Case Study: Innovation Takes Hold
By Barbara Wanless
Jake looked over his redesigned departmental layout and smiled. Following an intense, nine-day Leadership Retreat, the multinational company had implemented sweeping physical changes to the offices. The new watchword was “Innovation,” and the walls came down. There were whiteboards for each work team, small meeting areas for Idea Groups, and even adaptions to workflow to increase interactions between departments.
“New office, new beginnings,” Jake thought excitedly. “Time to fire up the brainpower and innovate our way past the competition.”
“Well, I for one have a ton of ideas, but I just don’t know what to do with them,” admitted Bonita, Jake’s personal assistant and his sounding board.
“You’re going to have your chance to contribute, but first I want you in a focus group. Eagle’s Flight needs our honest input if they’re going to design this Innovation program for us, and I know you have no trouble saying what you think!”
Bonita punched him lightly on the arm, “Honesty is the only policy if they’re to understand the challenges we have around here…but I promise to shut up long enough to let other people speak.”
“I think they’ve come up with some neat ways of getting everyone to contribute, so we may not need to gag you with duct tape!”
As it was, the duct tape wasn’t needed. Eagle’s Flight devised a series of question cards to prompt roundtable discussions in 14 focus groups. It also conducted more than 40 interviews. From this wealth of feedback and direction from upper management, Eagle’s Flight designed a program that would create a climate and system for ongoing innovation across the organization. But that wasn’t enough.
As Eagle’s Flight program developers and designers forged a wide-ranging combination of processes, activities, and exercises, they also customized the entire package to reflect the company’s business—packaged goods—marketplace, and challenges. First on the challenges list was to trigger an Innovation culture that supported creative thinking and experimentation.
“Traditionally,” Bonita had said at the focus group, “innovation has been top-down. Executives had great ideas and pushed them to employees.”
They also needed to overcome employee perceptions that they were excluded—individually or departmentally—from contributing new thinking if it wasn’t directly relevant to their own jobs. Next, they required an easily understood and practical way to process and implement innovative ideas.
“This is amazing!” Bonita looked up from her lunch as they all took a break between sessions. “I love the ‘team’ concept of innovation. I’ve felt isolated from you guys because I’m always tagging behind Jake.”
“I know what you mean,” revealed Bruno, who had surprised everyone by how vocal he had been in the session; he usually was the “silent minority” on the team, “I’m very shy and I never considered myself as creative, but I’m feeling a lot more confident about suggesting ideas.”
“Right!” Bonita agreed and brandished a list of ideas she’d come up with. “I love how they show that everyone, creative or not, can innovate.”
“And,” Bruno was on a roll, “how execution is crucial—I’m better at doing than thinking about it. We can be just as innovative in how we put the ideas into action.”
Bruno and Bonita weren’t alone in their enthusiasm. In fact, the Innovation program, which was delivered to more than 6,000 participants in multiple locations, was a roaring success with all graduates. A skilled Innovation Team was formed to offer advice and strategies. This unit worked with specific teams on complex projects. Each location worked with its own teams to refine and implement new ideas with processes and checkpoints.
“Now, people who touch the product and know the process are trained and given tools to improve our business,” Bonita noted happily.
As a result, even the smallest divisions began generating and acting upon innovative thinking. At one factory, with only 97 employees, 100 ideas were generated and more than 30 improvement projects were initiated. The company was so impressed by how involved everyone became and the quality of the submitted ideas that it introduced a Spirit of Innovation award.
“The Innovation Program is further developing our 100 percent engagement mindset,” Jake shared at an awards presentation. “The ideas don’t fall into a black hole any more. We built the training into our development model. Now, it’s how we do business. It’s not going away.”
Barbara Wanless is a senior writer and editor at Eagle’s Flight. Eagle’s Flight is about sparking transformation and creating flashpoints where change happens, where people are inspired to do their jobs better, and to lead more effectively—all through learning that is rooted in the company’s proprietary experiential design. For more information, visit www.eaglesflight.com.