Engaging employees for an innovation advantage

May 16, 2014




Wisdom of the crowds, co-creation, crowdsourcing – the innovation meme is abuzz with new approaches to innovate that invite employees to participate in the innovation process. Companies such as HondaAT&T and Citi are finding ways to leverage their employees for fresh ideas while improving overall employee engagement.

Unfortunately, the siloed nature of big organizations can hinder companies from harnessing the collective creativity of their employees, but it can be done. PwC recently held an innovation challenge and asked our employees to submit their ideas for how we can leverage web and mobile technologies to better serve our clients. The innovation competition generated an exciting new project for our Emerging Tech Lab and valuable insights on running a successful competition. Here’s what we learned.

Fence the Open Field

If you make the problem statement too broad, the suggestions won’t be practical. If it’s too narrow, you stifle the “outside of the box” thinking the competition is trying to foster. To find the right balance, succinctly define “who are we trying to help?” and “what is the problem statement?” Next, establish the constraints under which you are operating (e.g., must use publicly available data, must be feasible within 3-4 months). We asked employees to think about how technology can help optimize business processes, enable new business models and deliver new insights for our clients.

Build Awareness Early to Create Buzz

To increase awareness of the event, treat the innovation competition as a major event. At least three months prior to launch, distribute an organization-wide “save the date” communication from a senior leader to lend credibility. Communicate with increasing frequency up until the launch date to generate anticipation. Send big announcements through official company channels to maximize reach and stress the importance of participation. We communicated consistently about the event through our internal social media platform and received sponsorship from the CTO of Advisory.

Incorporate Diverse Incentives

It might be demanding to motivate employees to contribute above and beyond the call of duty, especially for activities that fall outside of their core responsibilities. To spur employee engagement, provide incentives. We offered a combination of cash prizes, recognition by senior leadership and the assurance that the winning submission would be developed into a working prototype.

Focus on Feasibility

To avoid “pie in the sky” submissions, selected finalists should be expected to demonstrate the feasibility of their ideas by:

  • Identifying an executive sponsor who would be willing to validate and support the idea
  • Developing application wireframes, business process flows, and/or financial models to understand assumptions & constraints
  • Formally presenting their idea to leadership, including inherent challenges, and how they would overcome them

It’s critical to provide support through training, tools, and team mentors to help finalists be successful in meeting these objectives and deliverables. PwC provided training on both wire-framing tools and user experience design concepts to give teams the skills they needed to develop realistic mockups of their ideas.

Follow Through

When the prizes have been awarded, the work is far from done. The real value of an innovation competition comes from turning the winning submissions into tangible initiatives and products. This not only gets you to an ROI, it demonstrates the company’s willingness to invest in employees’ ideas, which can encourage employee trust and engagement for future innovation initiatives. For PwC’s innovation competition, we developed the winning idea into a three-month project. We built a working speech to text engine and used it to perform some unique analytics for a major telecom client.

Companies that successfully leverage their employees for innovation have a real competitive advantage, but harnessing that value is not easy. An innovation challenge is a great way to do that, but it takes a well-defined problem statement, clear communications strategy, the right mix of incentives and the willingness to bring the idea to life.

Niko Pipaloff contributed to this post.



Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email