As the initial shock of the BP oil spill subsides, we can begin to take a closer look at how BP could have reacted more quickly to stop the leak. Interestingly, by applying some basic crowdsourcing techniques, rather than creating a giant ‘suggestion box’, BP might have made better use of the ideas it received and solved the problem faster.

For those who make a business out of improving the process of innovation, the BP oil leak is a horrific case study on slow, expensive and biased forms of ideation, known as the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas. And, it exemplifies the challenge that virtually every company faces in managing innovation; products, services, business models or crisis resolution.

To better understand the problems in innovation management and ideation as related to BP, let’s take a closer look at what happened after the spill and what could have been done differently to address the oil leak more effectively.

BP Polls the Audience

Following the spill, BP was desperate for ideas – A quick fix to the disaster at hand. In hopes for an immediate solution, the oil giant created what may be the biggest suggestion box in history. Staffed by 70 full-time employees, over 35,000 ideas flooded the public Web site in just over a month.

Although 35,000 ideas may seem impressive, this was just too much information for a manual process to handle. The process itself was flawed, which means the right idea could easily be overlooked.

In sum, here are the key problems with instituting a basic suggestion box:

  • Stuck behind the gates: Over 99 percent of submissions haven’t made it to testing. The staff of over 70 is unable to review the overflow of ideas, because they’re spending most of the time on screening submissions that BP categorizes as “not viable”.

  • It’s not cheap: 70 full-time staffers are costing BP a pretty penny. You can imagine that if each employee spends over 250 hours to sort through a queue of over 500 ideas, this is expensive.
  • Playing favorites: The ideas from inventors, engineers, experts and industry thought leaders around the world are being overlooked, while those with BP connections, such as Kevin Costner, are being put to the test.
  • The clock is ticking: Let’s say that every employee spends about 30 minutes reviewing each idea. It will take almost one month for each staff member to process nearly 500 ideas in queue. Under normal product development circumstances, that’s far too long, but even more so when it comes to dealing with time sensitive disasters.
  • Lost in translation: Suggestion boxes, whether live or online, are one sided. The process is a one-way communication function that ultimately upsets the thousands of people submitting thoughts, opinions and suggestions because they have no idea where their feedback actually ends up.

BP could do better than that

The pressure for BP to innovate and the pace at which it needs to be done is of historic proportions. From an innovation management standpoint, we can learn from how they’ve responded to the spill and how they’ve leveraged crowdsourcing in attempts to fuel ideation.

The idea of soliciting feedback from experts is, in essence, an excellent idea. However, using a suggestion box is clumsy and inefficient compared to newer techniques. In retrospect, BP could have done a better job leveraging social media, like Facebooking, as well as the up-and-coming trend to gauge opinion from the audience through crowdsourcing which enable businesses to use ideation successfully.

BP’s suggestion box should have provided submitters the ability to comment on ideas, to rate them and to contribute to existing submissions. We estimate that at least one third of the submissions were similar to others in nature, but submitters had no way of knowing. The online portal should have provided a platform conducive to a collaborative environment, one where submitters could work together to enhance each other’s submissions, while at the same time respond to one another. The collaboration should have extended to include BP’s own engineers and scientists to comment, enhance or add their own ideas. Make it a community effort.

Integrating ideation with the rest of the product evaluation, definition and testing process removes organizational stovepipes and fiefdoms that slow down the innovation process and adds unnecessary costs to the end product. Additionally, a complete end-to-end innovation management process would have given BP executives visibility into all stages of the process enabling them to make faster, more confident decisions.

From a technological standpoint, BP and companies in a similar situation now or in the future, should look into using a more collaborative model for ideation. As a result, companies will be able to funnel through top-tier ideas quicker, better, easier, cheaper and, as such, will be able to implement the best ideas instantaneously.

That’s the real gem of ideation.

Christine Crandell is CMO of Accept Software and blogs regularly for The Innovation Jam