Bryan Mattimore's whiteboard technique described in his latest article in Innovation Management is a fun and productive way to encourage innovation and make the "suggestion box" both real and transparent.
By Bryan Mattimore
“Creativity is contagious, pass it on.”
If you’ve ever had an experience with a suggestion box program – either running one, or more likely submitting a suggestion – the mere suggestion of having a suggestion box program at your organization might send your head spinning – and not in a good way.
Truth is, with rare exceptions like Toyota, Frito-Lay and Dart industries, traditional suggestion box programs are – and continue to be — one of the most dismal failures in business.
How come? Suggestion box programs do not fail because of a lack of initial employee interest or enthusiasm. They fail because the process for managing, vetting, and developing submitted ideas isn’t as rigorous – or creative – as it needs to be.
Most ideas are like newborn babies – cute yes (no ugly babies here), but not able to do a whole lot more than smile, cry and poop when they’re first born. They need constant care and feeding if they are to survive, much less thrive, and reach their full potential. In the world of ideas, this “care and feeding” comes in the form of team idea building and development, rapid prototyping, and testing. Suggestion box programs simply don’t allow for the further development of ideas.
Another shortcoming of most suggestion box programs is that submitted ideas – and that means all ideas regardless of their inherent merit – need to be taken seriously. Employees need to know that the time they spent thinking about ideas to improve the business wasn’t a waste of time, even if their ideas didn’t ultimately make the cut. Otherwise, employees will become cynical of the process, and the number and quality of suggested ideas will decline precipitously.
A simple way to overcome the shortcomings of suggestion box programs is by using a simple technique I call the Whiteboard Technique. Think of it as a kind of “interactive” suggestion box where ideas can easily and effectively be built on by others.
The Whiteboard Technique… How to!
Here are 9 simple steps for creating a whiteboard idea suggestion program.
1) Post a whiteboard in a public area (conference room, hallway, or cafeteria). Or if you’re company is primarily virtual, a “whiteboard” can be posted on an internal, team, department or company-wide sharing program like Slack.
2) In the center of the actual or virtual whiteboard write down a challenge for which you want some new ideas: i.e. “How do we do a better job serving our customers?” “How do we motivate a multi-generational workforce?” “How can we cut costs?” etc… Whatever could be a timely and important subject for which new ideas are needed. Consider using generative AI programs to help you generate a wide range of possible questions, both general and specific.
3) To create a sense of urgency (and provide a means of closure for each challenge), set a timeline/deadline for each challenge: typically, seven to ten days… by writing the numbers 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 at the bottom of the whiteboard.
4) “Prime the pump” by writing down some preliminary ideas and/or facts on the whiteboard. Again, AI programs like ChatGPT or Google’s Bard can help you here.
5) Then encourage your co-workers to freely add their ideas over the seven days.
6) Each succeeding day of the challenge cross out the corresponding number at the bottom of the whiteboard. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
7) At the end of the seven days, the challenge is over. A new challenge is then posted on a blank whiteboard, and the process is begun again.
8) At the end of each challenge, summarize the ideas on the whiteboard for yourself and your co-workers to react to. And then… take some kind of action, to demonstrate to your co-workers that their posted ideas, and their effort put in in creating them, was valued.
9) The action taken could include:
a. identifying the winning ideas, along with their plans for further development, or
b. using the ideas as thought-starting triggers for a group ideation session.
That’s it. Very simple. But a powerful tool for turning “water-cooler time” into a vehicle for generating creative and original new content ideas.
An interesting advantage that the Whiteboard Technique has over a traditional ideation session is the creative “soak time.” Time allows the wonderful pattern-finding, idea-combining power of the subconscious mind to work its magic, magic that anyone and everyone can and should be a part of… making unexpected – and sometimes profound — connections between seemingly unrelated fragments of ideas on the whiteboard.
The Whiteboard Technique is a simple and efficient way to liberate organizational creativity. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. Many of our Fortune 500 clients, government organizations and non-profits have achieved extraordinary results with it. And as such, it has been a great vehicle for generating a wide variety of business-improving ideas… not to mention a great way to improving employee satisfaction – and happiness – at work, whether in-person or virtually.
Bryan Mattimore is the Chief Idea Guy at Growth Engine, a 23-year-old innovation agency based in Stamford, CT. His six books on ideation and innovation processes include “21 Days to a Big Idea,” “Idea Stormers,” and the new AI-assisted book, “Quirks.” Bryan’s workshop, “AI Ideation and the Total Innovation Enterprise,” integrates the use of generative AI programs with empirically validated, group ideation techniques to help generate product and process improvement ideas across an entire organization. Bryan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org