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Bringing structure to the idea generation and implementation process

by Charlie Widdows, on 12 May 2020 6 min read

Aimee Skinner

Structuring the idea generation and development process to help innovation flourish is a real challenge. In this post, Aimee Skinner at Bristol Water shares their unique approach.

According to our Innovation Blockers report, structuring the idea generation and development process is regarded as one of the biggest blockers to innovation.

The problem is there’s no one way of doing this. What you need and how you run innovation operations can depend on the size of your business, the expertise of your employees, the type of service/product you’re offering and whether your team is working from home or not.

On the one hand, you want to create a structure that encourages the flow of innovation. But on the other, you don’t want to receive an array of counterproductive ideas on new ways of working that jeopardise productivity and the credibility of your change management processes.

To start the conversation, Bristol Water’s Innovation Manager, Aimee Skinner has kindly shared her approach.

Unsolicited vs unrestricted innovation structures

When it comes to businesses structuring the way it develops new ways of working, they have two choices. They either allow employees to put in their two pence, otherwise known as an unrestricted structure, or keep the idea generation aspect unsolicited whereby suggestions aren’t invited.

As to deciding which approach is more beneficial is up for debate. An unsolicited structure can create a narrow-minded approach within business operations, but it will eradicate an influx of poor suggestions which you could get with an unrestricted structure. However, closing the doors to any outside input can restrict growth.

At Bristol Water, Aimee Skinner and her team use an unrestricted structure via a scheme called ‘Brainwaves’. The idea is that it welcomes a variety of suggestions – from smaller suggestions that you maybe wouldn’t class as ‘innovation’ to the bigger “eureka” ideas that have the potential to fundamentally change the way they work.

“The whole scale that we operate across and the whole point for the company is that it's completely open. Anybody can submit anything. We do offer objectives that we want people to submit against to ensure ideas are focused on addressing the problems that we face as a company.

“But it is open and diplomatic. People can choose to comment on ideas and like them, as well as start conversations.”

Encouraging the unreasonable and conducting an open forum for employees to submit their ideas is key to promoting innovation. Triggering discussions and thinking beyond the realms of realism is important. Implementing a “no idea is a bad idea” philosophy forces people to think unrealistically and then challenge themselves to try and defy all logic to turn it into a reality.

“We rarely suddenly have an epiphany or instant lightbulb moment that’s associated with innovation,” Aimee says. “What actually happens is that it takes time to manifest. All the interactions and conversations we have over time brew in the background and then we start to see truly innovative ideas forming.

“I think this makes innovation feel more achievable and is exactly why we give everybody at Bristol Water the opportunity to share their ideas via Brainwaves. Together, using an unrestricted approach, we create the environment to challenge, develop, and build on ideas when they arise, and form them into new ways of working.”

Structuring the idea generation and development process

An unrestrictive approach to innovation is about exploring the unknown and finding new ways of working and creating collectively. However, to successfully do this, businesses need to create a structure where it’s easier for leadership to support initiatives and for employees to participate.

Every successful idea generation and development process must also be flexible and allow for a natural flow of ideas. Enforce too much structure into the innovation process and it can stunt the natural flow of ideas. It’s a matter of striking a balance.

Aimee says their awards team, consisting of representatives from every area of the business, regularly take the best ideas presented by their employees and use a traffic light system to anonymously mark their merit. After discussing the consensus in greater detail, each idea is then categorised into one of three outcomes.

“The first outcome is saved for the ideas that don’t achieve one of the objectives that we’ve set. These are usually very team-specific and administrative ideas, such as creating a template for a process. For these, we pass the idea back to the individual to say it’s within their control or we’ll share it with the resident team to look into.

“The second outcome is for great innovation ideas we want to take forward. In which case, we’d either go back to the individual and tell them that they’d be a great person to lead it. And that we’ll provide support and help them deal with any blockers or anything they might need to progress the idea. “Or we could say we like the idea, but it could be done using our team with a design sprint approach. We have particular teams that might be better placed to help develop the idea or tell us whether it’s a good idea or not.

“The final outcome is for any ideas that don’t fall under administrative or innovation. With these, we go back to the individual with an explanation as to why we can’t take it forward. I think this structure works because it’s simple. A lot of businesses try to over-complicate their approach to innovation structure. We like to assemble a list of ideas and get people from across the business all in a room to discuss these in greater detail.

Importantly, we reward the idea, not the outcome – if it’s a good idea, whether we can take it forward or not, the individual can be rewarded. This encourages participation and means we have more opportunity to find those true innovations.

Developing a culture of innovation and creativity

Traditionally, when people think of innovation, they think of tech. They think about something tangible that you can see, such as a product. However, for some businesses, there isn’t necessarily a new product or service that changes the way we do things. This is creating a debate around what innovation really is.

Aimee believes that in order to arrive at those innovative moments within a business, it’s important to develop a culture which thrives in helping one another and is committed to growth.

This all starts with getting employees talking. A successful innovation culture addresses how a business does things, however big or small. So, even tiny changes to the way things are done can initiate change and bear fruit.

“Innovation is about being creative. It can come from anywhere, from anyone, at any time. On our website, we publicise that We want to see those bold, big innovations that fundamentally change the way that we do something and show that we’re rethinking an area. But we’re also looking for those small incremental improvements that help us change. And they might not seem like an innovation at the time, but combined, and worked up over time can deeply change the way that we behave and the way we work.

“While our number one priority is clean, fresh drinking water for our 1.2 million customers, there are always opportunities to improve the way we do things. There are a lot of great employees behind the whole operation and we think it’s important to recognise this by maintaining existing ways of working and implementing new ones too.”

Amidst COVID-19, Bristol Water has been working hard on helping keep their employees motivated, happy and providing a quality service to the community.

“Internally, we have something called a recognition scheme that happens throughout the year. It's a chance for employees to nominate a colleague who has gone above and beyond their job role. This is a time to reflect on everything we’ve done and reward those exceptional individuals. Execs are creating video updates for us to watch amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While employees are encouraged to submit some of the great stuff that they’re doing via the internal news feed, which has included the arrival of new babies, photographs, fundraising and even the hatching of baby chickens. This is giving people a positive focus.

“There’s been a lot of work around wellbeing too. Our HR Team are creating guides to help other employees make the most of working from home. The topics aren’t about policy, it's nice basic stuff helping people stay productive and positive.

“Externally, Bristol Water has launched the local hero campaign. Each month, we give money to local charities in our supply area, which we select from a list of nominations put forward by the community. This month we’ve included a specific “heroes” campaign to give back to those individuals that are making a difference during Covid-19. In addition, we’ve introduced our NHS water rebate, and we’ve played a vital role in the South West NHS nightingale hospital”

While this approach might not be classed as innovation in the conventional sense, getting people talking and making them feel valued goes a long way towards establishing an open culture in the business. In turn, this plays an integral part in helping employees thrive, get creative and develop new innovative ideas in the future.

Learning never stops

Thanks to Aimee for speaking to us and sharing her insight on structuring idea generation and development processes. You can find more cutting-edge methods of working and ways to transform your change management process in our Innovation Blockers report.

Or if you’re keen to learn how Solverboard can help your business innovate, sign up for early access.

Topics:Idea ManagementBusiness StrategyChange & Transformation