Innovative organizations set up systems to capture and nurture good ideas to both solve problems and encourage even more innovative thinking—a cycle where innovation stimulates even more innovation. The following advice is drawn from a review of numerous references and case studies on idea capture and nurturing systems.1-7
Understand that the goals of capturing and nurturing ideas are to address specific problems and to create an organizational culture of innovation.
Don't be afraid to direct the focus on specific problems, while also allowing ideas on any topic. It is a myth that setting specific targets for innovation stifles creativity.8,9 When formal leaders encourage ideas on specific, focused topics, they signal the importance of the topic and their readiness to listen. This, in turn, encourages people with ideas to speak up.
It is also useful to call for ideas to meet targets that might sound impossible on first hearing—so-called "stretch goals"—as these often encourage more radical thinking. Here's an example of a stretch goal: "This month, we are specifically looking for ideas that would enable primary care teams to serve patient panels of 5000 patients per physician rather than the normal panel size of 1000 to 2000 patients per physician."
Scan broadly for ideas from within and outside your organization and industry.
While individuals directly involved in a specific issue may have many good ideas, there is no need to limit idea generation. Consider involving people from other departments who might provide a fresh perspective. Search the literature and idea exchanges (including AHRQ's Health Care Innovations Exchange) for insight as to how others within health care have approached similar issues. Look across settings within health care. For example, a hospital team might learn something from what is considered common practice in a primary care clinic or dental practice, and vice versa.
Further, an innovative approach might emerge by reframing the issue and seeing what concepts and approaches other industries use in analogous situations.
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Create connections among people.
The best knowledge management systems make it easy for idea generators and implementers to interact with one another. This interaction might involve an informal chat with colleagues within the organization, e-mail or phone conversations with people outside the organization, or travel to conferences or site visits.5-7 The social system recognition that results from these interactions is also a powerful reward for idea generators and helps stimulate even more good ideas.
Make it easy to submit an idea.
Complicated forms (paper or computer-based) that require more than 6-7 items, or more than about 15 minutes for the submitter to complete, will reduce the number of ideas submitted. Focus on capturing a few compelling details, along with contact information, so that those who want more can request the information they need.
Promptly acknowledge every idea submitted.
Successful idea capture and nurturing systems are supported by policies and processes that require leaders to acknowledge every idea submitted and provide initial feedback to the submitter within some reasonable timeframe (for example, one week). Most people can understand if their idea cannot be acted upon if the reasons are clear and their contribution is recognized.
Capture some supporting evidence for each idea.
While it should be easy for ideas to get into the system, it is also important to provide some screening criteria so people will not think that the system is simply "full of crazy ideas." The evidence for an idea does not need to be a full-blown research project. For example, a logical explanation of why something should work, a simple quality improvement cycle, a believable anecdotal report of success, or a pilot study with a few measurements are indications that the idea has been thought out.
For example, the reason that Toyota (the automobile manufacturer) is able to implement 96 percent of the ideas submitted by employees is that they require some evidence of effectiveness before an idea is even accepted into the system (and still, they manage an astounding 2 million ideas submitted annually, about 40 per employee).1
Require managers and clinical leaders to demonstrate use of the system.
Industrial organizations that invest in idea capture and nurturing systems must believe in their investment enough to demand that these systems be productively utilized.10 Consider requiring that managers and clinical leaders demonstrate in annual performance appraisals that they have implemented at least some of the ideas adapted from the idea system. Or consider requiring that proposals for resources demonstrate a search for and critical analysis of ideas that have worked elsewhere.
Publicize ideas that have been successfully implemented.
One of the most important things that leaders can do to nurture and stimulate innovation is to show that ideas are actually being implemented and are leading to positive change in the organization. Along with systems to capture ideas, create systems to capture the stories of how ideas have evolved into meaningful changes in the organization. Then use a variety of communication opportunities (such as internal newspapers and presentations) to broadcast the message that innovation is both desirable and happening.
Celebration is important to the growth and maintenance of organizational culture.11 Consider a periodic award program, poster session, or symposium to highlight the use of innovative ideas within the organization. "Walk-arounds," where leaders take the time to go out into the workplace to express appreciation in a personal way to individuals and groups that generate and implement ideas, create a positive "social buzz." Consider special recognition for teams who adapt and spread ideas from outside the organization (e.g., an award for "Stealing Shamelessly").12
1 Yasuda Y. 40 years, 20 million ideas: the Toyota suggestion system. Cambridge, MA: Productivity Press; 1991
2 Girardelli D. A model of high-performance suggestion systems. International Communication Association 2006 October 5.
3 Nonaka I. The knowledge-creating company. Harvard Business Review 1991;69(6):96-104.
4 Starbuck WH. Learning by knowledge intensive firms. In: Cohen MD, Sproull LS, editors. Organizational learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; 1996. p. 484-515.
5 Davenport TH, Prusak L. Working knowledge: how organizations manage what they know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press; 2000.
6 Dixon NM. Common knowledge: how companies thrive by sharing what they know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press; 2000.
7 O'Dell C, Grayson CJ. If only we knew what we know: the transfer of internal knowledge and best practice. New York: Free Press; 1998.
8 Lucier CE, Torsilieri JD. Why knowledge programs fail: a CEO's guide to managing learning. In: Cortada JW, Woods JA, editors. The knowledge management yearbook 1999-2000. Boston, MA: Butterworth Heinmann; 1999.
9 Robinson AG, Stern S. Corporate creativity: how innovation and improvement actually happen. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; 1997.
10 Lowe J. Jack Welch speaks: wisdom from the world's greatest business leader. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 1998.
11 Deal TE, Key MK. Corporate celebration: play, purpose and profit at work. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler; 1998.
12 Tallman K, King H, Huberman AK. Stealing shamelessly: practice transfer success factors. The Permanente Journal 2005;9(4):52-4.