Back from one of my most action-packed weeks ever – five days, five cities, four speaking gigs, then a weekend filled with birthday celebrations and sports.
Finally catching my breath over Monday-morning eggs and coffee, thinking back to this incredible week, and realizing that the most impactful, memorable idea of the week came from a side comment by the CTO of one of the companies whose conference I keynoted.
His story illuminates the magnitude of the human potential being wasted by large organizations.
Bruce Baur is the CTO of Revenue Solutions Inc. His father worked for General Motors as the head of its tool and die division. But his father didn’t make the majority of his income from his salary. He earned more from GM’s suggestion box. At the time, the company had a program that rewarded employees with cash when the ideas they submitted proved valuable. Bruce’s father was an inventor, incessantly curious. He understood the GM business and through nature but surely also nurture, he was on a constant hunt for ways to improve the business.
What I am not talking about here is an ideation event, as is popular today. This program was an ongoing policy.
I am neither talking about a program that offers token prizes and recognition, as most ideation programs I know of do today. Bruce’s father actually earned MORE income from his suggestions than he did from his salary!
My good friend, Thomas Ruiz, has worked at the Swiss bank, UBS, for over a decade now. He remembers in his early days, interns at UBS were on a constant hunt for ideas to make UBS better. UBS had a program similar to GM’s that rewarded employees for valuable ideas. In principle the program gave the idea submitter half of the economic benefit the idea delivered to the firm over the course of a year. Given the scale of UBS, even small ideas could be multiplied over thousands of people to deliver a significant impact. The more creative interns earned more from their ideas than they did from their salaries.
Now, here is the problem. These types of ideation programs disappeared for a while and have reemerged over the last ten years as reduced shadows of their former selves. For the most part, they offer employees plaques and stage-time instead of real money. The corporation reaps most of the benefit while employees get a pat on the back – and employees realize this. They know the game is rigged to the “house’s” benefit. So they hold back their best ideas or, worse yet, continue resigned to not even LOOK for better approaches.
Today’s ideation programs are also technology driven rather than cultural. There are many great technologies out there today – Imaginatik and IBM’s InnovationJam are two of my favorite. But too often such technologies win the spotlight rather than the ideators. Companies talk about the number of ideas submitted, the adoption of the technology, the sophisticated algorithms used to assess the ideas. This is like worshiping YouTube rather than the amazing YouTubers who actually create content. This is like celebrating the movie projector rather than the writers, directors, and actors that create compelling stories with which to fill it. They push the human into the background. Humans become the faceless oarsmen straining below deck. We soon realize we are the butt of a joke … that everyone is laughing at us rather than with us.
As a result, human ingenuity, creativity, passion is being wasted. Had Bruce’s father been born twenty years later he would have grown up in a very different corporate environment. He would have had to live off just his salary, he would have kept his ideas to himself, and eventually would have stopped looking for new ideas altogether.
And why does that matter?
It matters on three levels:
- Bruce’s father would be less fulfilled and his family worse off financially
- GM would be starved of the potential of Bruce’s father’s ideas
- Society would miss the benefits as well
So, what to do? This is the question I am committed to solving. I don’t have an answer yet, but I am working on it and by early 2017 I should have a pretty good answer to share.