Gone are the days when meeting business contract agreements was the only yardstick of success for business partners. In today’s world, customers expect more – more in terms of adding value to their business and customers through actionable insights, leveraging technological trends and constant feedback. In the best business relationships, vendors are not simply suppliers; they are considered value-adding strategic partners. But how do you move from being a vendor to a partner in success?

The key to this transformation is ideation: the process of frequently generating relevant, feasible improvement ideas through your front-line staff – whether those ideas prevent revenue leakage, save on costs, reduce overall work or lead to innovative products and service. This practice of continuous ideation – and – adds value for your clients, employees, vendors or end users.

Why Ideate?

Think of the last time you were satisfied with a stagnant product or service – the same features in your phone over the years, the same options that your cable provider offered since the beginning of your subscription, or that pizza that seemed heavenly in the beginning but wore out its welcome when you started having it every day. If as a consumer you are not satisfied with the stagnancy in the products you use, how can you expect your clients and customers to be happy with the business-as-usual services they receive year after year?

When was the last time you got some of your front-line staff members (those who interact directly with end customers) in a meeting room and asked for their opinion about the scope of improvement in the current process? Do this and expect to be wowed by the feedback that flows your way. Make this a part of your operating culture and the outcome will be reflected in your client’s satisfaction.

Gathering continuous feedback, suggestions and ideas in a structured and well-planned manner goes a long way in not only giving you that X factor among competitors but also has a profound positive impact on overall business performance. An excerpt from a Harvard Business Review article written by Rick Lash in 2012 provides an interesting insight in support of this approach: “Beyond strong financial performance, the top 20 BCL [best companies for leadership] companies have something else in common. In an era of intense globalization, rapid demographic change and accelerating technological progress, the best companies for leadership recognize the value of innovation, putting it at the heart of their corporate culture and using this targeted, focused innovation to drive shareholder value and improve efficiency.”

The Ideation Framework

Having a strong ideation framework is as important as the framework of any company department. This must be reflected in the company’s culture, not only with words but also through actions.

The model in Figure 1 below shows what should be the prominent pillars of ideation for firms embarking on this journey or trying to reorganize their innovation department. Each attribute under this model has a few important activities that can ensure a successful innovation pipeline for your business.

The STEAM Model
The STEAM Model

1. Structure

Innovation should be infused in the operating culture of a company and defined in a well-structured manner. How do you accomplish this?

  1. Identify a subject-matter expert (SME) in each department (like operations, quality or training) as well as shared services like HR, finance and others.
  2. Educate staff members about the ideation SMEs with whom they can share their ideas.
  3. Each SME should be responsible for driving ideation through idea generation, brainstorming sessions and workshops.
  4. The SMEs should do a first-level validation check of the ideas and share their feedback with the idea creators.

All feasible and relevant ideas can flow to an ideation committee comprising senior leaders, SMEs and members from supporting functions such as IT and automation.

2. Technology

Each firm has its own technological suite of solutions; the first step in leveraging these tools is understanding and mapping their capabilities and opportunities. An idea has diverse meaning across clients. For some, innovation is deploying high-end robotic process automation (RPA) or artifical intelligence capability to automate some parts or most of a job, while for others it would mean providing suggestions to improve the overall process flow by eradicating effort leakages. There is no point in pitching a RPA solution to the latter situation and vice versa. So, how do you take advantage of tech capabilities?

  1. Understand what the customer’s needs are from a technological standpoint.
  2. Build an ideation platform wherein employees can submit their ideas. Start with an Excel spreadsheet if you need to, but begin collecting ideas.
  3. Educate staff members about all of the company’s offerings and let them assess if the offerings help the end customers, clients and employees.
  4. Connect the ideas received from front-line staff to your solutions.

3. Execution

When you’ve picked the ideas that are both relevant and able to be implemented, convert them into projects. There is only one rule at this stage – execute and advertise (internally). How you market the success of your first few projects will determine the way employees will perceive the ideation initiative. Be sure that the company recognizes the idea submitter – make them a hero and you will see the urge to find opportunities in everyday work become a new water cooler topic among the rest of the staff. The following pointers will lead you to a more robust outcome.

  1. Categorize ideas properly before execution.
  2. Follow up and follow through. Once the project has been initiated, bring it to its logical conclusion.
  3. Analyze benefits – manhours, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, voice of the customer and any other metrics that you measure.
  4. Advertise internally.
  5. Iterate and cross-replicate wherever possible – across departments, verticals, projects, etc.

4. Awareness

During the initial stage, expect more greviances than actual ideas. Instead of neglecting these, educate the idea submitters. Show them examples of the ideas you’re looking for, give them relevant problem statements and ensure proper feedback is provided.

  1. Educate about the ideation framework and structure.
  2. Run contests, workshops and town halls.
  3. Walk the talk – make this a talking point in your reviews and meetings.
  4. Use visual content such as posters, videos and mailers to communicate.
  5. Involve everyone from the senior leadership to front-line staff members.

5. Motivation

An employee-centric rewards and recognition program is crucial to disperse the culture of innovation. Show appreciation to the individual who submitted the idea, the team members of the project and the SMEs. Don’t reserve this for only the great ideas – appreciate every idea. Thank everyone for their contribution. Nobody has ever been hurt from extra appreciation.

  1. Reward top ideas across categories and departments.
  2. Identify, nurture, coach and appreciate the best innovation SMEs across departments.
  3. Thank everyone who contributes.

Phases of the Ideation Framework

This model may seem simple to implement but once you get started you will find this is much harder than it looks. You will not find immediate success. There will be a large group of employees who will not see the value in ideation. This change, therefore, needs to be managed carefully in the phases shown in the table below.

Phases of the Ideation Process
Stage Number Stage Focus On Expected Outcome Pace
1 Cultural shift Awareness and culture Quantity of ideas Slow
2 Implement Execution of good ideas Quality of ideas Fast
3 Feedback Celebrating success stories Motivation Moderate

You will start seeing results once:

  • You’ve established a strong ideation framework wherein an idea flows smoothly from one stage to another.
  • The submitter receives frequent updates, is involved in the innovation process and recognized for their efforts.

Ideation is not only about generating ideas but also how well you execute, nurture, educate and replicate. It’s not a destination – it’s a journey.

Happy ideating!

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