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How to Get Started on Your Idea Program

Here’s how the story goes…

We see this time and time again. A company or CEO wants to do something around innovation but so far they have no concrete plan in place.

In this favourable climate, an individual or a small group of engaged employees will recognize this gap between desire and action, and they will step up and start some sort of internal initiative. Most often, this will be some sort of idea program, usually with an informal process for gathering ideas from employees, and then attempting to manually sort through and respond to them.

These are the first sparks of an idea program — what I will refer to here as a Side of the Desk (SOTD) idea program.

The goal of a SOTD program should not be to run a robust end-to-end idea program; rather, the goal is simply to start one. With this, hopefully the SOTD program will prove the concept enough to justify further investment by the company.

These programs usually start as a labor of love and are spearheaded by one person or a small group because they have a genuine interest in improving the company. However, because it is side of the desk, they still have their “day jobs” that take up most of their time. Because of this, there is a limit to how much time the team can put into their program — even though in many cases they wish they could spend more time on it.


Of course, because this is being done as side of the desk, there are some predictable challenges. Interestingly, these are many of the same challenges faced by traditional volunteer organizations, such as:

  • No budgets/resources mean you are dependent on people to volunteer their time.
  • Recruitment of people to volunteer time is time consuming.
  • There is usually no formal process in place (i.e. it’s dependent on founding team, so when those people leave, the program dies).

One of the predictable challenges of starting an idea program is as the honeymoon phase ends, the program generally fades away for one of the following reasons:

  • The core team spends too much time trying to solve difficult “big idea” problems. Solving these problems usually requires spanning multiple functions in the organization.
  • Manual processes eat up too much of the core team’s time, and so not enough progress on ideas are generated. As a result, excitement wanes on the core team, and people stop donating their spare time to the program.
  • Key members of the team leave because of role changes or because they leave the company. Without a strong process in their wake, the program dies.

During this fragile time, SOTD idea programs are vulnerable to any one of these challenges, which can be enough to stop the program right in its tracks.

But there is hope…

So that’s it? Innovation is doomed? Not always. There is an exciting trend that we are seeing more and more of as the way successful idea programs get started — and follow through.

Every fire begins with a spark, and SOTD programs can provide the spark that gets the fire started. Once going, further steps can be taken.

The most important goal for a SOTD program is to develop enough momentum and quick wins to build a case for further investment. With that said, here are three ways to create momentum in your idea program:

  1. Frame the conversation on topics that you can actually deliver on.
    Do not worry about starting with a narrow focus — you will probably need a narrow focus unless you have a large team of people from multiple functions ready to be highly engaged and committed to actioning ideas.
  2. Focus on quick wins
    – Focus on incremental/small ideas you can turn around quickly. Doing so shortens your response time to your community, and allows you to show progress sooner. In other words, the size of the ideas is not as important as the turnaround time, so don’t get stuck on the big ideas — they can eat up all your time and people will disengage while you are working on them.
    – Look for “downstream ideas.” Downstream ideas occur closer to customer interaction and allow you to do more with what you already have as a company. In general, downstream ideas are quicker to turn around than “upstream ideas” (sourcing, product ideas). For example, consider how much faster (while still being impactful) it could be to implement some new messaging on your homepage than it would be to redesign the website structurally.
  3. Celebrate aggressively
    – It is critical to not only communicate, but also over communicate to both end-users and executives. This will often take the form of incremental updates, and that is ok. Employees are not generally used to hearing anything back when it comes to their ideas and feedback, so even some news is better than no news.
    – On that note, find memorable stories and sing praise of success over and over again. The key word here is memorable. It doesn’t need to be the sexiest idea — just something people will remember and retell. For example, I remember one example of a client that implemented SoapBox and their first completed idea was to get a toaster in the lunch room. It seemed like a small thing, but based on the amount of support for the idea, it was clearly something that got people excited, maybe even disproportionately excited! However, the toaster didn’t just make toast — it also served as a symbol of change in the company, a sign that new things were happening. These stories also have a way of finding their way to the executive level, and to get the attention of most busy executives, it is helpful if your project has some sticky examples that are easy to visualize.

What kind of results are usually compelling enough to warrant future investment?

Generally, executives are looking for two things to justify further investment:

  1. Proof that there is a need for this, evidenced by a lot of ideas coming from employees.
  2. Proof that the whole system works, evidenced by your ability to show quick wins.

It is great if you have collected a bunch of employee ideas, but your company has probably done this before. So, to really get executives’ attention, show them the number of ideas you were able to respond to, and how many you were able to complete. Of course, if you can estimate that value created by some of these ideas, that is even more compelling, but this is usually hard to do in a SOTD situation.


Many great things come from humble beginnings, and idea programs are no exception.

Do not be discouraged by having to start innovation at your company from the side of your desk. Hopefully this post will help you generate enough momentum to take your program to the next level.

Harness the power of employee ideas.