Sometimes, the best ideas are hidden in plain sight.

In every organization, thousands of new business ideas waiting to be unlocked. If well supported, these could lead to major improvements of existing products or services and business models, or to launching new ones alltogether.

Yet most employees getting those ideas whilst doing their jobs, often don't think it's their responsibility to act, or they don't know what to do. There are however different ways to capture those ideas bubbling up, and more importantly, to support those employees to take ownership and test their ideas for real- learning valuable skills as a side-benefit.

Here's how employee-driven innovation is facilitated within NASA, Nestlé and IBM.


Carissa Callini shared the ins and outs of NASA@WORK; NASA's internal crowdsourcing platform where anyone in NASA can post a problem or question and get ideas and feedback from across the agency. This allows access and knowledge sharing to NASA employees across geographic regions and specialties.

This program engages the workforce through challenges, discussion questions, and innovation calls. Technical and non-technical teams can turn their problems into mini-competitions with awards at the end.

Challenges can be big, small, broad, or specific. Challenges are anything that create an issue such as processes that take too much time or things that cost a lot of money. Challenges should be limited in scope, specific, and actionable.

NASA encourages challenge owners to start with the five whys to determine the root cause of the problem, and simply requires repetition of the question "why?" Challenge creators should also ask: "What has been done before?" and "Why hasn't this been solved?" All of this goes into the challenge for the solvers to see. The typical NASA practice is to keep challenges open for four to six weeks to keep things moving and fresh and to give a sense of urgency to those that are thinking about submitting.

Up to two winners are awarded at the end of a challenge which includes recognition and awards that are unique to NASA and crowdsourced. NASA also identified that managerial recognition was a key driver so this has been integrated into the recognition processes for challenge owners and challenge winners.

As you look to implement internal challenges in your company, consider these takeaways from NASA@WORK:

  • Take away as much friction as possible. Guide challenge owners through every step, like a sherpa
  • Set expectations at the beginning
  • Encourage active participation by the challenge ownersduring the challenge
  • Follow-up! How much of an impact does the idea make?
  • Be flexible and willing to evolve

InGenius at Nestlé

How does a 150-year-old company that also happens to be the largest food and beverage corporation and overall 22nd-largest company in the world continue to innovate? By leveraging the collective power of its more than 352,000 employees. The project is Nestlé InGenius, co-founded by product group manager Nick De Blasio.

The idea behind InGenius is that innovation can come from anywhere, and is in everyone's best interest. Today, InGenius is a digital platform on which every employee can not just submit ideas, but find similar ideas. Employees can also vote and comment on the ideas of others, each playing a part in bringing the best ideas forward. The platform enabled Nestlé to design solutions around the ideas and insights coming directly from the people with their ears on the ground, and working most closely on the resulting solutions.

In the seven years since its initial concept, InGenius has undoubtedly evolved. Ideation now happens around innovation challenges, based on specific topics presented by unit leaders.

Ideation is defined as a 4-week process, at which point the people behind the ideas present them to a panel of experts. Concept development happens over the course of 8 weeks, before an MVP is built within 12 weeks.

It's how 7,000+ ideas get narrowed down to 180 prototypes, which have ended up in 84 MVP pilots to date. The projects coming out of that process have ranged from an ocean container tracker to automatically anticipate supply chain delays, to customer speech analytics designed to improve marketing and customer support. In the COVID-19 pandemic, a Hack COVID19 challenge generated 96 ideas to improve virtual collaboration, improve exercise for sedentary work-from-home employees, and more.

A few important lessons can help other organizations leverage a similar approach for internal innovation on an everyday basis:

  • Diverse teams, not just in skills and backgrounds but even across different types of brands and business units, can improve idea generation
  • Strict deadlines standardize the process and help to manage quantity
  • Internal open crowdsourcing doesn't just generate ideas, but also helps in filtering and validating these ideas
  • Innovation SEED funding at the discretion of Senior Executives, through Shark Tank-style events, is especially successful when individual investments are relatively low

Area 631 at IBM

IBM recognizes that its people are the biggest asset of the company and has worked to empower them to innovate. One mechanism to enable innovation by employees is its Area 631 incubator. This incubator started in Canada but has since spread globally.

It selects six innovators to focus on a specific challenge for three months with the goal of one breakthrough — hence the name 631. The goal is to create a small, focused team, operating as a start-up, who will grow an idea into an initial prototype, with the goal of kick-starting a new IBM offering.

In developing Area 631, the goal was to be light on process and heavy on support. For three months, the group should forget they are part of a large enterprise. There are no rules or roadblocks to inhibit creativity. The teams have access to all the tools they need, as well as a team of executive mentors and sponsors who provide insight and advice throughout the residency. The innovators come from all different job roles in a lab with different experience levels and tenure.

The incubator has been running for two years with eight incubators worldwide. It has proven that it provides several benefits to the company:

  • Achieving tangible business results is the driving force behind the projects selected to participate
  • Provides client and partner engagement opportunities. Area 631 presents an opportunity to address client-specific problems and engage with them throughout the process.
  • Improves employee engagement and retention by providing a start-up experience within IBM with improved career trajectory, opportunity to boost patent portfolio, benefit from mentorship with senior executives and technical staff
  • Integrates speed and disruption into a large corporation allowing innovation to happen more quickly, which provides the opportunity to get to market faster and disrupt

The recipe for Area 631's success includes freedom for the teams involved, 100% focus by the employees, which requires manager alignment, thinking big and starting small, and providing constant support and feedback throughout the process.

For the best and latest on everything "employee-driven innovation" and to have conversations like this with other cross-industry innovation leaders, join our upcoming Innov8rs Connect on Foresight & Business Design (26-28 October), and on Venture Building & Scaling (2-4 November).