The Power of Idea Fairs

Alan Robinson Posted by Alan Robinson.

Alan Robinson has authored or coauthored seven books and more than sixty articles. His book Corporate Creativity, coauthored with Sam Stern, was a finalist for the Financial Times/Booz Allen & Hamilton Global Best Business Book Award, and it was named “Book of the Year” by the Academy of Human Resource Management.

The Power of Idea Fairs

Last week, Dean Schroeder and I were working in Sweden, studying the idea initiatives of government agencies at all levels, from Kommuns (the equivalent of county governments) to national level institutions like the Tax Authority, the Defense Department, and Immigration. Almost everywhere, the same concern came up: What can we do, as leaders in a government setting, to get our employees and managers on board with our front-line idea systems? One recommendation that resonated with them was to start holding idea fairs. 

In the language of The Idea-Driven Organization, the idea fair is both an alignment and a replication tool (i.e. a way to spread good ideas to everywhere they can be used throughout the organization).

In the private sector, where it is generally easier for top management to change direction, the most common alignment “push” technique is to make both managers and employees accountable for ideas in some way, forcing them to start behaving their way into believing. But in a government environment, these Swedish leaders pointed out to us, this is a difficult way to proceed. The quickest way ahead for them was to figure out a “pull” technique – a way to get their people to believe in the power of front-line ideas, so they would then change their behaviors. (Ideally, of course, a blend of “push” and “pull” approaches is best, when feasible.)

In any case, back to idea fairs, the weapon under discussion here in the believe-to-behave “pull” arsenal. Although all idea fairs are different in their details, the basic concept is as follows. Once every quarter/six months/year, every department is asked to pick an idea to present at the fair, which lasts for a half-day or a day, occurs in a large (often offsite) hall or room, and is well-publicized. Each department is given some floor space, and asked to design and staff an exhibit (which could be a poster board, video or other demonstration of the idea – we have seen some very creative exhibits over the years). During the fair, with lunch or refreshments provided, everyone in the organization who is within range is encouraged to come and spend a couple of hours looking around. Many organizations also extend invitations to their customers – what better way to impress?

Many large organizations – Milliken, Allianz, France Telecom, Kodak, Phillip-Morris, Dubal, Motorola, Matsushita and Toyota, to name a few – run idea fairs on a regular basis. Although most private sector organizations that are serious about ideas hold their managers and employees accountable for idea performance, they recognize the importance of regularly demonstrating the power of front-line ideas to them as well.

The idea fair is relatively easy to put together, and offers “wins” on multiple fronts. Employees who stand in front of their idea exhibits, explaining their teams’ improvement ideas, are proud to do so. As managers and employees tour all the exhibits and see and engage with large numbers of good front-line ideas within a short space of time, they see firsthand how front-line ideas can help them meet their goals. If they don’t currently support the idea effort, they should begin to feel that they are going against a strong and positive tide. Idea fairs are also a wonderful alignment tool for the people who need it the most: top managers, whose daily work is often distant from the front-lines, and who can easily forget the power of front-line ideas and how these constitute 80 percent of their performance improvement engines. No organization can be idea-driven without strong continuing leadership from the top.

Lastly, idea fairs are a wonderful replication tool. As people circulate, they see directly, or are provoked to think of, ideas they can use in their own areas. In short, a good idea fair is not only inspirational and reinforcing of desirable behaviors, but triggers many more ideas as well.