At Rite-Solutions, idea markets aren’t new: The 150-employee IT company has operated an internal Kickstarter-like program since 2005. So far, the program has generated more than 50 ideas, 15 of which have been launched — and now account for 20 percent of the company’s total revenue.
One of these resulting products is Rite-Track, a GPS system that monitors the safety of school buses while they’re in transit. The system (patent and trademark pending) is already installed in some 300 school buses in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Here, in five steps, is how the Rite-Solutions idea market works, illustrated by how Rite-Track went from idea to product.
Step 1: Pitching
Someone asks a big “what if” question. Employees pitch answers in the form of ideas and then rate each pitch with one to five stars. The highest-rated solution moves on to the next step. In the case of Rite-Track, the question came from management: What commercial product could we make with our knowledge of real-time asset tracking, optimization, and visualization for the military? The winning response was, “We could make a product that would ensure a safer trip for children going to school on the bus.”
Step 2: Official Proposal
The top idea gets fleshed out as an official proposal that contains a detailed description of what the product’s capabilities might include. In the case of Rite-Track, proposed features included “provides en-route bus alerts and notifications” and “supports full display/recall/replay of bus activities.”
Step 3: Employee Investment
When the proposal is ready, employees get to choose how much to invest in it. The company gives every staffer an imaginary $10,000 to spend in the idea market. Employees may also invest imaginary time or resources in the project, responding to the proposal’s requests for assistance.
Step 4: Relationship Harvesting
After the idea gains a critical mass of imaginary investments, the company identifies which employees know people who can — ahem — put the wheels in motion for the idea to become a viable product. This is a deep dive into who they know and how you they them, filtering contacts in a way that’s important to executing the idea. At this stage in Rite-Track’s development, Rite-Solutions CEO Jim Lavoie asked whether anyone in management knew someone at any of the local school bus companies. As it turned out, a Rite-Solutions employee knew a VP at one of the companies.
Step 5: Execution
The idea moves into project management, where it might be taken all the way through to production, or perhaps patented but not produced, depending on business needs. By this stage, ideas that have failed to sustain interest have been purged; investors get a one-week warning to move on an idea or see it die.
“Yes, the tools matter. Culture matters more,” argues Michael Schrage, research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business. His argument: While technology is important for mining internal ideas, incentivizing the creation or implementation of ideas is just as vital. “How does your culture recognize and reward the sharing that can make a (huge) difference?” he asks in an article for the HBR Blog Network titled “A Simpler Way to Get Employees to Share.”