Love them or hate them, ideas challenges are an old favourite in the public sector – but how effective are they?
The February 2019 Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) meeting unpacked the good, bad, and ugly of ideas challenges using real public sector case studies. The general consensus was that while ideas challenges are great in bringing staff together, they’re rarely successful all the way through to idea implementation.
Strong themes emerged when breaking down the lessons learnt, and we’ve pulled together some advice based on discussion at the meeting.
To get your ideas challenge off the ground, you’ll more than likely need support from your executive at some stage of the process. Executive endorsement will ensure the solution can actually be implemented, and will encourage staff to get involved. You should also link ideas challenges to the business objectives of the organisation.
Make sure you’ve got dollars set aside to bring the ideas to life. While it’s great to get staff together and think about what could be done better, without dedicated funds to see the successful idea through to fruition, ideas challenges can seem like a waste of everyone’s time. It can also be disheartening for staff when they’ve been told their idea won (yay!) but there’s no money to make it happen (no!).
Organising a whole-of-department program of work takes a lot of time and resources. A dedicated team will need to run the process, assess ideas, and communicate with the organisation.
It’s important to manage staff expectations from the outset with clear and regular communication throughout the challenge. Tell staff about the step-by-step process, timeframes and responsibilities. Tell them how the successful idea will be developed and implemented and what will happen to the ideas that don’t get selected to progress. Update people along the way.
People also like to know what eventuated with their idea, so think about how to get back to them. Radio silence is off-putting and can easily deter people from wanting to participate again. If your agency is really large, you might like to consider alternative options like bulk responses or delegating among a team of people to spread the load.
It can be tricky to motivate staff to do something outside their ‘normal’ job. Incentives help, so get thinking about some (realistic) incentives for staff to get involved, other than just the street cred.
Live ‘shark tank’ style pitches are becoming popular. Pitching is a skill, and finalists might appreciate some pitch training and feedback to help ‘sell’ their idea to the executive. Your internal communication team may be able to assist.
If you’ve followed the steps above and have a dedicated budget, have managed staff expectations and communicated effectively, you should be in the clear. But check with your various departmental policies and systems before going ahead. For example, “will our IT system allow us to integrate a new app that tells us when we need more milk?”
People like to be recognised and/or rewarded for their efforts, so have a reward and recognition plan for the winner and for all contributors. Contributors could simply receive an email (copied to their manager if appropriate). You could present winners with a certificate and/or prize at an internal event, or profile them on an internal channel or all-staff email from the Secretary. Whatever works for your culture.
Running an ideas challenge for the sake of it is never recommended. Have a clear purpose, project plan, communication plan and change management plan that encompass the elements outlined in the ‘do’ section.
Ideas challenges aren’t a ‘set and forget’ tool – they require a strategy, a lot of planning and many dedicated resources. Planning and executing may take longer than expected.
People like to know what’s happening with the process, so ensure you have a change management process in place. Keep people informed regularly via your communications plan.
Decide at the outset how ideas are going to be implemented. Inform teams that may be called on to progress an idea, even if the idea didn’t come from that team. For example, if there is an idea about improving an IT process, make sure the IT team knows they will be asked to implement it.
Explore short hackathons or ideation workshops as alternatives to ideas challenges. They can be run in 1-2 days and will work best with a trained facilitator. All the same Do’s and Don’ts apply.
Another alternative is to provide an ongoing open ideas platform where staff can submit ideas at any time. This will require dedicated resources.
We’ve done some research and found a few other websites that provide useful guidance on running ideas challenges. You may notice some very common themes!
The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.
See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.