for company longevity.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.