Selecting Ideas 3: What’s the best way to do it?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

One thing that distinguishes successful organisations from those with lesser rates of growth is the adoption of an innovation process. It is not so important what the process is, as long as it exists.

Part of that process is selecting which ideas to develop. I often hear people in the sector saying that they have no shortage of ideas but express frustration at how none come to fruition. This may be because the ideas are not good quality or do not fit with the strategic mission (see earlier blog posts on this). Alternatively it may be due to a lack of focus and having no clear process for selecting ideas worth investing in. Read on to find out how two organisations filter and gain from the insights of the most recent Innovation Group LIVE!
Innovation Group LIVE! on 7 December looked at Oxfam and Groundwork’s very different  approaches to filtering for the best ideas.  You can read about Oxfam’s approach, see Iram’s dynamic presentation and hear about Graham Duxbury’s thoughts on selection – slides and short film to follow.

The Groundwork approach is consultative and flexible involving lots of communication with local groups. It can perhaps be summed up by saying “If there is a market for it Just Do It!”  Oxfam had a more structured process where many ideas are generated and evaluated once a year and, after detailed analysis and market research, selected projects are taken forward.  The difference in the approaches shows that there is no ‘right answer’ for what you should do. What you should do is what works for your organisation.
However there were some common themes:

  • Senior buy-in, sponsorship and understanding is essential
  • Flexible relevant criteria for assessing ideas allows objective assessment
  • Thorough understanding of the environment both internal and external allows a good grasp of what is likely to be successful
  • The idea needs to be supported by a strong business case and real insights about what will be commercially viable
  • It is valuable to have someone from outside come in and challenge ideas

I asked members of Innovation Group LIVE! for their own insights from the session – here they are:

On Culture

  • Extending lunch breaks at staff conferences and away days gives people a chance to have more ideas
  • A seed fund for new ideas frees people up to develop ideas that may fall outside their usual remit
  • Making time for cross organisation ideas generating is important to support a culture of innovation but follow-up and momentum is key
  • You need to fertilize the strawberry field to allow ideas to spread
  • A one size fits all process won’t work – need to provide lots of choice and opportunities to share and celebrate
  • You need to provide a space for innovation and somewhere for this to feed into – a process to take forward new ideas
  • Have an ideas champion – someone to encourage people to come forward with ideas and an initial sounding board
  • Facilitate innovation as a process rather than owning and directing ideas centrally
  • Fostering a culture of innovation is vital- it’s required throughout the organisation and definitely needed long term
  • The culture is more important than the process because  if the culture is not ready for the process it will not take hold – it’s easier to fit the process to the culture than vice versa

On Selection

  • Basic test for a new idea: “Will someone pay for it?”
  • Identify idea owners to own and develop ideas within relevant areas of the organisation
  • Use high-level staff board to judge ideas through a stage-gate process
  • There is no one right way of filtering ideas: the culture of your organisation will make a big difference (along with resource availability)
  • After generating a lot of ideas make sure you score and vote on them as soon as possible and have a clear idea of viable ideas before losing momentum
  • The agreement of the criteria for the ideas filter makes it more objective and clear and will prevent ideas getting too developed or stopped by a senior staff member who does not agree
  • Add in some kind of scoring system to your ‘gut instinct’ when selecting ideas
  • Get key staff to put forward a business case for the ideas that they want to drive forward but agree criteria for business case
  • Have an external person challenge ideas – no matter how good you think an idea is internally, what about your customers/ stakeholders?
  • Create a framework for selecting ideas with clear guidance on key drivers for success i.e. external benchmarks BUT give people choice in using the framework – don’t enforce it – if it works well it will gradually spread an become integrated

On Impact

(NB The Innovation Group LIVE! event in February focuses on Innovation Impact)

  • Measure the number of ideas generated rather than those that are successful in order to identify innovation impact
  • Evidencing impact is a key criteria for filtering – think how university research departments can help accessing research funding/ research expertise – also Third Sector Research Centre

Katherine William-Powlett’s blog

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