At Exchange Solutions, innovation is a core value. We have a shared understanding that innovation is essential. We believe not only that it is essential for the growth and professional development of our people, but also for its profound impact on keeping our products and underlying technologies relevant and competitive.
I have always been intrigued by the notion of carving out “innovation time” and finding the right balance to ensure that investments in innovation have a positive ROI. Companies like Google, 3M, and Atlassian have made investments in “innovation time” allowing for a percentage of working hours to be directed at innovation initiatives from 15%-20%. For fast growing organizations, the size of Exchange Solutions, the notion of allowing everyone up to 20% of their time to be spent on innovation represents a serious challenge. We can only afford to focus on so many things. Frankly, when any organization is in a crunch, the first thing to be sacrificed is noncritical priority work which could include that innovation time. That is not sustainable, nor does it lead to increased employee engagement or job satisfaction.
We encourage innovative thinking and have taken a different approach to our innovation program that we have been able to support and sustain.
Introducing the Innovacation program.
The Innovacation program is designed to allow anyone at Exchange Solutions to be an innovator. It is a working vacation from the daily routine to focus on a specific problem or solution that gives Exchange Solutions a competitive advantage. And yes, you still get all your vacation days. This is done through design sprints, experimental rapid application development, or in producing prototypes that extend our products or our product capabilities. It can also be focused on improving the quality, integrity and availability of our wares or improve team productivity and operational efficiency through innovative ideas that improve process or increases our automation and ability to scale.
Anyone in the organization can propose and participate in an Innovacation and recruit others across the company to participate. This is a focused blitz on a problem or solution involving up to 5 people up to 5 days and a modest budget. During this time, you are relieved from day-to-day responsibilities as if you were on vacation so you can solely focus on the idea. Realistically, the fewer people and the fewer days is easier to schedule and approve, but we do not let that constrain ideas from coming forward. We do not require a complicated proposal to submit an idea.
Innovacation Ground Rules:
- Participation is 100% voluntary.
- Hackathon-like or design sprint focused innovation lasting from 1-5 business days.
- Time removed from normal role and activities – you are scheduled as if you are on leave/PTO.
- Everyone can be a catalyst – Ideas come from everywhere in our organization.
- Can recruit up to 4 additional team members across the organization to support. Cross-functional groups are strongly encouraged. Nontechnical people can recruit technical resources for support.
- Supported by a lightweight proposal and approved by leadership.
- You need to be realistic in setting goals.
- Outcome should be demonstrable.
We believe that the best ideas can come from anywhere in our organization, but we do constrain the investments in Innovacations to ideas that meet the following criteria:
- The idea addresses a real problem or opportunity.
- The idea is aligned with our vision, mission, and product guardrails.
- The idea has a high chance of being implementable or leveraged.
- The Idea … improves productivity and makes work life more satisfying, or it has potential to make our products and features cheaper/better/faster, or it has breakthrough potential to show the way to a new product concept.
- Success is not guaranteed. Failure is acceptable. Do not be afraid to fail – Fail well.
Our Latest Innovacation:
Reimagining our personalized offers product for eCommerce: ES Engage – ES Engage has been in market for over 5 years. We have made substantial innovations with that product over that horizon in terms of features as well as business performance in the market for our clients. ES Engage is a real-time machine learning offer management system that improves conversion and increases average order value in real-time on ecommerce websites. It is a Java application running in Kubernetes. In our most recent Innovacation, our challenge was to reduce the time to bootstrap a client, reduce the operating costs, reduce the time to develop and train our models and start making offers to our clients’ customers. The lean team of 5 represented our talent across Architecture, Software Development, Technical Product Management, Data Sciences and BI/Analytics. The team reimaging ES Engage as a serverless application showed the path to reducing costs by ~200%, reducing time to bootstrap a new client by ~500% and reducing modelling and training time (time to first offer) by ~400%. This team breakthrough was focused on better, faster, cheaper, and has shown us the path to a 4th gen product that is well underway and will take us from 4-12 weeks to initiate with a client to less than 1 week. This was achieved in 5 focused days. Profound impact.
Final Thoughts …
We have been running Innovacations for a few years now and we have had some great successes and fast failures, but we still are not doing enough of them. The outcome of innovation is not often a winning product or product feature. It comes with lessons learned, affordable failures, skill development and an increase in employee engagement and job satisfaction. As our organization gets in to busy periods we go through droughts and have learned as leaders that we must support and promote the program and encourage participation. We continuously improve making innovation part of our Organizational DNA.
The Innovacation program has been a journey, and it is working for us. If you have similar programs in your organization or have taken a different approach to innovation, I am open to learning.