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Why "bottom-up idea" competitions do not work and what to do instead?

Top managers love this: announcing competitions for ideas generation from all levels of the organisation, a.k.a. bottom-up, selecting a few and awarding the winners with an official ceremony.

Middle management: well…not so much.

There are many reasons why creating a campaign for bottom-up ideas has flaws and does not work as well. Here are some:

Wrong KPIs by design. The management team and the competition organising team are searching for quantity. It seems like a failure to receive 10 ideas from a population of 10 000 people. This is why entering the competition is made as simple and as easy as possible. And this is flaw 1. What happens is that employees truly have ideas for improvements, but …wait for it… they are only ideas, thoughts, usually not in their own field, but in someone else’s area of expertise.

Decrease the number of documents to sign, it is outrageous how many of those we do”, “Buy new computers, the ones we have are old and slow, we are embarrassing ourselves in front of clients”, “We want glass bottles, otherwise we will need to drink from plastics and pollute the environment”, “The other companies have such and such products, why don’t we have them?”, “The other companies sponsored this festival, we need to do it too”.

Sounds familiar?

It is the same with football and politics - everyone comments and gives ideas and advise how to do it better, but how much of it is really useful?

And this is where flaw 2 comes in force. With the few ideas that actually reach implementation, if any, the new workload falls on the middle management shoulders and their teams. They are not excused from other tasks and projects, but they also get this new project. As for the rest of the people who generated the bottom-up ideas who did not make the cut - they brush off their pride for not being selected and reconsider whether to bother at all to enter the next round of the competition.

So what to do if bottom-up ideas generation competitions do not work as well as top managers want? Here is a story to paint a solution:

Did you know that if the iPhone idea was entered in such a competition, we most likely would not have had it today. It would fall in the category “that-company-sells-phones-why-are-we-not-doing-the-same” idea. Contrary to the popular belief Steve Jobs resented phones and never wanted to develop or sell such. But it was his engineers who came to him time and time again and finally convinced him to do do it. How come? They did not come with an idea, they came with the solution. They came with a prototype, Jobs did not like it. They came with a second prototype, Jobs did not like it. The story says that it took a long time for jobs to approve... not the idea, but the solution.

So next time you organise a pitch for improvements to your employees, don’t ask them for bottom-up ideas, ask for bottom-up solutions.

When you ask for innovative solutions you are driving people to think beyond a simple idea, but to dwell on “what problems do I or our clients have and what is the solution to this problem?”, a.k.a “problem-solution” framework, familiar to the entrepreneurs. An idea itself is not an innovation or improvement. As idea is just a thought, while innovation is an idea that has reached implementation. When people need to reach implementation they have to do more research, more alignment, more collaboration. They have to have what is called "skin in the game" - again a concept from the entrepreneurship and venture capitalist field.

And this is why in your next bottom-up competition ask not for ideas, but for solutions. Make people work for their ideas by researching them with experts and presenting them as a solution, discussed with the team that will do the implementation. It is best if that is their own team. You will get much less solutions and the numeric KPIs related to volumes of entries will not be “awards-worthy”, but the quality of what you get is more likely to accelerate the growth of your business.

Reference: Adam Grant, "Think again" - for the Steve Jobs story.

Victory Corners, 2022, by Viktoriya V. Blazheva

Doodle by David B.


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