Advice: Sorting Ideas to Focus on the Winners

October 29, 2014

Several members have posed variations on the same question: What are the best approaches to sorting and prioritizing ideas so that you can focus resources on those with the highest potential?

It’s a big question, and one that’s core to an innovation team’s ability to make an impact over the long haul.We grouped the advice we received into three buckets: Focus, scoring/evaluation, and customer data. We’d love your input — post a comment or send an e-mail to


Broad calls for ideas creates lots of demands on an innovation team, and can spark ill will among employees who feel their ideas aren’t being evaluated seriously enough or quickly enough. A senior executive from the financial services industry says that when he took a job several years ago, he arrived in the midst of an ideas contest. Fueled by eager employees and one of the better idea-management software systems, the contest generated tens of thousands of ideas. Adding to the fervor was a series of $1000 prizes offered for the best ones.

Several months into the campaign, “people were calling to complain” because they hadn’t heard anything about their ideas, says the executive. “These idea management software tools are like heavy machinery,” he says, “They’re great for getting 10,000 associates to engage instantly in a very tempting proposition, but you need to know what you want, set the rules, parameters, measures and communications carefully before you launch. Otherwise, they’ll get away from you pretty quickly.”

Barry Calpino, Vice President of Breakthrough Innovation at Kraft Foods Group, says, “We try to avoid blanket calls for ideas, opting wherever we can to try to come up with good ideas against specific opportunity areas, trends, etc.,” he says. As far as engaging consumers, Calpino says flavor suggestions have been a good way to do that; Kraft has sought flavor ideas online for its liquid water enhancer MiO. “Your loyal users are incredible sources of input on where a brand should go next on flavors,” he says.

Another executive at a $12 billion media company says that what has been working best for her company is “running very clear campaigns on certain topics, not open calls for ideas.” Her advice: ask people in the business units about problems they need solved or pain points. “It’s a lot of work to set up and structure a challenge, as opposed to just shouting, ‘Give us your ideas,'” she says. Challenges at this executive’s company often include data sets, background on a problem or opportunity, and an explanation of the criteria by which winning ideas will be judged. Prizes are typically in the $500 to $1000 range.


Moisés Noreña, Director of Strategic Innovation and Targeted Markets for Allstate, says he applies a set of three basic questions to decide which ideas get to move along to development:

    1. Consumer need: Does anything out there currently solve this need?
    2. Do we have the right competitive advantage if we pursue this product or service?
    3. Does it have a return on investment?

“Those are three basic criteria,” Noreña says. “The closer you get to real innovation, the more granular you can get.”

Phil Swisher, Senior Vice President of Innovation at private bank Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., says his team runs through a series of five questions: 

    1. Does it solve a meaningful problem?
    2. Does it leverage BBH’s expertise and core competencies?
    3. Is it feasible from a regulatory, legal and compliance perspective?
    4. Is it scalable and does it have an asymmetric potential return profile relative to the needed investment?
    5. Is it dramatically better than the status quo for the target clients?

“To invest meaningful human and financial capital in pursuing a new product idea, we must be comfortable on all five questions,” Swisher says. (We’ve got more background on the scoring system at Brown Brothers Harriman.)

At Constant Contact, a publicly-held company that offers small business marketing services, Chief Innovation Architect Andy Miller says there are several layers of sorting that happen. One is employees voting and commenting on the ideas that have been submitted by their peers, using the company’s internal website. “That’s a good way to get input from employees who are interacting with our customers in different ways,” he says. But after ideas have been further developed at one of the company’s quarterly Innovation Jams — basically an internal hackathon — they are presented to a “Shark Tank” panel of executives. That group has more knowledge of the market and what competitors are doing, Miller explains, and focuses on “whether it is a really big idea or an incremental idea.” (The executives don’t tend to rely on a scorecard or particular criteria, he says.) Incremental ideas tend to get passed along to a team in the business, and put on that team’s product road map, Miller says. High-potential ideas move along to the “design sprint” and prototyping stage, and eventual testing with customers.

Customer Data

Software developer Adobe takes a decentralized approach, essentially letting ideas prioritize themselves. Employees trained through its Kickbox Innovation Workshop are sent away with a $1,000 prepaid credit card to spend developing and testing an idea. The impetus behind Kickbox was to do “more experiments, faster, for less money,” says Adobe’s Chief Strategist and VP of Creativity Mark Randall, who oversees Kickbox. “We weren’t failing enough, and we weren’t driving enough divergent, wild things.” Instead of seeking singular approval from management, Kickbox shifts the emphasis to customer feedback, Randall says, noting that Adobe’s KnowHow, a video tutorial site (and graduate of Kickbox) was up and running with 40,000 users before he even knew about it. (Here’s more detail on how the Kickbox program works.)

Intuit, through a program called Lean StartIN (previous coverage here), trains employees on how to test their own ideas and gather data from the marketplace. “Ideas are a dime a dozen,” Hugh Molotsi, head of Intuit Labs, said last week at the InnoLead Field Study. “The question is, how do you turn an idea into an experiment?” Experiments are designed specifically to learn something about customer needs or behavior, he said, which can guide future development or investment. “If the results are exactly what you’d expected, then you didn’t learn anything,” says Molotsi.

It can be easy to create stage-gates or scoring systems that add time and complexity to idea sorting. But Calpino at Kraft Foods says it’s crucial to test consumer appeal early. “It’s very common in my experience for companies to get enamored with ideas, because they fall in love with the technology or they fall in love with it from their own personal life experience, which almost never comes close to that of our typical consumer,” Calpino says. “Having an early metric of consumer appeal keeps us grounded in reality.”

If you agree with these approaches, or have different advice on sorting ideas, post a comment below…