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cartoon: idea management web has lots of ideas, but only three have been implemented 

Feel Good Pseudo-Innovation

The other day, I was talking to a innovation manager about a suggestion scheme project her company was working on. It was flawed in a number of ways and as I explained why some of these things were not working or would not work and what they should be doing, I was surprised at her indifference to results. I had a sneaking suspicion and said, “of course it depends on what you are trying to do. If you want to identify and develop potential innovations, possibly even breakthrough innovations, you are going to run into some problems. But if your aim is to generate a lot of ideas, create some publicity and make people feel good about sharing ideas, your model will probably work just fine.”

She confessed that they were more interested in publicity, lots of ideas and the feel good factor. Of course if they had some good ideas, that would be great. But they were only expecting incremental improvement ideas.

That attitude may seem silly. Indeed, it does to me on a professional level. Why go to the expense and trouble of setting up and maintaining an innovation initiative if the purpose is just to make people feel good? After giving the matter some thought, I believe that there are several reasons why an innovation initiative might focus more on making people feel good than on innovating:

While these reasons have nothing to do with innovation, they are logical arguments for running a feel good innovation action.

Feel Good Crowdsourcing

The best known feel good innovation initiatives are the big crowdsourcing web sites set up by large business to consumer (B2C) companies to capture ideas from the public. These sites generally ask for ideas, do not indicate any particular foci, encourage people to comment on each others’ ideas and allow people to vote on ideas. While such sites boast of the number of ideas submitted, they are vague about how many are actually implemented. Typical ideas are “Serve cinnamon doughnuts in your coffee shops” and “Provide lap-tops with Ubunto Linux pre-installed [just like many other companies already do].” Nice, but nothing to inspire Clay Christensen to write another book on disruptive innovation.

On the other hand, these sites boast tens of thousands of ideas and hundreds of thousands of users. Those results sound impressive and mean hundreds of thousands of people feel involved in these companies' crowdsourcing initiatives. Better still, the team responsible for the crowdsourcing initiative have some good numbers to share with management. That surely feels marvellous. If there is anything senior management likes, it is good numbers.

Moreover, most ideas have at least a few “thumbs-up” votes and supportive comments (“Yes, I really like cinnamon doughnuts too!”) ensuring that participants feel good about their ideas and their participation. Presumably, this also makes them feel good about the company who put up the site.

Even if companies hosting these sites are not really generating innovative ideas or even implementable ideas, they are making customers feel more involved, they are making them feel good and they are generating publicity. Those are good things.

Feel Good Brainstorming

Another popular feel good innovation action is the traditional brainstorm. Most organisations that have experimented with brainstorming have not had much success with it. This is largely because traditional brainstorming does not work very well (see my anticonventional thinking method to learn why not). Nevertheless, these same organisations continue to run brainstorming activities that generate few ideas, most of which are incremental improvements. Why is this? Perhaps it is to make people feel good.

Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works (which I have not read, I should note) said in an interview in Barns and Noble Review. “I think the allure of brainstorming is inseparable from the fact that it feels good. A group of people are put together in a room and told to free-associate, with no criticism allowed. (The imagination is meek and shy - if it's worried about being criticized it will clam up.) Before long, the whiteboard is filled with ideas. Everybody has contributed; nobody has been criticized.” Wow! I felt good just reading that quote. Surely the brainstormers felt even better!

In short traditional brainstorming is not terribly effective from a creativity and innovation perspective, but it does make participants feel good. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Is Feel Good Innovation Bad?

Are innovation initiatives that are designed to make people feel good a bad thing? Not at all! Making employees, business partners and customers feel clever, creative and a part of your innovation process is probably an excellent thing. I am not a marketing expert, but I would assume it would build up brand-loyalty and very possibly word of mouth publicity (“I told them they should sell cinnamon doughnuts and now they do! Try them!!”). Employees who feel good about working for you and who feel that their ideas are listened to will be happier than employees who feel otherwise.

The only real danger is that people may come to suspect that you are only trying to make them feel good and do not really care about their ideas. Indeed, you see this happening from time to time on some of the big crowdsourcing idea repositories. “I think [company] should do something with all the ideas here!” – However, such suggestions generally get lots of thumbs-up and positive comments. So maybe even in their deception, such feel good suggestion schemes work!

What Do You Want?

So, if you are planning an innovation initiative for your company, you need to ask yourself about the purpose. Do you aim simply to make people feel good and feel like they are participating? Or do you really want to innovate? If your aim is to make people feel good, then crowdsourcing suggestion schemes, idea management and brainstorming are easy to implement and great for positive feelings.

However, if your really want to innovate, you will need to work harder and explore more effective innovation methods.


One final and very important note! While it is clear that many crowdsourcing suggestion schemes are more about making people feel good than about supporting innovation, this is far from true of all open innovation initiatives. Some are intelligently designed with the aim to capture focused ideas that potentially solve specific business problems. Likewise, brainstorming is a very loose term that is used for all kinds of idea generation exercises. A good facilitator, who understands the weaknesses of traditional brainstorming, can run sessions that provide truly creative solutions to problems.

Want to Discuss This With Me?

If so, get in touch. I'd love to chat about it with you!

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




My other web projects

My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey