Lessons Learned By A Major Automaker with a Kickstarter-like Inititative

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A recent interview with an Innovation Manager at one of the major US based automakers led to discussions on a Kickstarter.com-like challenge they ran with employees. The goal was to enable their workers, those that make and market their automobiles, to develop innovations from the front lines.

Employees formed small teams, developed their ideas, and submitted a short video (as they do on Kickstarter.com). The top ideas were chosen by a management team and escalated to a prototyping phase – the goal was to develop minimally-viable prototypes/products (MVP, a Lean Startup term) to generate further business interest in the ideas without substantial investment in R&D or procurement. This is where the speed-bumps began.

Many of the ideas that emerged were big innovations – they were not conducive to rapid prototyping or quick iterations. Some involved developing new supplier relationships, while others involved sourcing new materials and technologies. Strict security controls and other internal measures further restricted the innovation and experimentation process. Moreover, the kickstarter challenge had ballooned into a series of contests involving many people across the industry; the process became bogged down with by a lack of focus and planning.

Many of the top-voted ideas have since been stored on the shelf and the initiative was described as unsuccessful overall. However, there were some key learnings to this crowdsourced innovation challenge.

1. Better enable employees to participate – don’t just ask for a video submission, business plan, or idea pitch – give them the tools to create these things. This will lower the overall cost of your innovation challenge by making it substantially easier and faster to create and review ideas.

2. Think about implementation before asking the question – ensure that you are able rapidly build and test a potentially blockbuster idea when it comes in, or else you’ll hurt overall employee morale. Internal teams will lose faith in management’s ability to execute on their ideas.

3. Focus is key – aim for hyper specialized innovation challenges that address specific needs or problems. Don’t leave it open ended, or big innovations that may be infeasible will fill the pipeline. Asking employees to innovate without constraint in a large organization is a recipe for building a backlog of great ideas that sit on the shelf, potentially becoming obsolete.

– Chris Kluesener

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