THE BLOG
04/17/2013 12:53 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Suggestions for Improving the Employee Suggestion Box

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Employee suggestion programs go way back -- I'm sure there are still some old-fashioned suggestion boxes still around. Regardless of the collection method, employees are still your best sources for innovative ideas.

Encouraging today's workers to focus on innovation -- and to bring their ideas forward -- requires, yes, innovative approaches from an organization's leaders. The success of your innovation programs depends much on how you engage the people whose ideas you are soliciting.

While every organization is different in terms of culture and mission, here are some things you should consider when putting together an innovation program:

Research It
There's only one way to know if your aspirations for an innovation-generating program will work: Ask. Ask the employees. Ask their supervisors. Ask your peers. Ask your supervisor. What do they think about such a program? What would it take to make it successful?

If you have internal social media platforms, consider using them in your research. Ask the question, then participate in and learn from the conversation.

And benchmark. See what other companies are doing. Learn from their successes and mistakes.

Identify the Purpose and Objectives
Just posting an idea program onto a website accompanied by bureaucratic boilerplate won't get you very far. Explain exactly what you want to accomplish, whether it's solving a problem or improving a process.

You can even be more specific. Are you trying to improve sales, ROI, efficiency, reduce costs? Require innovation submissions to show how their proposals will achieve those ends.

Another approach: Focus on "low-hanging fruit" problems rather than big projects, as indicated by Harvard Business School researchers Anita L. Tucker and Sara J. Singer. See: Employee-Suggestion Programs that Work.

Let the Innovators Innovate
If a person or team takes the time to put together a winning proposal, they should be given the chance to put it into play. It's a commitment that should be kept.

This can be a sticky point, depending on the circumstances. Maybe their supervisors have other ideas about what they should be working on. Whatever it takes, though, a way should be found to carve out some time for the innovators to bring their ideas to life.

State the Parameters
In addition to explaining the program nuts-and-bolts, also state the following your communications:

  • Who's in charge of the innovation program? What is their mandate or charter?
  • How long does the program last? It doesn't have to run forever. If you intend for it to have a limited time-span, say it and explain why.
  • What are the ground rules for implementing the innovations?
Make it Transparent Don't shroud everything in secrecy. If at all possible, post the ideas, the innovators' names, and the outcome of the judging. Maybe for competitive or privacy reasons you have to summarize rather than lay everything out. But find some way to keep the organization updated on the status. And be sure to celebrate successes.

Use Independent Judges
Ask independent, outside experts to serve as judges for the innovation entries. People from other companies, a local university -- people with no ties to your organization. This lends tremendous credibility.

With good planning and follow-through, your team will produce innovations that will have people scratching their heads and asking, "Why didn't I think of that?"