Innovation by popular opinion – evolutionary or revolutionary?

What do Best Buy, Starbucks and Barack Obama all have in common? They’ve all launched sites designed to solicit customer ideas for their business and policies. (At least Obama used to have this capability on the transition site Change.gov. I can’t seem to find the ability on WhiteHouse.gov.) MyStarbucksIdea.com has been around for over a year, and Best Buy’s Idea X just launched. Given my recent post on how defending the status quo kills companies, I wondered if this sort of solution would help companies find that next great revolutionary idea to transform the company.

I really like this idea as a way to generate some fresh new ideas that come from the people being served by a business. And there are some very good ideas on the new Best Buy site; ideas that range from improvements to their Reward Zone program to ways for customers to register for help in busier stores. I love that customers have this ability to submit their ideas, and I love that Best Buy and Starbucks are using open brand techniques and letting all ideas be shown publicly, even when they aren’t always complimentary.

But, man, what a task to review all of those ideas! As a way of helping to sift through the ideas, each of these sites has a voting mechanism ostensibly designed to move the best ideas to the top.Or at least the most popular ideas.


So, will this concept help companies find that next great revolutionary idea for their businesses? 

I’m not so sure. My experience is that popular voting is a pretty good way to find evolutionary ideas, but it doesn’t work as well for revolutionary ideas. This is because most people tend to gravitate towards incremental improvements to concepts already familiar to them and have trouble visualizing radically new concepts.

To be clear, I’m not in any way knocking these systems or the idea of the popular vote. I love that Best Buy and Starbucks are reaching out to their customers and trying to find ways to improve their businesses by better meeting their customers’ needs and expectations, and my guess is they’re not looking for revolutionary ideas via this mechanism. (Although, given both company’s solid histories of revolutionary innovations, if they come across a revolutionary idea I’m sure they’ll act upon it quickly.)

So, how then do companies find revolutionary ideas?

It seems we often rely on executive brainstorming sessions. Those sessions almost always use the same technique (i.e. generate lots of ideas and vote on your favorites) and I find those techniques are exactly the reason they usually fail to produce transformational ideas. Usually, there aren’t a lot of guidelines issued prior to the session — by design — and the problems to be solved are usually not well-defined and agreed upon. As a result, the most out-of-the-box ideas tend to lack votes and end up in the trash heap.

I recently read a Harvard Business Review article that promoted a different approach. Instead of coming up with random ideas on the fly, the approach is to spend time garnering support with individuals from a variety of functional areas prior to submission of the idea. Feedback is incorporated and the idea is able to develop more fully. Only once it’s gone through some development is an idea submitted for review by executive decision makers.

How different would these strategy brainstorming sessions be if the ideas had some development before they were suggested? Of course, radical ideas that cause transformational change will still meet resistance from all who benefit from the status quo, particularly when those revolutionary ideas are, almost by their nature, not likely to produce immediate financial results. This is the primary issue address by Clayton M. Christensen in his excellent book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen advocates creating entirely separate groups or even funding new start-up companies as a way to incubate these new strategies while they develop. This incubation approach is much the way many e-commerce organizations got their start, and I think it worked in many ways. Of course, now the new dilemma is how to bring it all back together with the parent companies. (Sigh) Nothing’s easy.

I hope more companies will follow Best Buy’s and Starbucks’ leads in opening their brands to customer ideas and public feedback. I look forward to the many great ideas I’m sure will come from it. I hope also that we can all find some techniques to deliver some really great revolutionary ideas to keep our companies vibrant and relevant for a long time to come.

What do you think? Do you have any great brainstorming techniques to share? Have you seen new ideas come to life in your company?



4 Comments

  • By Alex Bernstein, July 23, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    Interesting to see some of the big boys playing in the innovation sandbox. Personally I agree with Seth Godin that “ideas are worthless” and that execution is everything.
    As an “incubator of record” we are often pulled in to play the official role of “outsider” and help create and execute innovative new ideas for big slow moving corporate clients.
    While the modern day suggestion box is moving to the digital format, you are right to point out that it’s not much more than an open brainstorm if it’s not tied to real people inside the company that can make things happen. The impact will only happen if the best ideas are turned into actionable plans with a strong champion to make them come to life.
    Just posted a deck on the topic, which is featured on the front page of Slideshare today. Peep it out. http://tinyurl.com/l9jjp8
    Glad to see all that time inside the belly of a big corporation hasn’t dulled your senses. Keep the smart thinking coming, we need all we can get.

  • By Kevin Ertell, July 24, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    Thanks for your comment, Alex. Thanks especially for the link to your excellent slide presentation. You’ve got some really great thinking in there, and it’s nice to see we’re on the same page. I encourage everyone to take a look through Alex’s deck.

  • By Matt Cushing, July 28, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    The question that immediately comes to my mind is – how many companies need a revolutionary idea versus getting all the evolutionary things right? So many companies are making such great strides in e-commerce that it is difficult for a company that was once in the lead in a given area to stay that way.
    I found this while working at Tower Records where our search and navigation capabilities were quite advanced. However, as search engine companies included more integrated merchandising functionality, we quickly fell behind.
    Table stakes for even competing in the e-commerce world keep rising as customers expect more and more. In a time of limited budgets, how does a company decide to undertake a revolutionary project, which I would expect to take longer and cost more as it has never been done before, or focus on taking what others have done and just trying to do it a bit better?
    I’m all for the revolution, but it’s got to be balanced against the needs of maintaining a competitive site. Do you agree or disagree?

  • By Kevin Ertell, July 28, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Matt. I definitely appreciate your point about not abandoning evolution for revolution, and I’m certainly not saying the two are mutually exclusive. I also agree that making a long term decision in a time of limited budgets it extremely difficult and risky. At the same time, no business model can exist forever and managers must constantly examine the model to determine if staying ahead of the competition is going to require a tweaking of the model or a complete overhaul. If a complete overhaul is required, the company could suffer in the short term in order to complete the overhaul.
    I remember a few years back when Tiger Woods, who was already the best golfer in the world, decided he needed to overhaul his swing. He definitely lost some tournaments for a while before he came back with a roar. It was a gutsy move, but it worked. Businesses have even more on the line than golfers, obviously, and it’s certainly much more complicated to make such a decision and then execute it with a business. Nonetheless, as Alex pointed out in his slide presentation, it’s ultimately innovation or die these days. And as you pointed out, the world is changing so fast that we have less time than ever to adapt.

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