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Innovation contests can work, but only if managed properly

Terry Kline is a proponent of innovation contests because he’s seen how they can change the work dynamic. “What’s made me do it everywhere I’ve ever worked is that I’ve had employees who say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great idea, but no one will listen to me,'” Kline, senior vice president and CIO at Navistar International Co. in Lisle, Ill., said in an interview with SearchCIO. So Kline creates opportunities for employees to pursue those great ideas right in the workplace.

Innovation contests or hackathons are a way to crowdsource ideas for new products or new ways of doing things. In the last few years, as the engineering talent wars rage on and as new competitors continue to emerge from unexpected places, innovation contests have become popular in the enterprise and beyond. Kline has used the technique for years, even before taking up his IT post at Navistar, a manufacturer of industrial vehicles and engines, in 2013.

Kline hosts innovation contests at least once a quarter, but he doesn’t do so on a set schedule. Instead, he uses innovation contests as a leadership tool when he either needs to find the most efficient way to execute on an idea or he’s interested in teasing out new ideas. One critical component? He doesn’t limit innovation contests to the IT department.

Instead, with the backing of the CEO to whom he reports, he encourages cross-functional teams to work together whenever possible. “IT by itself is back office, under the covers,” he said. “So if you don’t have a business problem or a solution, [the results are] not as attractive,” he said.

Top ideas are awarded prizes. (Kline has been known to gift his spot in the executive parking area for a month. “I give things away that you can’t buy,” he said.) And the very best ideas are implemented. Over-the-air re-programming, a feature in some Navistar engines that will enable drivers and fleet owners to update engine control modules over a Wi-Fi connection rather than having to return to a service bay, came out of an innovation contest. “It started off as a 1.5-page idea that was then turned into a prototype,” Kline said. “Now it’s a real project, funded, and everyone in the company knows about it.”

Innovation contests are just another process

Innovation contests have the potential to yield great results, but to get there, CIOs should think about them in a basic way: At the core, innovation contests are just another  process, according to Tim Kastelle, a teacher of innovation management at the University of Queensland Business School.

In a column he penned for the Harvard Business Review, he wrote that idea generation is the easy part. It’s all of the steps required to turn an idea into practice that’s hard. Ideas have to be sorted, employees have to be given a chance to execute on the selected ideas, cheerleaders have to keep the organization enthusiastic about the idea, and marketers are needed to “get your great new idea to spread,” he wrote.

Kastelle provided readers with a couple of tips on how to build a successful innovation practice: First, evaluate the organization’s innovation strengths and weaknesses; second, invest in improving those weaknesses, he said. “It will likely involve making genuine changes in the way things are managed,” he wrote. After six months to a year, Kastelle recommends repeating the evaluation process.

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