A Renault R&D center holds innovation competitions with a twist: In addition to allowing employees to say whether they like prospective ideas, it allows them to volunteer to help pursue an idea if it gets the green light. After the competition ends, the successful inventor can get in touch with some or all the people who indicated that they would want to help turn the idea into reality who could provide skills and support that the project will need.
Often, even the best ideas don’t make it from the winner’s circle of an innovation competition to the shop floor. Before they are adopted, they must find internal champions.
Yet as important as this step is, most innovation initiatives tend to gloss over it, assuming that the brilliance of the concept — be it a new widget or Wavy West Coast Truffle Fries — will be enough to earn the innovation a place in the world.
Renault, the car maker, has found a solution to the challenge of finding internal champions for promising innovations, with a special feature on its in-house innovation platform. The platform — initiated and sponsored by the company’s Creative Lab, which “supports projects by facilitating access to digital prototyping technologies and design methods” — focuses on encouraging employees of Renault’s Technocentre, the company’s R&D center outside of Paris, to invent and develop new concepts of mobility. It’s very similar to many other innovation platforms, except for one important difference: the center’s employees not only have the opportunity to “like” an idea, they can also promise to help develop and implement the concept if the inventor’s proposal is accepted.
This simple feature has several advantages. It provides a good gauge of relative internal enthusiasm for the project, and it gives an inventor a team of knowledgeable supporters to help develop and implement an idea. After the innovation competition ends, the successful inventor can get in touch with some or all the people who indicated that they would want to help turn the idea into reality who could provide skills and support that the project will need. They may ask them, for instance, to help conduct a market study or develop a first prototype. Winning inventors are authorized to work on their projects up to two days per week for a period of one year; those who join them can make individual arrangements with their managers.
The feature offered us a unique opportunity to take a closer look at the crucial role a community plays in the lifecycle of an innovation.
The Value of the Volunteer
When we examined how platform participants were using this option to volunteer, we observed a few surprising things. In our study of 1,201 participants’ responses to 244 ideas posted on the platform, and in subsequent interviews with Renault employees, we found:
Likes don’t matter.
Renault employees told us — and empirical results confirmed — that volunteering to work on others’ ideas is more significant than simply “liking” an idea, which may constitute “cheap talk”-signaling rather than actual and active support. When participants commit to an idea, they “walk the talk.” As one participant told us: “There’s no commitment with likes.”
Volunteers didn’t line up to work on sure-fire winners.
Instead, the supporters — predominately engineers — were more inspired by the challenge posed by highly novel and technically ambitious ideas. One implication: If companies want to expand the number of more-radical ideas in their innovation portfolios, they should pay closer attention to those that volunteers in their R&D organizations sign up for. Such volunteers seem to have a greater appetite for novel and challenging ideas than more-cautious managers, who often are more worried about the feasibility of proposals.
Inventors who volunteer more for others’ projects tended to attract more volunteers for their own.
On the innovation platform, for every commitment the inventor made, the rate of commitments received rose by a factor of 1.29 – a 29% gain. This wasn’t simple “I’ll like your idea if you like mine” reciprocity. Instead, generous inventors seemed to trigger even more generous responses: Employee A’s public commitment to work on Employee B’s idea seemed to inspire Employee C to volunteer for Employee A.
Build a Community, Not a Contest
This 29% gain in support interested us in that it confirmed something we have been thinking for a while now: Maybe innovation contests are structured in a way that focuses too much on prizes and not enough on building a community of innovation-minded people. Could it be that by appealing to altruism and collaboration we could spur even more innovation?
Adding functionality to the platform that allows volunteers to commit themselves to the implementation of ideas is a useful way to build a more creative, collaborative culture among employees. Managers might reinforce that sentiment by clearly communicating that they value collaboration and consider it important for innovation. In addition, they might consider rewarding collaboration more directly by designing incentives not only for those who generate ideas but also for those peers who help implement them.
Indeed, our earlier research with the International Committee of the Red Cross showed how critical collaboration can be for the success of an innovation contest. The Red Cross’s contest was designed not only to help inventors come up with new concepts but also to support them build strong startups to execute their ideas.
Creating more possibilities for participants to engage with and support the development of their peers’ ideas early on could give inventors the chance to work with a team with a more diverse range of skills, providing a head start once the idea is selected for implementation.
It’s worth noting that many of the most successful crowd-sourced projects — such as Wikipedia, Linux, and, more recently, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies — feature a similar simple, flat architecture and a strong focus on collaboration. While none of these venues offer much in the way of prizes beyond peer respect, the collaborations they have fostered have had a major impact.