The Power of a Challenge – Steps to Maximize Participation and Value

Organizations have thousands of great employees who come to work every day ready to fulfill their job responsibilities and tackle the issues of the day.  Though charged with specific roles and responsibilities, employees have a world of experience beyond just their typical responsibilities.  Tapping into employee knowledge to solve problems and create opportunities can create a powerful competitive advantage.  By tapping into a wide talent pool, companies are able to engage a large group of people, generate ideas in a time-efficient manner, and move forward the best ideas towards implementation.

At PwC, we have developed an approach to engage our employees around critical issues and opportunities.  Creating a “Challenge” for employees is a powerful way of soliciting ideas that respond to a current issues or opportunity.  Giving people an opportunity to share any idea they have is important, but creating a model which provides leadership with an ability to engage a large talent pool to create solutions for current issues is a powerful ideation machine.  We have launched over 25 challenges in the last 18 months, challenges from US Firm Leadership, to Market Geography Leaders, to Industry Sector Leaders.  Each Challenge has yielded ideas targeting specific opportunities and issues currently being faced.  Challenges help fill our idea pipeline with relevant, solution oriented ideas that can get traction, and get traction quickly.  Along the way, we have learned of 3 key advantages for why Challenges are effective in engaging people and generating solutions.

Generates buzz and gets attention
The greatest challenge of a Challenge (no pun intended!) is to get people’s attention.  With so many competing priorities and responsibilities, it is critical to generate attention in a way that will evoke curiosity and in turn generate participation.  With that said, it is also important to set the right expectations up-front in terms of how much attention you will get.  Of those you invite to a Challenge, typically about 10%-15% of the targeted audience will actually participate through ideas or comments.  This is a realistic expectation as there are many competing priorities, not to mention the percentage who will not read the communications and those who typically don’t put themselves out there.  We have seen some Challenges yield 15% -20% participation over the past year – exceeding our expectations.

  • When targeting a group of people to participate, consider the following:
  • Individuals have general interest based on their experience and may be knowledgeable about the subject matter.
  • A clear, concise, and focused Challenge statement encourages participation.
  • A comprehensive communications plan is necessary to target the various audiences.

Creates a powerful social contract
It is important to define a social contract in which a promise is made that each and every idea will be evaluated by a business leader for potential implementation.  Giving people that simple promise has opened up the doors to new and interesting ideas Leadership would never have considered or known.   Leaders and their teams have the opportunity to engage with those that have shared their idea or provided a comment to help further the idea to build out new networks and communities of interest.  Along with the social contract, it is important to set expectations and be transparent around the process of the Challenge.

Answering some key questions up-front in your communications will help attract people to participate and make that contract all the more powerful:

  • What is the opportunity or issue currently being faced? What will be the process to evaluate ideas?
  • When and how long will this Challenge be open? When should we expect to hear from leaders about the outcomes of the Challenge?
  • Why is this Challenge important to the overall strategy? Why does my participation matter?
  • Where will the ideas go once they have been evaluated and decisions have been made?
  • Who is sponsoring this Challenge? Who will end up implementing the ideas that are selected to move forward?
  • How will I be rewarded? How will these ideas move forward?

Turns ideas into viable solutions
If a Challenge yields 100 ideas and 5 move forward, this is a huge win!  Getting caught up in the quantity of what you want to move forward may actually prevent you from moving forward with ideas at all.  Focusing on a few is important to maintain progress and sustain efforts.  It is important to remember that it may be only one idea that has the power to provide significant impact and value.  At PwC, we have a well defined process for triaging ideas to Leadership across our Firm, representing different functions in our business.  Each Leader has a team of people that work with them to assess each idea and move forward with ideas deemed valuable to the business.  It is important for the business to be accountable for this process as they are in the best position to make a determination on the business value of an idea and take the idea from concept to reality.  And if you are able to implement only that one great idea – then mission accomplished.

Key considerations for ideas taking a path towards implementation:

  • Focus on a few – concentrate your efforts on a couple impactful ideas to increase the probability of the ideas being implemented.
  • Define a process to assess ideas, determine those that are most valuable, and prioritize for implementation.
  • Designate a business owner for each idea moving forward to be accountable for its progress and implementation.

Creating a strategy around challenges as part of your innovation management practices is important to yield ideas that will generate business value.   We have found Challenges to be a successful way to yield ideas that are relevant to business opportunities and issues we are currently facing.  These are some of the advantages we have found in using a challenge approach to sourcing ideas from our employees.  This has helped us implement almost 100 ideas in just 18 months.  Equally astonishing is the pipeline of 300 ideas under consideration in various parts of our business.  Challenges have fueled our pipeline with relevant, thoughtful ideas that are helping meet current needs.  Crafting a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to soliciting ideas through Challenge accelerates the delivery of solutions for current needs.

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3 Responses to The Power of a Challenge – Steps to Maximize Participation and Value

  1. Chris Wasden says:

    Well done. This is an area our clients really need help with. Most initial innovation efforts yield lots of low value an unfocused ideas. These challenges ficus the innovative energies around what I call “aligned instability” so that create new innovations in a general agreed upon strategic direction

    • Michele McConomy says:

      Thank you Chris! I would also add that challenges will yield lots of ideas that seem low value and unfocused, but the opportunity lies in how you evolve and mature them after the challenge. Challenges just open up the beginning of the pipeline and provide the outlet for possibilities. Focusing on the development, evolution, and maturity of the idea is the most critical step in realizing the value and potential of an idea. It takes time and brain power to mature ideas, so thinking a challenge will yield the best idea right away, as you know, is not realistic. From what I have seen here and observing other companies, it’s that that next step after yielding ideas that seems to be the most difficult to get right. Challenges yield the possibility, but development, evolution and maturity of the idea will bring the opportunity. Allowing the time and giving the permission to evolve ideas is always a challenge itself.

  2. Rob Caldera says:

    Great piece Michele! Challenges are definitely a great way to build employee engagement. They provide an official outlet for employees to contribute in ways other than their day to day jobs. While prizes are important, they are usually not the main reason internal company challenges attract attention. Employees generally want to contribute in ways that can help their companies (i.e. new innovative ideas requested via challenges) so that they feel they are part of something bigger than their specific roles. It’s also a way for them to show their additional potential and value to the organization by contributing knowledge and expertise that they may never have been asked for outside of the challenge.

    Even though challenges by their very nature are competitive, they can also be a positive force for driving collaboration in an organization. They focus everyone on goals aimed at improving the firm, plus in many cases require staff to reach out and team up with other staff, often outside of their area in order to bring in other disciplines that provide specific expertise to help with the challenge.

    I agree that the next step is the most important but I don’t think that just applies to what gets done with the winning ideas. How do you keep the momentum going and transfer the collaborative and innovative aspects of the competition to everything else the company does? Successful challenges show that employees want to be more engaged, particularly in things that are important to the firm as a whole. They represent an opportunity to implement change by taking the excitement and ideals of the competition and building them into every day work. It can lay the groundwork to build a truly collaborative and innovative organization….provided there is consistent follow up.

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