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Participative innovation in business: our comprehensive guide to success

There’s no such thing as a company without ideas. Ideas are an inexhaustible source of innovation and progress. Companies are increasingly reorganizing to exploit this resource.

Participative innovation, or collaborative innovation, refers to a system that enables employees to contribute their ideas individually or collectively. Ideas can land (at the risk of getting lost) in a trusty old “suggestion box” or in a platform like IDhall, which is designed to facilitate collaboration around ideas and their end-to-end processing. This has been Humanperf’s business for 20 years.

Every opportunity not taken is a loss for the organization and gives competitors room for manoeuvre.
Benoît Brulant – Founder, Humanperf Software

Some businesses know how to tap into their employees’ ideas, regardless of their position or role in the organization. Trust of this kind gives rise to a continuous flow of ideas, improving performance, transforming the organization and supporting innovation.

The ideas put forward are most often part of a logic of small steps. Small improvements that when put together will generate major progress in the organization. By harnessing the sheer number of ideas captured, participative innovation also produces unprecedented solutions, astounding products and services, as well as staggering savings and financial benefits.

In stark contrast to the obsolete suggestion box, participative innovation requires a structured approach to encourage participation as well as collaboration between team members. Proven methods and tool kits are also necessary.

In addition to our article on key success factors to accelerate business innovation, here is our comprehensive guide to implementing a winning participative innovation process. What is participative innovation? And how do you put it in place to stimulate innovation.

Defining participative innovation

First and foremost, participative innovation is a management method aimed at stimulating, collecting, analysing and acting on ideas in a virtuous approach that enhances team value.

Anyone can become an agent for change in their company – with tangible innovations or improvements. Some companies refer to them as “collabor’actors”.

Bold companies that value their human capital and recognize each employee as a source of innovation and progress are undeniably better equipped to meet current and future challenges.

There are many advantages to participative innovation:

  • Supporting the company’s overall strategy;
  • Generating savings and financial benefits;
  • Building involvement, commitment, motivation and improving employee recognition;
  • Broadening cooperation through more participative management;
  • Enhancing quality of life in the workplace;
  • Contributing to business transformation;

In short, creating value at every level.

Innovative participation definition

Which participative innovation method (truly) creates value?

Participative innovation is not just about collecting ideas. You might even say that the trouble starts as soon as they arrive. Each new idea generates additional activities and processes required to assess, analyze, prioritize, and implement it.

The different participative innovation methods are all based on the following five fundamental pillars, from collection and communication to system governance.

1Stimulate and collect ideas

There are two approaches, namely spontaneous innovation and induced innovation.

Spontaneous innovation means employees can suggest ideas at any time. This works really well when seeking out irritants, intrapreneurship and fundamental, recurring topics like improving client or employee experience.

This requires a well-established organization to support the idea’s “life cycle” from beginning to end until it is implemented or discarded.

Induced innovation is more time-limited. Teams are consulted for ideas within a certain context and about specific subjects. It can also take the form of innovation challenges, calls for ideas, “hackathons” or trophy quests. Induced innovation works particularly well in businesses that don’t have the means – or the ambition – to implement a permanent participative innovation system. It's a great way of mobilizing teams for a limited time, without long-term commitment. It’s also a way of testing the water before instigating a permanent system for collecting ideas.

In reality, many businesses and organizations use a combined approach with both an ongoing system and one-off operations.

In both cases, collecting, and most importantly, centralizing ideas on a dedicated platform, improves their visibility and creates cohesion among employees through voting and contribution systems.

2Evaluating employees’ ideas: analysing, digging deeper, assessing and deciding

Ideas can rarely be applied immediately. Some are worth being developed further by the instigator. Others need to be enriched. They require reinforcements from one or more specialists within the organization.

And it turns out that not all ideas are worthwhile. Businesses need to consider what already exists, projects under way and possible redundancies. It’s important to keep employees who generate ideas fully informed to avoid discouragement.

And given the profusion of ideas, how do you prioritize?

Opportunity analysis is the only objective way to choose. Precise criteria must be defined in advance. You need to compare the potential benefits of the idea with effort required for implementation.

3Implementing employees’ ideas

We made it: ideas are “approved”. Now we need to commit the necessary resources to implement them.

In a very open system, the ideas that come up are numerous and of varying complexity. Some are easy to apply. Others require some team coordination. While others need an adapted project-based approach to maximize their chance of success.

With these types of ideas, organizations often fail to anticipate the necessary resources and means required to ensure the resulting projects perform. Teams simply cannot find the time (the “bandwidth”) to implement the ideas, however promising they may be.

Initial good intentions risk giving way to big disappointments.

Participative innovation: collecting and arbitrating ideas

4Define the governance and rules of the game for participative innovation

It is essential to define the rules of the game to ensure everyone understands the process of an idea and the actors involved. Be transparent with employees who generate ideas and everyone who spends time enriching or collaborating on them. Equally essential is management’s unwavering support in view of resources to be committed.

Experience has shown that an idea management system is essential to coordinate all the activity generated as soon as the number of ideas exceeds 50 per year.

In short, participative innovation does not tolerate a lack of transparency.

5Communicate about participative innovation and the ideas

Communication is essential to the success of any participative innovation system. What are the challenges? Mobilize, motivate and liberate energies and talents.

First, tell as many employees as possible about the system and the rules. Then, once the gates are open, acknowledge the ideas, the people and the positive impact.

For participative innovation to become part of the company's DNA, the system must be fostered in regular meetings. Best practice requires communication via recurring activities and events showcased throughout the year, such as Collabor’actor of the month, idea of the month, annual innovation forum, quarterly newsletter, innovation cafés with managers, presenting remarkable initiatives to the board. The aim is to power up participative innovation.

Once participative innovation is plugged in, it can no longer be disconnected.

The benefits of participative innovation for business

On top of economic and financial performance, participative innovation abounds with positive benefits, enabling businesses to fulfil their potential.

Boosting growth

Businesses are no longer satisfied with strategy that reduces employees to mere executors of strategic projects in a rigid organization incapable of adapting to frenetic change.

Participative innovation enhances strategy and mobilizes companies by capitalizing on employee engagement and a high-performance operating mode conducive to collecting, analysing and implementing ideas, sometimes very simple ones. Lots of baby steps can add up to more significant impact than yet another strategic plan or transformation project. These small steps are less risky and require less investment.

Participative innovation ensures companies don’t miss opportunities or face colossal – even fatal – catch-up costs.

Participative innovation showcases your people

Human capital is a company’s most precious asset. Employees have ideas and their creativity is limitless. But creativity can only flourish in a well-meaning and calm environment. By giving everyone a chance to play an active role in change, participative innovation promotes individual and collective efforts.

Participative innovation showcases initiatives by employees who contribute to their company’s development.

A virtuous circle is formed:

  • Better communication and collaboration between teams and more attention for employees means greater satisfaction at work.
  • Employees are a goldmine of ideas. They are in the best position to identify problems and opportunities in their jobs.
  • Participative innovation also builds loyalty. Employees feel valued and listened to, and clients benefit from continuous added value.

Download our comprehensive guide to creating an effective innovation culture in your company:

Innovation culture: the long-awaited guide to success!

Practical examples of successful participative innovation

Many businesses have already realized the benefit of a participative innovation strategy and made it part of their culture and success.

Participative innovation: the Safran example

Participative innovation at Safran

The accumulation of small ideas for improvements can make the difference between a competitive and an uncompetitive plant: in 2007 Safran launched its continuous improvement program to boost innovation by encouraging employees to suggest more improvements.

Participative innovation SNCF: the Léonard approach

Participative innovation at SNCF, the French rail network

In 2013, SNCF overhauled its participative innovation process which is now known as Léonard.

Each year, over 11,000 ideas were submitted by more than 9,000 employees, and half were successfully implemented which saw SNCF awarded the Gold trophy for Operational Excellence Innovation at the 2019 Innov’Acteurs Participative Innovation Awards. For the flagship of French transport, participative innovation is a value creation lever and a key factor for employee experience.

Source: sncf.com

Participative innovation at Michelin: the pioneer

Participative innovation at Michelin

A pioneer in participative innovation, Michelin has been asking its employees for ideas on improving products and working conditions for many years. “Encouraging employees to express their ideas” is at the heart of Michelin’s corporate culture.

Key figures from 2017:

  • 59,000 improvements suggested
  • 27,275 ideas used
  • €24.5 million estimated net annual savings

Source : michelin.com

Ideas implemented contributed to a safer working environment, improved product and service quality, reduced environmental impact and generated substantial savings.

New DIP: the Air France example

Participative innovation at Air France: New DIP

Innovation and employee engagement are also trademarks of Air France’s corporate culture which has been implementing a participative innovation approach called “DIP” for 25 years. Involving employees in the group’s strategy through ideas and suggestions is integral to their bottom-up approach, which is considered essential.

Inspiring participative innovation processes

Many companies across all sectors are going one step further than strategic statements and good intentions by adding value to their employees’ initiatives.

Take the Paris Airports Group, which gives priority to initiative and audacity as qualities in future employees.

And let’s not forget the French Air Force which has launched its own operational innovation approach called HAPPI.

Successful implementation of participative innovation systems

Successful participative innovation requires senior management buy-in and a network of innovation coordinators to put an effective workflow in place and motivate and support teams.

The key is to make the participative innovation process a company-wide project, and not the preserve of a single department. It involves all levels of the organization and every business line can benefit:

  • Sales and marketing: finding new markets and leads, improving services and the client experience.
  • Operations: eliminating sources of inefficiency, improving workstations, reducing waste, and lowering risks are just some of the expected results.
  • Quality: improving processes and product quality.
  • HR and management: improving quality of work, building cohesion and even optimizing recruitment processes.

The other key to success lies in the tool chosen to facilitate employee engagement and participation and manage ideas. Investing in a participative innovation platform means faster development of a sustainable innovation culture.

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This article was originally published on May 17, 2018 and was updated on January 27, 2023.

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