Brainstorm began as an internal innovation management platform at Intuit, but it’s now available as an external offering following extensive customer testing. Tad Milbourn, product manager for Brainstorm, walked me through the application’s role in the company’s own innovation approach. Even though I’ve been following Brainstorm’s development for a while (as an innovation in its own right), I could see that Intuit is working both to grow the tool’s capabilities and its ability to serve a variety of customer needs.
They started with two goals: Submit an idea, find an idea. The plan was to create a super-simple, employee-friendly platform that would be in tune with an employee base with growing social networking skills.
The perspective underlying Brainstorm
Brainstorm, as used at Intuit, manages over 5,500 ideas. Individuals can track ideas, but no one person is interested in all 5,500. The app’s Pipelines feature allows business unit managers and other interested parties to keep track of subsets of ideas. Even within similar activities, like customer service from one product to another, there are different criteria for moving from idea to action.
Ideas are initially handled at the department or team level, where the most detailed knowledge resides. As the vetting process continues, appropriate business units get involved, but idea management tends to start at a lower level, where processes can be unique. Milbourn noted:
If you don’t create space for the teams, allowing them to make local decisions, then the ideas fall off…. We’ve found teams or departments within a product group making local decisions and then bringing those to their leaders.
The process used in Brainstorm cuts the time spent in the innovation funnel by vetting ideas at lower levels in the organization.
How does Brainstorm enable follow-through?
Ideation is just the start of the innovation process. Milbourn explained how Brainstorm enables follow-through on ideas:
The tools need to allow for fluidity because ideas are fluid. We make it easy for others across the organization to question, validate, suggest other people to go talk to … all so the idea can go from a two paragraph description to a specific problem that can be acted upon.
Brainstorm gives ideas visibility by either explicitly forwarding them from one person to another or by tracking activity in a way that signals something important is going on. Decisions start to happen when people with responsibility or passion start to notice this activity.
But innovation isn’t always organic. Sometimes there is a specific need. Brainstorm’s Challenges feature allows anyone to lay out a customer problem or strategic priority and request focused ideas.
By virtue of ideas going directly into a challenge — we collapse what is normally “organizational pinball” to find the right person into a direct dialogue.
Challenges have really come to life. The [Brainstorm] development team has heard from users that sometimes they don’t have a great idea to push, but they still want to participate in the innovation process. Challenges give them something to work towards.
Do ideas stay in Brainstorm throughout their development?
It depends on the team with the idea. Teams may need more advanced project management and turn to QuickBase, SharePoint, or wikis. Intuit has a pretty open approach — use what’s best for the team. Some ideas continue their development inside Brainstorm given the collaboration and notification capabilities. Teams find that every now and then an outsider will chime in with something useful. Staying inside Brainstorm, versus moving to a team-only tool, provides continued company-wide visibility to the project.
In client organizations, Milbourn says it depends on whether the organization already has a set project management system. If so, then teams are likely to shift into that tool as the idea matures. However, sometimes even those projects have the Brainstorm page as the introduction to the ongoing project and then add links to the formal project management system.
Where companies don’t have a history with formal project management tools, the ideas can stay in Brainstorm. “Brainstorm is being used in ways we didn’t plan. We continue to do research to see what we can learn from that.”