The Evolution of Innovation within our Business
Creativity & Innovation
It has been a long time since I attended a “Creativity and Innovation” training course for SME’s. We had built a successful business at the time, and were providing a good service to our clients and getting plenty of “repeat business”. However, I would say that we were largely responding to their requests, and certainly weren’t thinking too much “outside the box”.
Many definitions of Innovation talk about the implementation of an idea that results in the provision of a new product or service. The idea of spinning up a new product or service can seem like a very tall order. Especially for a company which is largely made up of engineers who like coding and executing projects.
- How do you come up with ideas?
- How do you try and foster a culture where people will come up with ideas?
- How do you get staff to see the value or importance in “Innovation”?
We learned that while some individuals are more inclined to be inquisitive, or may naturally think more holistically about a topic or a project, you can put a process in place to help foster a culture of innovation. Sometimes this is hard to get your head around because the idea of having an “Innovation Process” may lead people to think that you are trying to force ideas and not really foster creativity and true innovation.
Initially we held some Brainstorming events to kick start Innovation in our company. We had to start somewhere and we felt that an offsite event where we picked a few solutions we had delivered for clients and used those as the basis for brainstorming customers “Un met” and “Under met” needs. We also applied the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. tool to extract additional ideas from the original set of ideas (SCAMPER is an acronym formed from the abbreviation of: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse). The experience was a very positive one and captured some good ideas.
So, what did we do next? For some of the ideas that we felt could lead to a new product or service, we applied the Lean Canvas tool to determine if it really would be something that would be valued by our customers and would be something that they would pay for.
Despite the positivity and the great ideas that came out of our initial session, I think that if we are being honest, many of us reverted back to being busy doing our day to day activities.
Putting a Meaningful Innovation Process in Place
Our next step was to formalize an Innovation process which would have an internal focus as well as a customer focus. We had a formal way of capturing ideas (which could come from several sources including inspirational thoughts, customer meetings, internal meetings, events, webinars, formal 6 monthly Ideation sessions, research, etc.), categorizing them, evaluating them, performing a Lean Canvas if required, giving feedback to the originator, and implementing the idea if it successfully passed the several “gates” in our evaluation process.
While having the process in place was well and good, we assigned an Innovation Champion internally who inspired and worked with staff giving them the confidence to submit any ideas they had to the Innovation Process. We allowed time for innovation internally and allocated bi-weekly 15 min stand up meetings where a “Topic of the Month” would be discussed or used to help generate ideas. We encouraged all staff who were customer facing, be that in the delivery of software and validation projects, or as part of our support team, to feed back any ideas or insights they gleaned from customer meetings and engagements. We also provided high level training on Lean, Continuous Improvement and Customer Value to help provide context for why this would benefit us internally as well as helping us be more successful with our customers, and ultimately grow the business.
In terms of our ideas, in addition to New Product or New Service ideas, we added two internal categories – House Keeping and Internal Process Improvement.
Pizzas at lunchtime!
Innovation Fridays were also added to the mix. Pre Covid, we would get in pizzas at lunchtime on the first Friday of the month and discuss
- Research or innovation topic
- Share knowledge
- Have an ideation session
and generally, have a session where we again helped develop the culture and engrain the importance of innovation in everyone’s mind. These sessions also provided a break from the normal task-based work and proved to be very enjoyable.
Our Innovation process was formalized and we used Microsoft Dynamics and Excel for managing the ideas through the different stages until they were implemented. If an idea was not “Passed”, feedback was given to the originator as to why it wasn’t. This feedback loop was extremely important.
We brought things a step further when we developed a “Research & Innovation” Process or Function as part of our preparation for ISO Certification, and this is treated the same as any other process. It has a Process Map, KPIs that are monitored, SOPs etc.
Our Innovation process has delivered significantly for our business. Our Validation Services offering came directly from our Innovation process. It now accounts for one third of our business. We have had many more great ideas which have led to internal process improvements as well as new offerings for clients, including the development of two of our own software products.
Covid-19 brought many challenges to every business, and it also brought challenges to how we managed or Innovation process.
Applying Innovative Technology to Enable Greater Participation in the Process
We had already switched to MS Teams ahead of Covid-19 and ramped its use across the business when the entire company moved to remote working in March 2020. In addition to using it for chat, video calls and collaboration on projects through the establishment of Teams and Channels etc., we also developed a number of Power Apps which we integrated in MS Teams including a Desk Booking / Covid Tracking App for managing those that needed to work from the office on occasions, and also our Ideas App which was used for the managing our Ideas capture, the running of our monthly Innovation meeting where we receive new ideas and progress existing ideas through the assessment, review and approval “gates”, and for reporting on ideas – including KPIs such as Innovator of the Month, Innovation Process/Department of the Month etc.
The use of this very intuitive App really enabled us to keep our Innovation process at the centre of our business and ensured that team members working predominantly from home, or a hybrid model where they were still able to participate in our Innovation process in an effective manner.
As the Power Platform is one of our new offerings to customers, specifically those trying to digitize gaps and replace paper-based processes around:
- Continuous Improvement
We utilized it internally also to link the new App to other systems internally and automate the approval workflows using Power Automate. Power BI also provided an easy way to analyze the ideas by person, department, category (Product, Service, Process Improvement and Housekeeping).
The application has meant that our Innovation Champion does not have to spend time on the administration of the ideas process as it allows staff to log ideas themselves. They can see all ideas submitted and their status at a glance on the application and feedback is automatically sent to the staff member once it has been assessed by the Innovation team ensuring a fast response time on feedback given which is always important in any ideas process.
Our Innovation Fridays had to go online, and while these are not as effective as meeting in person (and we didn’t get to fight over the last slice of Pizza), the MS Teams platform, coupled with the Breakout Room feature and the Whiteboard App, allowed us to continue with these important meetings.
Reaping the Benefits
Covid-19 and the adoption of remote working almost forced us to automate our Innovation process as much as possible to ensure that the manner in which staff could log ideas wasn’t hindering or stifling innovation at a time when it is more important than ever.
The application of Power Apps to the process means that we are receiving more ideas now than when we were based in the office as the ease of use and the short, visible feedback loop means staff are more engaged in the process now than before.
Of course, we still look forward to getting back to the meetings room to have our Innovation Fridays together with Pizza and banter as there is no replacement for that in a virtual world.
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