Managing Ideas as a Portfolio

Many companies are drawn to large brainstorming events, idea campaigns, and open innovation web forums. Some collect ideas as a continuous process. In both cases, the management and post-processing of ideas is a laborious task. Managing ideas as a portfolio makes this task easier and builds a bridge between innovation and implementation.

The concept of an idea portfolio

An idea portfolio is a method of collecting, scoring and analyzing ideas in a consistent manner. As a technical solution it can be a website that allows its users to post and share ideas and rank them according to predefined criteria. The collected information is stored in a database from which it can be retrieved for analysis and post-processing.

How to get good quality ideas

An idea portfolio can retrieve information from both internal and external sources. However, how you define what kind of ideas you are looking for is not irrelevant.

Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet, and Louis Barsoux recently conducted a three-year study of group innovation practices in 13 leading global companies. Their findings revealed that online innovation forums yield the best results when the problem is well defined and narrow. Conceptual questions don’t work: e.g. “We are looking for radical new approaches to make our engineering department more customer-oriented — any ideas?”

You must provide some raw material for people to latch to. An analogy, for example, could do the trick: “How could we make our engineering department more like your favorite restaurant?” Technical questions that focus on certain tasks in a process or specific uses of a product are also a good choice.

The study also indicated that people are not very keen on building upon other people’s ideas on web forums. In-person brainstorming is better suited for that. Our own experiences support that view. Furthermore, it is easier to get people to take part in a time-limited campaign than asking them to regularly revisit a forum.

Idea management needs a system

In 2006 IBM launched a 72-hour Innovation Jam to uncover new business opportunities. The online campaign attracted 57,000 visitors – employees, clients, and partners – and produced 30,000 posts. Even much smaller companies can generate hundreds of ideas during similar events. But without a proper system in place, finding the best ideas from a large mass is time-consuming.

The experience of UBS Investment Bank’s Idea Exchange illustrates the challenge. As one of their managers put it: “Preliminary sorting, then scoring and giving feedback on such a large number of ideas took a huge amount of time and effort by category owners and subject matter experts. The ideas coming through were good, but if we are to do it again we need a repeatable, dashboard-style reporting system for quantifying results and keeping the momentum going.”

Our client’s experiment

In 2010 I organized an idea campaign for a professional services organization. They invited their staff of 300 to the online event and asked them to generate ideas on how to support their clients’ sustainability efforts. The outcome was over 120 ideas. A team of experts chose 20 that they considered to be the best for voting.

All employees participated in the voting process. Finally, the three ideas that received the most votes were awarded. The organization not only gave the winning employees recognition, but they also got resources for working out solutions from the ideas. Another result of the campaign was a database of categorized and evaluated ideas that my client could use in the future. Based on the positive feedback, they are now considering involving customers and partners in future campaigns.

For the event we used our own online tool. It allows the attendees to post their ideas on a simple, but visual form, and see what others have posted. Attendees can then vote on ideas or evaluate them, e.g. based on business potential and ease of implementation. As a result, the tool creates online charts for analyzing the results.

Turning ideas into successful projects

As “bottom-up” ideation is becoming increasingly popular, critics argue that formal executive screening could hamper innovation. There are examples of great ideas that the top management rejected at first. However, Birkinshaw, Bouquet, and Barsoux claim that, “at some point all these innovations were picked up and then prioritized by top management. Successful innovations, in other words, need both bottom-up and top-down effort, and very often the link is not made.”

Once you have the ideas categorized, ranked, and analyzed according to your portfolio criteria you can select the ones that are worth pursuing. A feasible idea offers a desirable solution to a compelling problem. If you can describe the value, costs, and risks of implementing the solution, you have a business case.

A business case study should use the same evaluation criteria as the project portfolio of the organization. That way the top management can see how well the proposed project serves the strategy of the company. When you are able to connect idea generation with project portfolio management you can be confident that your organization is focusing on the right things.