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?