Using an Internal Stock Market of Ideas

New employees at Rite-Solutions get issued $10,000 worth of “opinion money” and are invited to become part of the company’s internal stock market for ideas. The stock market, named Mutual Fun, “is a mechanism to take the employee relationship beyond the transaction level—I pay you, you do a job—to an emotional level where people are entrusted with the future direction of the company, asked for their opinions, listened to, and rewarded for successful ideas. Most companies say, ‘This is what we do.’ We ask, ‘What can we do with what we know?’ The stock market helps provide the answers.”

Here’s how it works: Any member of the company can propose that Rite-Solutions acquire or develop a new technology, enter a new line of business, or make an efficiency improvement that reduces costs. These proposals become stocks on the Mutual Fun market, complete with their own ticker symbols, discussion lists, and e-mail alerts. Each stock comes with a detailed description (called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus) and begins trading at a price of $10. Employees signal their enthusiasm for an idea by investing in the stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project, to contribute to its so-called Budge-It Items (small steps that move an idea forward). Volunteers share in the proceeds, in the form of real money, if the stock delivers real-world revenue. The market regularly updates a Top 20 list of the most highly thought-of ideas, which get special attention as a result of their grassroots support.

The ideas in Mutual Fun are divided into three categories. “Blue chip” stocks are low-risk proposals that fall into the company’s sweet spot. “Futures” are high-risk, high-reward ideas that require Rite-Solutions to stretch as a business or enter an unfamiliar market. “Savings bonds” are ideas to cut costs rather than increase revenue, to help the bottom line without necessarily growing the top line. Over time, as employees buy and sell stocks, an algorithm adjusts prices to reflect the sentiments of the company’s highly credentialed engineers and computer scientists, its veteran project managers—as well as its marketers, accountants, even the receptionist. The market also includes “penny stocks,” which are blue-sky ideas where employees are invited to “give their two cents” without having to invest opinion money.

“Mutual Fun allows half-baked ideas to get into the community,” CEO Jim Lavoie told a business-school researcher who studied the stock market. “It lets people start chatting about them, making them better, polishing. Informal ‘interest networks’ form without management, without supervision. When an informal network forms, [we] let it form.

The stock market is, without question, a slick application of technology—just the sort of thing Rite-Solutions is respected for in military and commercial circles. But it’s also a compelling metaphor for leadership, for what can happen when senior executives combine big ambitions for their company with genuine humility about how to realize those ambitions.

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