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Bad Innovation: BP's Big Suggestion Box

BP's ideation strategy has overwhelmed its staff and failed to come up with any innovative solutions.

By Christine Crandell of Accept Software Corporation

In the aftermath of the


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oil spill, we expect a wave of new regulations, advances in oil cleanup and plenty of finger-pointing as the government, oil companies and communities around the globe weigh in on the "lessons learned."

One lesson most people won't be chatting about in office hallways is what we can learn about innovation. Without any pre-contemplated methods for shutting down a spill one-mile underwater after a failed shut-off valve, BP was forced to implement a process for instant innovation. For each day that the company's efforts to invent a better way to respond to the leak doesn't deliver results, the stock price tumbles, government favor is lost and liabilities stack even higher.

BP's crunch for innovation is an incredible circumstance, but it's not unlike the pressure every product company has to innovate faster. You could even say that these companies also have a "leak" of market-share, revenues and buzz for every week the next, more advanced release is postponed.

Those organizations that are consistently highly rated for innovation like


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also have a tendency towards high-growth revenues, profits, sales volumes and stock performance.

These companies have developed a consistent process for innovation that enables them bring to market a steady stream of "got-to-have"new products and compelling enhancements to existing product lines. I would even venture to argue that a company's process for consistently delivering product and services innovation is their most valuable asset that will determine if the company wins or loses.

BP's Suggestion Box

Of particular interest is BP's ideation strategy -- a giant suggestion box with 35,000 ideas from the masses and manned by a technical staff of 70. The concept of the suggestion box was first popularized in the United States in the 1880s and has demonstrated a history of bringing out good ideas from unexpected places. But times were slower then.

Let's look at some of the challenges BP faces with a suggestion box on this scale and timeline:

  • Picky picky. So far over 99 percent of submissions to the suggestion box have not made it to testing. That means the entire SWAT crew of technical staff reviewing ideas is spending almost all their time on submissions BP will categorize as "not viable"
  • Cost: Assuming each of BP's technical staff reviewing submissions on average cost $75,000 a year in salary, benefits and expenses, the company will spend over $5 million a year on the ideation program. Almost all of it will be spent on ideas that don't pan out.
  • Bias: Worldwide teams of engineering experts are reportedly being ignored. Meanwhile, film actor Kevin Costner was pushed to the front of the line to test his centrifuge project thanks to his connections to BP execs. Crowd-sourcing becomes just a gesture when only ideas that are similar to what you would have done anyway are considered. Many of the ideas being tested are similar conceptually to things BP would have done anyway.
  • Time: If each staff member spends 30 minutes reviewing each idea, it will take approximately one month for each staffer to process 500 ideas in their queue. This is about how long some are reporting waiting and it's way too long even under normal circumstances for product development.
  • Visibility: The ancient problem with suggestion boxes is that they are inherently a one-way communications process. Submitters all over the world are upset, because they don't know if their ideas are being considered or what the outcome was.

What Could BP Do Better?

The urgency and scale of the issue creates a pressure for BP to innovate of historic proportions. So what can we learn from their response? What could they have done better?

The suggestion box is a knee-jerk reaction to the ideation process, because it's engraved in our daily routines, our culture and our concept for how we collect ideas. Organizations often transfer the suggestion box to a digital form and are content they've incorporated the latest technology into the process.

On the contrary, the suggestion box, digital or not, has all the same time, resource, bias and visibility issues since it was first incorporated in paper form.

Modern ideation, especially considering BP's aggressive timeline, needs to allow submitters to comment, rate and add to other submissions. I would gander at least a third of BP's submissions were similar to others, but how could submitters have known? Ideation contributors could have worked together, collaboratively online to enhance each other's submissions and respond to each other on what's viable and what's not.

Surveys have shown that product companies are focused on using social media tools to disseminate information about their product. This is because they're focused on selling, not collaborating.

Using a more collaborative model for ideation that is integrated into a holistic product development process that is tied to corporate strategy, companies can get better and more profitable ideas implemented faster and that's what good ideation is.

Maybe one of those 35,000 ideas could have stopped the leak.