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Ideas are Free

Ideas are Free: How the Idea Revolution is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations

Ideas are Free

Authors: Alan G. Robinson & Dean M. Schroeder
ISBN number: 978-1576753743
Posted: June 21, 2013
Summary by: Marcus Ritosa, Process Improvement Intern

Executive Summary

In “Ideas Are Free,” Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder argue that the untapped organizational asset of front-line employee creativity can be used for both general process excellence as well as building an ideal workplace culture.  For an organization to tap into this great resource, a significant paradigm shift is necessary, allowing managers to be humble and allowing ideas to arise bottom-up through the organization.  After making this simple change, an organization must create an active idea-processing system that first seeks small ideas and that shies away from the worst (and most prevalent) reward schemes.

Small ideas must be the focus of any idea program.  The core goal is not to find grand innovations that will transform the world, but rather to allow the mass effect of every employee’s eyes, ears, and mind to continually recreate the organization.  Everyone has small ideas every day that can incrementally improve his or her work processes, especially following a large change.  Small changes are likely the only ones that allow for a sustained competitive advantage, since large innovations are often more public and replicable to competitors.  Small ideas, given a representative sample, can organically point to larger opportunities for improvement, without the need for coordination of individuals across departments.  Tracking the source of ideas, essentially the volunteered feedback of employees, can help to identify morale issues as well as policy problems that may treat different groups of employees unfairly.

Typical reward systems for ideas often mimic the patent system in the United States in that they seek to give a benefit only to the person who conceived and described the idea.  The problem with applying this equivalency within an organization is that it does not mirror the rest of the story, in which the patent applicant then has the responsibility to develop the design all the way to market.  In most organizations, the development of and idea development and the implementation of that idea are carried out by completely different people, all of whom do not benefit in typical reward schemes.  There are also many examples where graft, deception, and disincentives can arise.  Effective reward systems for ideas, if they are determined useful (as they certainly are not necessary) are based on aggregate measures of performance, seek to benefit all employees communally, and is integrated with the organization’s strategic direction or core metrics.

Everyone has a part in an idea program.  Employees must be expected to bring new ideas to the table on a regular basis.  Supervisors must allow for development and implementation of these ideas at the front-line.  Middle managers must encourage and provide resources for ideas requiring greater support.  Senior management must show that the program is important, often by getting directly involved in appraising ideas and in celebrating their impact.  The authors also provide a brief description of an organization framework that will promote opportunity generation.  In short, there must be clear communication of policies, procedures, and skills along with support from the leadership.

Fully-functioning idea systems share many characteristics. First, ideas must be encouraged and welcomed.  Through an efficient system, idea submission, evaluation, feedback, implementation, and follow-up must be timely.  Successes must be celebrated, monitored, and improved.  The opposite of all of this is embodied in the common suggestion box that hangs on a wall, neglected by both employees and management.

Idea submission can be guided toward strategic goals or critical issues as needed.  The top corporate values may be a specially-announced topic of idea generation.  A sudden crisis or change may be presented to all for idea generation.  Conventional wisdom may suggest that to choose a specific topic or goal would limit the ideas that come in.  Rather, by providing a focus, employees are better able to collaborate and build on each other’s ideas.

There are two ways to increase the output from an idea system.  The first way is to broaden the knowledge and skill base of employees, so that they can see solutions more than they see insurmountable hardship.  This may take the form of general education in process improvement, specific training in industry best practices or benchmarking, or simply by gaining a different perspective through exploring new concepts.  The second way is for employees to be alert and attentive to variances and oddities.  A good practice is for employees to carry a notebook in which to jot ideas or concepts for later review.

The best improvement programs, tactics, and strategies have shown awesome success; unfortunately, there are also woeful failures across the decades and across economic sectors.  Robinson and Schroeder claim that a great enabler of those successful efforts comes from the organization’s culture, in particular one that engages the minds and hearts of every employee.  Organizations that seek financial and operational excellence could certainly benefit from having a functioning idea system, but often the benefit is seen in reverse.  An organization will find that operational success is the fruit, not the drive, of engaging and empowering employees through trust in their ideas and humility to accept them.