Your employee-suggestion program is essential to your innovation culture. One idea can be the spark to boost your company, and it is likely that the idea will seem obvious after you hear it. For example, British Airways saved an estimated $1 million switching from glass miniature liquor bottles to lighter plastic ones — and it came from a suggestion program.

But like many things, a successful suggestion program must be managed for best results. Did you know that the average employee suggestion box has less than 10 percent adoption?

An expert in the suggestion management arena is Jacqueline Zhou at SoapBox Innovations. She has analyzed more than 20 research papers on suggestion systems and uncovered 11 unexpected facts about managing employee idea programs.

1. Creating ideas gets better with practice. Every time an employee submits an idea that is selected for implementation, future ideas from that employee are more likely to get implemented. This effect is compounded in a team setting. Research has shown that by the time a team has had four successful ideas implemented, the likelihood that future ideas would be selected for implementation rose to 80 percent.

2. Employees are more likely to learn from successful ideas but not unsuccessful ones. In other words, employees do not learn from rejected ideas. From a practical standpoint, it is important to show employees what a successful idea looks like by selecting desired types of ideas for implementation.

3. Eighty percent of an organization’s performance-improvement potential lies in front-line ideas. In the debate between focusing on radical or incremental innovation, the greatest business opportunity lies with ideas related to incremental innovation. In fact, focusing on incremental innovation provides a more sustainable competitive advantage for organizations.

4. Ease of submission directly impacts the number of ideas received from employees. For example, online suggestion systems receive more ideas than paper or form-based systems because there are fewer physical barriers to submitting the idea. Also, gating or asking for too much information up front can reduce the number of ideas submitted.

5. Lack of timely feedback is the No. 1 reason why employee idea programs fail. Every article and research piece (yes, all 21 of them) cited timely feedback as a major block to the success of an employee suggestion box.

6. Declined ideas will be taken constructively when an explanation of why the ideas were declined is provided. Simply put, rejected ideas that have an official explanation do not impact the likelihood that someone will not submit ideas going forward, or the quantity or quality of ideas. Feedback is seen as a positive even if the idea is rejected. In one study, submitters only became disengaged after more than 20 rejected ideas because feedback was provided and they knew their ideas were being evaluated.

7. Having monetary rewards does not increase the quantity or quality of ideas. While different companies can have different types of reward programs (SoapBox Innovations dives deeper into examples in the Employee Suggestion Box guide), financial compensation can actually create a negative environment of competitiveness as opposed to promoting healthy debate.

8. A central review group is the biggest bottleneck to the velocity of ideas. Let’s do a little bit of math. Let’s say you have an above-average employee suggestion box with 10 percent adoption and five ideas per employee per year. In an organization with 2,000 people, that’s still 1,000 ideas for a committee to review. If the review committee got together twice a month, that’s still over 40 ideas to fully evaluate in each meeting. There’s no central review team that can process that many ideas effectively, even though it’s a technique frequently used to manage idea systems.

9. While small organizations with up to 50 people can often walk over to the person they need to share ideas with, larger organizations with siloed departments, functional areas and geographic locations struggle to share ideas effectively and get them into the hands of the best people to evaluate and implement. Large, complex organizations will require the right technology to provide timely feedback and take action on ideas.

10. Setting good goals is an effective way to get valuable ideas. By aligning priorities, you’ll be able to evaluate and implement ideas more effectively. (Read more in the Employee Idea Management Program – Goal Setting Guide.)

11. Idea management programs do not become successful overnight. It could take up to three years for an idea management program to reach a point where evaluation and implementation become a smooth process. Use a maturity matrix to help estimate the time it takes for a suggestion box to be effective (SoapBox Innovations shares the one it uses with its clients here).

Please use these suggestions to improve your process and your innovation — and a new suggestion box from Safeco should help, too!

Keep innovating!

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