Innovation is one of those buzzwords that evoke rich corporate landscapes of blue-sky ideas, experimental infrastructures, and new revenue streams and paths to success. However, attempting to drive innovation can also forecast brain fog and hazy ideas that obscure visibility enough to result in teams hitting brick walls or taking wrong turns. In short, innovation is like the weather: sometimes changeable, often unpredictable.
Make Innovation Collaborative
In day-to-day work, innovation is also a bit of a marmite term among colleagues; some people love it so much they’ll gladly spread it on toast, while others recoil at the mere mention of it. When TWi announced our Innovation Project, every colleague joined the Innovation team by default. Anyone who has an idea can submit it for consideration. Collaboration is encouraged across departments and we want this to be a fun experience where people can pursue projects that excite them, upskill in new areas, take some risks, and enjoy the rewards. We don’t want innovation to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, nor do we want anyone left out in the cold. It’s great to encourage positivity and creativity, but without some structure in place, the chaos leads to inevitable dissatisfaction. In an article on The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, Harry P. Pisano explains:
Without discipline, almost anything can be justified as an experiment. Discipline-oriented cultures select experiments carefully on the basis of their potential learning value, and they design them rigorously to yield as much information as possible relative to the costs. They establish clear criteria at the outset for deciding whether to move forward with, modify, or kill an idea.
Use Experts to Support Innovation
To achieve this balance between creative freedom and project management, we assembled an Innovation Support Team (IST). The IST developed a framework for submitting, evaluating, and pursuing projects. We are also consultants, guiding ideas from grainy seeds to projects that bear fruit that nurtures the company as we grow and expand our skills, offerings, and revenue streams. In a sense we are for our colleagues, “a jury of their peers”, but hopefully much less foreboding than a courtroom. As Toni Ressaire, Director of Innovation and Projects at TWi, states:
While innovation requires freedom to generate and explore ideas, experiment with tools and processes, and even face dead ends, structure will guide innovative teams toward a common goal and make the most effective use of resources.
By shouldering the responsibility of creating and implementing application processes and project management, the IST paves the way for creative freedom to be the main driver of innovation projects, minimising admin potholes and roadblocks.
Application criteria for the IST included:
- A clear view of the strategies and objectives of the company
- Internal knowledge of who to reach out to for specific expertise
- Project management experience or a desire to learn
- The ability to evaluate innovation project ideas objectively
The IST stands on three key pillars:
- To support the company’s policy of inclusion
- To set up a framework for evaluating innovation ideas
- To support the innovation culture
The result of this call for applications is a team made up of technical writers at various career stages, HR staff, team leads, and translation and localization staff.
Kickstart the Innovation Support Team
Initially, the IST split into three groups, each tasked with a particular goal, including developing idea submission and evaluation processes, implementing project management strategies for innovation projects, and managing internal resources and projects through innovation. As I write this article, we have designed and presented the application process, evaluation criteria, project management supports, and assets to the entire company following several months of development and debate. During this time, I came to understand that the IST fulfils a number of other key functions: developing a playground of the mind, energy management, and risk assessment.
The Imaginarium: A Playground of the Mind
While the pandemic has posed many challenges to our everyday lives, I think it’s the best time for us to launch the innovation project. Before COVID-19, we were a dispersed workforce made up of remote workers and employees who worked out of the office several days per week. With everyone now working from home we have had to put even more effort into maintaining social interaction and open communication, and avoiding isolation.
During this time, we also went to work at embedding a culture of innovation. A cornerstone of this is what we call the Imaginarium, a playground of the mind. This is a digital forum set up using Yammer where anyone can share ideas, ask questions, collaborate, and brainstorm. Several innovation projects are in the works thanks to this creative environment. People have taken their “Wouldn’t it be great if [blank]” and “What if we [blank]” thoughts and reframed them as projects. Anyone who has ever woken up in the middle of the night with a great idea, only to reawaken in the morning frustrated that their idea has slipped through their fingers like sand, will appreciate the value of having a sandbox to hold those thoughts and ideas.
Those of us who had grown accustomed to bouncing ideas off each other in the office have had to readjust. Conversations have greater intent because we must engage in meaningful follow-ups if for no other reason than we are not going to bump into colleagues in the corridor and be reminded of that project we put on the long finger. None of us have a physical workplace away from home now, but we all have the same access to digital resources.
To this end, we developed a skills directory. Instead of simply having an employee directory with contact details for each person, we have an Innovation Almanac to consult when we need to know who is an expert in Python, who can edit videos, or who speaks Japanese.
Manage Energy Instead of Time
Every innovation project requires time not spent on client work. Anyone who has ever worked to deadlines knows that they can sometimes be like horizons that recede the closer you get to them. Waning enthusiasm, tiredness, and all sorts of other issues pop up as hurdles to doing one’s work. The IST is in a long game of Tetris with these issues. We know that when we eradicate a set of blockers, more will come. But we hope that our time spent deconstructing barriers means that our colleagues have more energy to put into their innovation projects. We worked hard to streamline the administrative processes and simplify them so that we can minimise time spent on these and maximise time spent on innovation projects without impacting our commitment to our clients. Indeed, the law of conservation of energy is that that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – only converted from one form of energy to another. Maya Angelou understood this in relation to innovation when she said “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” The IST’s structural energy supports our colleagues’ creative energy. Conduits like the Imaginarium ensure that instead of atomising creative energy, we magnetize ideas to bolster collaborative energy.
Time is a finite resource, but energy is renewable. Another definition of energy is the ability to do. But just because a person can doesn’t mean they feel able or empowered enough to do. Empowering our colleagues is a cornerstone of the IST’s mission.
Risk Assessment: Avoid Jurassic Mistakes
People who want to pursue innovation projects can learn a lot from Jurassic Park. As well as being an excellent work of science fiction, Jurassic Park is a prime example of how not to coordinate an innovation project. The fictional megalomaniac and entrepreneur John Hammond realises his ultimate innovation project: a theme park populated with cloned dinosaurs.
Only after a series of dangerous events does Hammond brings in a range of consultants to assess the viability of his creation, with no real intention of taking any criticisms on board. The warnings from a chaos theorist, a palaeontologist, and a palaeobotanist are dismissed even as the park descends into disaster. Their expertise is brought into the project too late and by a manager who values his despotic vision over everything.
Unlike the geneticist in Jurassic Park who cloned dinosaurs without first consulting with experts who could explain the biological and environmental hazards of such a project, our IST has had the opportunity to consult with management and an external innovation consultant from the beginning, and our ideas have been heard, valued, and realised. Had Hammond brought the consultants on board from the earliest stages of planning his theme park, the T-Rex enclosure might have been cordoned with more than an electric fence, velociraptors may not have been able to open doors, the Triceratops may not have fallen ill due to poisonous non-native plants, and children would not have been invited to an unfinished, dangerous environment.
The IST had many conversations and debates about all manner of issues, from risk assessment, intellectual property, and data management, to IT security, time, and budgetary issues. We shared past experiences and lessons learned, and drew on our knowledge as colleagues of the very people we invite to innovate. We did this before we even considered opening the doors to the metaphorical theme park.
There’s always a certain amount of risk in any new project. Energy and enthusiasm peak and plateau. Things don’t go to plan and agendas change. Einstein said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem I would take 19 to define it.” With an IST in place, innovators have readymade shock absorbers and energy-savers ready to support their needs and give them the space in their schedules and in their minds to do the work that inspires them.