In 2016, Fidelity International launched FIL Ideas – a global ideation platform to crowdsource, you guessed it, Ideas. Its popularity was immediate and overwhelming. Within 6 months the platform had had over 90% of the company registered, 100,000 views, 700 Ideas, and much fan fair. From all over the world people were engaging and some ideas were racking up over 150 likes each. All this in a company of just 7,500 or so.

But, for those Lean Start Up evangelists among us, you’ll rightly point out none of that really means a thing. Engagement is great, but if it’s not the end game, it’s just a vanity metric. If you’re an online retailer, do you care about site views? No. You care about conversion rates.

What was our conversion rate from idea to execution? It was woefully low. Maybe a handful. And those were primarily the very quick wins.

So, what went wrong? Our main shortcoming was that we’d started back to front: we focussed so heavily on enabling people to ideate, that we didn’t address what to do after we’d decided an idea was worth pursuing. Moreover, when promoting intrapreneurship and facilitating it with a platform, we soon found engagement is a complicated beast. You’ll have a multitude of profiles and behaviours: people who only like or vote on ideas, but don’t engage further; people who, having raised an idea, then want nothing more to do with it; and people desperately willing to support ideas, but have few of their own. It’s very easy to confuse ideation with innovation. The first part is easy, we all have ideas – but innovation is executing an idea and adding value on the way. We had fallen victim to democratising ideation before we professionalised how we could deliver innovation.

It can be difficult to know where to start, given you want to tap into the enthusiasm and energy of an organisation at large. But it can help if you first aim to answer a few big questions:

  1. What is your innovation strategy and how do you expect people to engage with it?

This is all about setting the playing field. Without a strategic view as to what you’re pursuing as an organisation (think Three Horizons), you can’t define what or how people should get involved. Engagement for me breaks down into two tracks: you can crowdsource ideas and you can crowdsource effort. Or you can do both. But short of introducing a 20% rule a la Google, how do you expect people to deliver real innovation alongside their day jobs? You might choose to limiting the crowd to just ideation, which is incredibly powerful. But even more powerful is failing to do anything with what’s been raised. Up front, you need to scope out how you expect to deliver innovation, especially if you’re democratising ideation. Then communicate and commit to it.

  1. Where’s the money?

This is obvious for a professional innovation stream: who’s picking up the cost of resourcing a team. For innovation at large, it’s more subtle. Without some promise of delivery, your troops can quickly become disenchanted with lack of response and progress where you’re longing for even the vanity metrics to return.  This is why it can help to focus democratised innovation on smaller, everyday innovations which are easier to manage, and save the more disruptive execution to a dedicated team.

  1. Who’s the sponsor?

Your professional innovation stream should align to the strategic priorities of the organisation. For company-wide innovation, find sponsors who are committed to the highs and lows of engaging a wide population. And: be brutal. If there’s no money to deliver but only best intentions, save your employees the disappointment of engaging them only to quietly step back later.

This isn’t rocket science, but since understanding these difficulties, and specifically addressing the first point, we’re putting our democratised tools to better use: complementing processes that benefit from this type of workflow management, and launching big competitions only when we’ve secured the infrastructure and senior sponsorship to accelerate innovation and embed it as a mindset. By finding the answers to those questions, you’re already on the road to professionalising, which enables you to democratise with fewer worries.