Is Your Suggestion Box Killing New Ideas?

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: A Simple Way to Liberate Organizational Creativity by Bryan Mattimore author of "Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs."

Is Your Suggestion Box Killing New Ideas?

The president of an American manufacturing company gave my innovation consulting firm, The Growth Engine Co., what at first seemed like an impossible challenge.

"I want the hourly workers on our production line to generate innovative ideas for cutting costs or even growing the business, " said the president, "but I don't have the luxury of doing brainstorming sessions and taking them off the line for even a half hour. Got any suggestions?"

We wondered if we could invent a new kind of suggestion box program workers could contribute to when not "on the clock?"

We also knew, and were worried, that typical suggestion box programs – with a few exceptions (i.e. Dart Industries, Frito-Lay, and Toyota ) – have been marginally successful at best, and more often than not, total failures.

Suggestion box programs fail not because of a lack of initial employee interest or enthusiasm. They fail because the process for managing and following up on the submitted ideas isn't as rigorous as it needs to be. ALL submitted ideas have to be conscientiously – and consistently – vetted. Workers need to know that the time they spend thinking of business improvements will be taken seriously. Otherwise, the number and quality of suggested ideas declines rapidly.

As we thought about how to reinvent the suggestion box, we realized that another of its shortcomings is that – unlike a group brainstorming session – there is no mechanism for improving or building on ideas. Each idea enters the black hole of the suggestion box and receives little or no further input from coworkers. Could we create a kind of "interactive" suggestion box where submitted ideas could be easily and efficiently built on by others?" It turned out we could. The ingeniously-simple solution is a personal, team, departmental, and/or organization-wide interactive idea suggestion and idea building tool we call the Whiteboard Technique. The Technique also has the advantage of being able to be used for ANY creative challenge!

Here's how the Whiteboard Technique works: The manager looking for new ideas posts a blank whiteboard in a public venue: outside his office, near the water cooler, next to the elevator, the cafeteria, wherever. Next he decides on a creative challenge, and writes the challenge in the center of the whiteboard. The challenge could be anything from how to cut manufacturing costs or invent new products, make work more fun, or create new marketing promotions. Then the manager and his coworkers, over a pre-determined time – usually seven to ten days – write down ideas on the whiteboard. These "ideas" could also include creative thought starters, questions, drawings, wishes, areas to explore, and interesting factoids relevant to the creative challenge. Each successive day, co-workers are encouraged to add new creative thoughts and ideas to the whiteboard.

We have discovered that besides the wonderful "interactive" building of the ideas by a team, an advantage the Whiteboard Technique has over even traditional brainstorming sessions is creative "soak time." In seven to ten days, new connections will be made and innovative new ideas will be inspired by all the rich stimuli posted on the whiteboard. Time allows the wonderful pattern-finding, idea-combining ability of the human mind to work its magic.

After the allotted seven to ten days, the ideas on the whiteboard are summarized, and recommendations are then made to senior management as to which ideas should be pursued further. The output from the whiteboard can also be used as creative fodder for an in-person team ideation session.

A new challenge is then posted on a blank whiteboard, and the process is begun again.

The Whiteboard Technique is a simple and extremely efficient way to liberate organizational creativity. But don't let its simplicity fool you. Many of our clients, including Fortune 500 companies, have achieved extraordinary results with it.

So, how did the Whiteboard Technique work for our manufacturing client? Gangbusters! The first time it was used was to address a new product manufacturing challenge that a special task force of senior engineers had not solved after several months of effort. The guys on the shop floor generated two patentable ideas in fewer than seven days!

Bryan Mattimore is the author of "Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs" and is one of America's top experts in applied creativity, ideation facilitation and innovation management. His bestselling book, 99% Inspiration: A Real World Guide to Business Creativity was selected as the American Management Association's membership book of the year. His articles on applied creativity have appeared in dozens of magazines including Advertising Age, Reader's Digest, The Futurist, Omni and Success. He has successfully facilitated more than 1, 500 business and marketing ideation sessions for clients, including Sony , DKNY, Wyeth , Unilever , IBM , Honeywell , Pepsi , Centrum, Dove, Crayola, Bauer, Ford , the City of New York, and Craftsman.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks