The Idea Factory, a new internal process for stimulating, collecting, and evaluating new product ideas and cost improvements, has taken the notion of the old employee suggestion box to the next level.

Our team at the Toronto Star developed the Idea Factory, an easy-to-use Web site that focuses more on stimulating ideas than some methods of gathering employee ideas.

The consumer marketing division, which includes circulation, at the Toronto Star had grown revenue for seven straight years, and we were determined to make it eight. I was assigned a new role that included both product management of existing products/product extensions that had helped us achieve our revenue goals in the past and the development of new ideas.

The new task of developing new ideas was a challenge because we were budgeted no additional resources. Needless to say, the team was concerned about our ability to generate those ideas in a meaningful way and keep the idea generation process at the forefront of our effort instead of getting bogged down in the day-to-day management of products.

To help keep the ideas coming, we introduced The Idea Factory (IF).

The team worked hard to develop IF so that it addressed concerns about previous idea suggestions processes. We also wanted to ensure we built something efficient enough to become a part of our routine.

Participants need only submit thoughts around a few simple questions, then a review committee screens the ideas to determine which ones require more investigation.

We started in our division with a teaser campaign, “What IF,” which didn’t reveal that IF stood for Idea Factory. We asked staff to “pin” photos of cool/interesting/new products or services they encounter in their daily lives.

People had a lot of fun pinning their favourite things, and we generated more than 300 pins. We then rolled out the full Idea Factory process, which included a Web site and easy-to-use template for idea submission, an idea review committee/process, and a monthly newsletter.

We also implemented monthly challenges, which are designed to spark creativity and ideas. In one challenge, we asked employees to submit an old idea that you were told will never work. Another, “Cash Confessions,” asked employees to tell us how they would treat themselves if they suddenly had extra cash in their pocket.

People post their responses in our IF Café, where we gather to celebrate and discuss the ideas and have a coffee.

The end result is that it stimulates new product ideas – both for the participants from the department and for product development team, who takes the submissions and looks for trends or product concepts to build on.

Before IF, we had no formal process force for generating ideas. Sometimes we would form a task force led to chosen staff for most new products. We found that some staff members felt left out of the process or were unclear about expectations.

More importantly, though, was that people never knew what happened with their idea. A brief feedback mechanism in Idea Factory informs the idea submitter of the status of their idea.

We coming up on the first anniversary of the project and are pleased with our progress. We’ve had almost 1,000 challenge responses and almost 200 ideas submitted and reviewed. Six ideas have already launched or are in launch phase.

We learned by developing IF that it’s important to have a suggestion process and to make sure everyone knows what your expectations are and how the process works. We found sticking to the process proved to staff we were serious about the idea-generation process.

We live by the mantra that there are no bad ideas — because even the not-so-great ones can stimulate great discussion and more ideas. But the fact is there are some bad ones. We are honest with employees about their ideas. We don’t dwell on the weaker ideas because you don’t want to hurt feelings. We make a call and get on to another idea that has more promise.

We found that giving our employees incentive helps keep the ideas coming. People love free stuff. Even a simple thing like a C$5 gift card to the local coffee shop or random prizes can go a long way in getting people to participate.