By Simon Hill, CEO and Co-founder, Wazoku

Ideas come in all shapes and sizes - from product innovations taking the business into new areas to more process, system, cultural or abstract ideas for business improvement. Innovation is all around us and is increasingly important for SMBs, who can me more nimble as they seek to innovate to stay ahead of the competition.

Most businesses traditionally turn to marketing for creativity, innovation and ideas. This is fine, that is what they are paid for and they generally do a decent job. But as innovation becomes more important should ideas that impact a business be restricted to a select few? The answer is a resounding 'no', but how can SMBs develop a culture of creativity where people are confident enough to think of and submit ideas? And what is the best way of capturing those ideas and ensuring they find their way to the right people?

The culture

Culture is in some ways the most important issue to address if any SMB is serious about unlocking the creativity in its staff. Most people’s job does not have a specific remit to come up with new ideas yet those people will inevitably have opinions on a new product or improving part of a business’ operations. The business leaders need to ensure that their staff know it is ok to make suggestions and give them the confidence to do so. More open companies are more productive companies as research can attest.

The key is to foster a culture of ideas and innovation - encouraging people to submit ideas in the first place. Incentivising ideas in some way is a tried and tested way of getting people to put them forward. This can be informal - a monthly bottle of champagne for the best idea or £50 vouchers for a shop of the winner’s choice - or something that is worked into a company’s official HR policy. This would typically involve measuring the volume of ideas or the volume brought to fruition into employees’ objectives, with their career development measured (and rewarded) based on that. Both options have their plus points and the SMB owner must do what they feel best fits with that company culture. Most important is to ensure these reward and recognition programmes are tied to the overall culture of ideas and openness.

Once these measures are in place, the SMB must then ensure that employees know there is a specific place for those ideas to be heard, discussed, developed and actually made to happen.

Where to put good ideas

There are a number of options for an SMB looking for an ‘ideas hub’. The old-fashioned way of capturing ideas was the humble suggestion box. Staff would be encouraged to write their idea on a piece of paper - perhaps signed, perhaps not - and pop it in the suggestion box. A worrying number of companies still use such a ‘system’, which is counter-productive at best. Innovation is so important for businesses today in gaining competitive advantage, that entrusting it to a suggestion box is virtually pointless. Perhaps some ideas may emerge but it is far more likely that they won’t and the suggestion box only really serves as a way of making employees feel included and that they were making a contribution.

Email is another option for idea generation. If there is a culture of ideas in a company then an MD may kick-off a brainstorm via email or an employee might be empowered enough to do so themselves. But emails’ limitations are all too apparent - it is static, has no real way of developing an idea and the constant emails can be seriously intrusive.

These methods only work in the most basic of ways and there is no real way of ensuring that the people with the authority to sign-off an idea would even get to see it. Would an employee feel comfortable emailing senior management with an idea for content on the company’s Facebook page? Would an owner or MD really check the contents of suggestion box and actually progress an idea?

Idea management

What is required is a specific place for ideas to be submitted, a place where peers and people in the business can provide feedback on an idea and where they know that the MD will get to see it. Such services have been in use by big business for years and are known as idea management or innovation management.

The difference between these systems and their predecessors outlined above are that they focus on process, are accessible anywhere and are open. Idea management systems are not just simple idea capture tools, they are about giving ideas a home and then helping those ideas to find an outcome that is open and communicated. Making these systems accessible means an idea can be captured at source, whether speaking to a customer on a sales visit or to a friend at a restaurant - good ideas come at the unlikeliest of times and should be shared as soon as possible so they are not lost.

Perhaps most important is to be open. Few ideas are perfectly conceived as a concept, but allowing all ideas to be open and discoverable, businesses dramatically increase the chance of an idea finding the relevant expert or group to build on it, merge it with other similar ideas and help to realise the true value.

To-date idea management solutions have been priced too prohibitively for SMBs to realistically consider, with prices starting from around £30K per year. But idea management is increasingly on the radar of industry analysts which means it will start to become part of the business mainstream over the next few years. In turn, new software-as-a-Service new solutions are coming to the market that target SMBs and are priced accordingly. It’s impossible to put a value on creativity and good ideas but for a company with 50 employees, an idea management system would cost around £1,800 for a year, which feels like decent value for any business.

Innovation is increasingly important for SMBs in particular to differentiate and grow market share. I believe there is creativity and ideas within a majority of businesses but the methods of capturing and developing them have not been effective. By encouraging a culture where ideas are valued and implementing specific tools to help people evolve and develop those ideas, SMBs will soon see innovation with the potential to impact their business.

About The Author

Simon Hill is CEO and Co-founder of Wazoku and can be reached on simon@wazoku.com or 020 8222 6693.