The following post is courtesy of our board member Natalie Bickford,  Group HR Director at Merlin Entertainments PLC.

I’m lucky enough to work for a global company that puts power and decision-making into the hands of local general managers. These leaders run their businesses, and have most of the levers they need to deliver success within their own control. We think of ourselves as a highly entrepreneurial organization, with as limited central control as is possible for a publicly listed company. Our company values underpin everything that we do, and we celebrate success. So why, I have been asking myself, has our company-wide employee suggestion program been such a miserable failure?

Even prior to conducting any research, my gut-instinct told me that most practical ideas for driving productivity, staff morale and innovation would come from the frontline workforce – those people who interact directly with customers, whether it’s on the shop floor or at the visitor attraction. These are the folks who deliver service to our guests every day – and they know where the routine inefficiencies lie, where the simple but clever ideas are hiding, and what small tweaks might make a significant difference.

My desire to create a successful program led me to research those shiny happy organizations that publicly cite their suggestion programs as key elements of driving productivity, innovation and employee engagement within their companies. Some great examples include Toyota, Siemens, and Tesco. I also learned that many organizations fail to drive significant value from their suggestion programs despite large investment in technology and sometimes even a promising start.

Based on my research and thinking, here are my top 5 tips for a successful employee suggestion program:

1. It can’t be just an HR thing
All too often, employee suggestion programs are managed solely by the HR department. To have maximum impact, you need senior leadership to buy into the business case, and to then own the program, sometimes in collaboration with HR. This means that the executive team should set time aside to review the best ideas and decide what should be tested and implemented. I would say that if they cannot commit to doing this, don’t launch a program.

2. Keep it focused
Many of the programs that I researched have failed because they attract an overwhelming volume of broad ranging ideas. Of the thousands of suggestions, only tens are implemented, leading to disillusionment from the very workers taking part in the program. The best programs target specific areas and run campaigns seeking targeted ideas at different times of the year, or are linked to particular business challenges. This kind of focus reduces the volume of suggestions, increases the success rate, and actually provides a better outcome for leaders and employees alike.

3. Respond to every suggestion and celebrate success
Whether you are using physical boxes, or online templates, you need to acknowledge every suggestion and thank the employee for their input. And quickly. This means you need to establish a simple and timely review process before launching the program.

4Think reward
There are many differing views on whether successful ideas should receive financial reward or not. Personally I think reward and recognition for great ideas is key – but it doesn’t have to be (and possibly shouldn’t be) cash. Hand-written thank you cards, creation of an “innovators hall of fame”, gift vouchers, or even a paid day of leave should do the trick.

5. Go mobile
To ensure that you reach all employees and make it easy for them to participate, implement an app-based platform that can be downloaded to a personal smart phone. These can be stand-alone and not necessarily expensive to establish.

So I will now be following my own advice, revamping and re-launching our “Spark an Idea” program along these lines, and I will keep you posted on progress.

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