“The key is to pick the things that you think are really important and then focus on them like a laser.” –Jeff Bezos, founder and president of Amazon.com

Of all the ways to discover new ideas, the Walt Disney Company, during the Eisner years, had one of the most unconventional methods. Modeled after a 1970s television show, Disney’s “Gong Show” was a huge hit with rank-and-file employees. Three times a year, Eisner and two of his top lieutenants would spend a day listening to anyone — secretaries, set designers, theme park employees — who wanted to pitch an idea. Up to 40 people were allowed to act, present, or imitate their idea until a loud gong signaled that time was up. Then, after all the ideas were aired, Eisner and his managers would discuss each one and make a decision.

A little unorthodox, yes, but it worked amazingly well. According to Peter Schneider, Disney’s president of features at the time, most of Disney’s animated films originated from these sessions, as did the idea of ​​Disney’s retail stores. Most organizations don’t invite ideas with such flair. They also don’t give instant feedback or make quick yes or no decisions. “In most companies there is no obvious strategy for selecting or even evaluating ideas,” concludes the American Management Association’s survey of 1,356 global managers. Nearly half (48%) of respondents reported that their companies “do not have a standard policy for evaluating ideas.” The next most common response? Some 17% said they use an “independent review and evaluation process,” while 15% said “ideas were evaluated by the manager of the unit where the idea was proposed.”

An effective selection process connects your “idea funnel” with your “idea pipeline.” Without it, this victory is haphazard, hierarchical, and daunting for would-be innovators.

Advantages of a Robust Selection Process

Working with companies just beginning their innovation journey, I often hear managers say that they have “too many ideas, not too few.” How can you have too many good ideas, I’ll ask. Upon further discussion, what often becomes clear is that they have too many half-baked incremental ideas lying around that aren’t going anywhere quickly. “We never seem to kill an idea” is a comment I often hear. What this indicates is that there is no mechanism, no review board or committee, to filter, rank, reject, encourage, prioritize, and ultimately “green light” ideas. As Yogi Berra would say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”

It takes 80 to 100 raw ideas to find one or two that are promising enough to pursue. So the task of the selection team is to identify one or two, but to do so without demoralizing those whose ideas are not accepted. The selection team serves not only as an evaluation body, but also as a teaching vehicle. At Disney, regular employees overcame shyness and fear of rejection to go to the boss and sell their ideas. Why? Because they knew they would get a fair, albeit brief, hearing and at least some honest feedback on why their idea didn’t get selected. When employees see that their ideas will receive a fair hearing, they begin to think of more. At Google, Marissa Mayer and a core team of managers meet several times a week to listen to an endless stream of pitches for new ideas. Googlers have up to five minutes to propose the next GMail, Froogle, Search or Google Earth. If they are shy, they can submit it through the company intranet idea management system. When it comes to selection, there is no one size fits all. Your method just needs to fit your culture and create transparency for potential intracoaches.

Establishing criteria is critical

Most companies never explain in detail the type of ideas they are looking for, so their criteria are not clear. Without criteria, all ideas have equal value, leading to bottlenecks and battles over resource scarcity and inertia. “People never give up their pet ideas at this company” is another comment I often hear.

Well-conceived criteria, on the other hand, can be used to get people to think big, to stretch them out. GE CEO Jeff Immelt requires each division to produce three Imagination Breakthroughs per year: innovative ideas that will create entirely new business models or product lines with $100 million in gross revenue within three years. Selection criteria are best when they are simple and memorable; they are most valuable when they are widely understood throughout the organization. At WL Gore & Associates, the criteria have been narrowed down to three words: Real, Win, Worth. Is the opportunity real? Can we win with it in the market? Is it worth following?

At Bank of America, selection teams in each business unit evaluate ideas using a highly publicized scorecard. Using a simple score from zero to five, ideas are evaluated on dimensions such as: ease of implementation, associated impact, customer satisfaction, and of course, revenue potential. At one technology company, the criteria were narrowed down to five questions:

1. Does this idea fit into our innovation strategy? 2. Does it create new value for our customers? 3. Is there demand for this innovation? 4. Will management support you? 5. Can the solution be graded?

Getting the right people on the recruiting team

Unfortunately, recruiting teams often end up being made up of people who have little or no contact with customers and market needs, and who have little understanding of innovation. Setting smart criteria is essential, but those who apply the criteria to real ideas must also realize the limits of the criteria, especially for radically innovative ideas. For example, if the criteria questions whether there is “demand for this new product/service”, it might be easy to say no. But groundbreaking innovations (the cell phone, the Post-it Note, the Internet) are always in demand. And customers don’t know what they want until they see it and use it. So while selection criteria are critical, so is having the right people on your selection/review team to make intuitive judgments.

The behavior of the selection team should not discourage the flow of new ideas, but rather should encourage greater participation. Team members must be perceived as unbiased, entrepreneurial (in touch with markets and customer needs), and adept at building ideas for themselves rather than simply judging. Selection meetings should be interactive sessions in which the focus is as much on the questions and unknowns as on the answers, both on the level of passion and commitment, and on the level of experience of the person suggesting the idea. At a large global bank I worked with earlier this decade, we established Magnet Teams in each country where the bank operated to curate ideas and monitor compliance and risk management issues. At one point, we started hearing complaints that these teams acted more like policemen than coaches who helped you follow the rules, but also wanted you to be successful.

Putting a selection process in place won’t guarantee you find innovative ideas, but it will reduce idea gridlock and allow you, as Jeff Bezos puts it, to “pick things that are really important and then focus on them like a laser.” It’s no wonder that brainstorming is fast becoming an established and essential best practice for companies looking to embed innovation into their business.

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