Believe it or not, innovation contests are becoming a legitimized corporate tool for allowing any employee, no matter what their position in the company, no matter where they are located globally, to submit unique solutions to important problems.
It's a great idea to determine if your potential employer has a "contest culture" (or perhaps an "idea clearinghouse").
Before getting into that, here's my standard preamble for this series of "innovative interview" blog posts:
My previous three posts proposed a set of interview questions that assist an intrapreneur in evaluating the innovation culture of a potential employer. Keep in mind that an intrapreneur is an inventor that delivers high-tech ideas in the context of a large corporation.
How does your corporation collect ideas from the global employee pool?
I'm not talking about a "suggestion box" or a "cost efficiency office" that provides employees with an opportunity to suggest ideas that improve the efficiency of their corporation. I'm talking about a well-known, active portal where any employee can submit creative high-tech solutions that address customer needs.
This line of questioning should be augmented with more details about the logistics. Is it a yearly contest with a selected set of winners? It is an ongoing suggestion portal? Who runs the contest? Who reviews ideas? These types of themes lead to a logical next line of questioning.
What technology is used to run the corporate idea contest or portal?
Hopefully it's more than web forms and/or email. These types of web 1.0 technologies tend to hide ideas instead of foster them. Any contest tool should be built on top of web 2.0 technologies (at a minimum). Ideas should be visible to all. Anyone should be able to comment on any idea. Idea tagging should allow for interested intrapreneurs to find related ideas (e.g. show me all ideas that combine "virtualization" with "virus scanning"). Voting for ideas (either thumbs up or thumbs down) is also a great way to rank based on popularity.
Some companies offer "innovation software" that not only enables the submission of ideas but also tracks them if and when they move on to the next levels (e.g. prototyping and/or productization). Spigit is an example of a company that has designed specific software for corporate innovation.
Are contests used by individual business units as part of the development cycle?
If the answer is "yes" to this question, then the corporation is probably has quite a culture of innovation. The best time to run a business unit innovation contest is actually the worst time: right at the end of the product cycle. Developers have their heads down, pushing the product through quality test. Why interrupt them to run a contest? They are likely to submit a list of very relevant problems that are impacting their ability to provide customers with the right solution in a timely manner.
Field service organizations are a great place to run an innovation contest. They have front-row seats to the customer usage of the product. They know the needs of the customer better than most, and the needs of the customer are the primary driver for innovation. Ask your potential employer about opportunities for the field to submit ideas.
Who does the judging and what are the rewards?
Employees that take the time to submit an idea deserve two things: attention and feedback. Their ideas deserve careful consideration (e.g. consistent and responsible judging), and concise responses.
The academic world has a "peer review" model for judging papers and ideas. These are commonly used for idea contests. The popular vote is another method of determining which ideas that are most valued by an organization. More and more companies are coming to the realization, however, that the combination of formal reviews and peer voting work quite well. At my corporation (EMC) Stu Miniman has written excellent posts on this topic.
What's the best type of reward? Well, cash is always appreciated! But more often than not, the long term pursuit and collaboration on an employee's idea provides the most satisfaction. Corporate sponsorship (and funding) of ideas works well, along with providing "permission" for interested collaborators to pursue ideas (or go ahead and do it without permission, which I highly encourage!).
Can you give me an example of a productized idea?
This is where the rubber meets the road. Corporations with innovation contests that produce actual products are a great place to be. If you join the company, you will want to make sure that you have a forum to be heard, even before you get a chance to prove yourself.
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