Innovation has become an often-used buzzword by corporate executives, but it’s of little use if a company doesn’t really know how to make innovation happen in a strategic, step-by-step, practical way.

Organizations that want to create an innovation culture need to develop a bottom-up approach in which line-of-business team members continually come up with ideas to improve the business. Companies need to set up an open system where all ideas are welcome. Even if most of the ideas will be bypassed in the end, a few gems always emerge.

In our experience running these programs, we identify campaign challenges or problem themes. Then we have an “ideation window” that encompasses as large a swath of holidays as possible, which is typically from the start of October through the end of December.

After the ideation period, we run a three-phase review of the ideas submitted over a couple of months, with the final winners selected by the key stakeholder — either a senior management team or preferably a customer.

Awards are given during a special ceremony at a suitable location, ideally by the customer or most-senior internal stakeholder. Idea implementation feasibility analysis, selection and investment closes the loop through project-style tracking and implementation of the selected ideas.

Large impact ideas take time to develop, so while it’s often workable to run innovation programs quarterly, annual programs can be very effective. Offering a substantial monetary prize (a factor of the winner’s monthly salary) can attract good ideas, but not everyone is motivated by a cash award. Sometimes the mere exposure and the recognition by peers motivates people to participate.

Once the awards are made, the final 10 to 15 winners get to present their ideas to an audience of key stakeholders. Much of the success of these programs relies on involving all of the stakeholders — at every level and stage in the program. We find that the customers (key stakeholders) start to actively participate when they start seeing how these ideas can make positive impacts on their businesses.

For example, some rank-and-file employees recently suggested a reusable, automated error-analysis framework. If deployed, this idea could cut the turnaround time for correcting identified errors from a week to 24 hours. Such ideas will surely attract interest from stakeholders. And no one but the people on the ground can identify the needed details to make significant changes like this one work.

All of these positive benefits can happen at your company, but you need a plan. Here’s a checklist of questions to ask when looking to develop an innovation program:


1.   Have you identified problems/challenges that you want resolved? And have these been reviewed and converted into broad categories and topics?


2.  Have you brought all the stakeholders into the game? Have you sought out ideas from the various groups/teams to competitively provide the largest number of new ideas?


3.  Is the customer investing in the program?


4.  And finally, how does the customer plan to take the ideas back to his or her organization?


The real pot of gold is the set of new ideas that clear the first reviews and get deployed, delivering tangible outcomes such as cost savings through automation or process improvements or new business opportunities.

It’s a winning approach that also includes non-quantifiable benefits. Individuals gain visibility, and it fosters a very positive experience. Team leads get to generate some excitement out of regular work hours. By soliciting ideas from the rank-and-file staff, you can develop a continuous improvement program that links innovation with the company’s digital transformation goals. We’ve seen it happen at so many organizations; there’s no reason it can’t happen at your company.


For more inspiration on how to create and lead an innovation culture, check out this Q&A: Tech entrepreneur Josh Linkner on liberating innovation.