The Suggestion Box

There is a very important question when diagnosing a company’s innovation processes:

Do you have a planned process to submit and review ideas (internal and external)?

Sometimes the sad answer I hear is: THE SUGGESTION BOX.

Oh yes.. the good old suggestion box... most of the time unattended an empty, like the mailbox in Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story “El Coronel No Tiene Quien le Escriba” (an old Coronel that waits for a letter throughout the whole plot).

When working as an operations consultant for a bank, evaluating different branches and bank centers, I did an experiment. I left a note in the suggestion box of one of the smallest and farthest away branches. The note read: “If you are reading this, please notify immediately to (and I wrote my company’s mail).” The answer did come back… 3 months later.

I have a small client, who literally, uses the client’s suggestion box to store the day’s income. It is the “secure and unexpected” place where the clerks leave him the money. Sure it is good to treasure ideas as money, but the thing is the suggestion box is merely representative. Since nobody uses it, it is an excellent hide out!

Suggestion boxes are good for giving confidence for anonymous internal information but I am highly critical about them, probably because most of the time I’ve seen them as a “get out of the way” solution. For external information (clients, users, suppliers), often they comment or complain directly to the personnel and few are the ones that actually get a pen a write their opinion on the spot. Suggestion boxes do not work when employees or clients have no trust that their idea is going to be promptly reviewed and taken into account. Suggestion boxes can actually kill innovation if not used correctly and with other alternatives.

If you are using a suggestion box, think of the following:

  • Is it really an effective tool? See if employees and clients are using it correctly, with good ideas now and then, and not using it for rumors, gossip, and even pranks… or not using it at all. Make sure it is visible and in good conditions (not dusty as most of them).
  • Be sure you have a process created to pick up and review ideas, with a quick response. There must be people responsible for the process and the follow-up throughout the entire organization.
  • Take action accordingly, if someone submitted a positive idea, make everybody see the results . If negative (such as an anonymous co-worker complaint) investigate with privacy.
  • Encourage its use with prices such as “the best idea of the month” or some kind of motivation that shows you do care about the suggestion box.

Also, try to considering other alternatives that can be done all together:

  • Many employees express their opinion better with up-front evaluations, for example, asking directly what they think about a process or their job. Include suggestions in your periodical evaluations. There can also be anonymous ways of giving information through evaluations. For clients, do post-service evaluations.
  • Try new media, maybe internal networks, innovation software or collaboration spaces on internet that allow submitting ideas (and even generating). For external suggestions, look up “open innovation”, that will be a matter for another post.
  • Make sure employees feel confident in using proper ways of personally presenting an idea according to your processes and structure. Employees must not be afraid or adverse in talking to their boss or higher-levels about a new project. If they are, then something is going wrong. Same works for external suggestions through a customer service department.
  • Make sure you also have collective personal spaces for submitting ideas, for example creative sessions, internal focus groups or even brainstorming sessions. When someone feels they have a good idea they probably want credit for it (and don’t want to be anonymous). Sometimes saying it privately to a superior is not proper (the other can take credit for it, or maybe there is personal or professional adversity). Create the spaces for people to give their ideas to a group, and for others to build upon them. Some companies even do innovation camp-outs.

What do your employees and clients think about your suggestion box? (maybe they have suggestions for the suggestion box!)

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