Revealing the real knowledge of your organization could be the key to unlocking innovation

A couple of years ago, I was working in a bank in Asia in an innovation group. I’d had a great first 6 months having run a series of hackathons that put 250 or so members of the emerging leadership team alongside startups to solve some of the bank’s most pressing customer and employee related challenges — each one sponsored by the head of a business or support unit. This program was designed simply to deepen the digital mindsets of the group and to introduce some new innovation methods that we were going to roll out company wide.

The hackathons were fairly straightforward — we weren’t looking for a ton of code, just solid concepts and some looks-like/feels-like prototypes that had been tested with customers or users. At the end of an intense 3 days, each team was asked to pitch to a panel of senior leaders and in some cases VCs. Winners were selected. Every startup won a cash prize, whilst the bank team members might have the chance to see their idea progress through our pipeline toward development. Truth is, at the time we had modest expectations — perhaps two or three ideas would get selected for funding.

At the end of the 6 months though more than nearly 20 concepts had been identified by their sponsors for development, a lot more than the two or three we anticipated and a lot more than we (the innovation team) could take on ourselves. We chose not to turn any one away — except for perhaps one or two that failed our pipeline evaluation — because we didn’t want to lose momentum on the change in attitude; people wanted to innovate and we wanted to help them. However, we really didn’t have the manpower to do a good job either so we went out in search of talent.

One or two of the projects were outsourced where the units involved had the budget, but the vast majority were unexpected but good ideas. My team and I quickly shifted strategy and made a big decision that would affect how we ran our innovation unit for a long time to come. Rather than ‘become’ the project team we would ‘coach’ teams and rather than find those teams through interns and our graduate programs, we decided that we’d start a campaign of lobbying business unit leaders to release key workers for dedicated sprints lasting 3 weeks or more.

We decided to use lean startup and design thinking as the backbone of every sprint and, at the end of each sprint, the teams would present their recommendations based on the customer data and qualitative insights they had gathered. This all sounded great, leaders were warming to the idea, the program was gaining traction, all except for one critical challenge. Who exactly, would make up the teams. Innovation and design practitioners have long talked about the importance of diverse teams and how they can create great outcomes, but we were a bank.

Subject expertise was clearly going to be available — we were solving for a bank. Whilst we could not ‘teach’ empathy, we felt we could find people within the business who were willing to try their hand at research, but when it came to building prototypes and sketching concepts — we were really concerned that we would fall short.

It was around this time that we had started partnering with SmartUp, where (for full disclosure) I now work. SmartUp had caught our eye earlier in the year as a micro-learning platform that would help us continue to build out our innovation and importantly, digital capability as we scaled our training. I won’t sing SmartUp’s praises too highly for fear of being disingenuous — but our small test group had had great results.

One of the content formats that SmartUp offered was quizzes and polls and given that we already had a community of more than 600 people on the platform, we thought we could try an experiment to help solve our problem of finding people who could draw. One of my team wrote a series of modules on SmartUp about myths and values of prototyping and MVPs.

Subtly included in one of these modules was a simple poll asking the question, “When was the last time you drew something?” We had a simple true/false answer, “less than 6 weeks ago” and, “more than 6 weeks ago.” It probably took us less than 2 hours to get the first few modules out.

We published the modules on a Friday and by Monday morning more than 400 people in our community had read the modules and answered the polls. To our surprise more than 25% of people answered, “less than 6 weeks ago.” Now all that was left was to find out what the quality was like. This involved a simple email to the group of just over 100, asking them to send through examples of their work. Within a week we discovered we had 12 designers and a couple of novice artists (including a bond salesman) excited to get involved in innovation projects.

The rest is pretty straightforward, overall that year we produced more than 120 high quality prototypes — each of which saw plenty of customers. Most of them were created in house, using professional bankers. Like I mentioned earlier they were coached and guided, but they really embraced the methods we were using and I think they surprised themselves. I know they surprised the bank! Some of those concepts are now in market, others didn’t make it — such is the nature of innovation.

There were a few lessons we learned from this experience and they weren’t necessarily about our coaching or the methods that we used — although they could always be improved. What we really learned about were the people in our business:

  1. No one is just a banker, or for that matter a waiter, a developer, a marketer or lawyer. As employers, this is what we ask them to do everyday, but the people in our organizations are much, much more than that. They have deeper talents and skills that go way beyond their job descriptions. Exercising and sharing these leads to greater fulfillment in the workplace and they can add enormous value to businesses, particularly those in industries under attack from upstarts and disruptors.
  2. People engaged with our prototyping content, not because they were asked to but because they were genuinely curious and importantly, they were able to engage with it in their own time. In this case it was over a weekend on their mobiles. It probably took them less than 20 minutes to read the pieces we created, but it wasn’t forced. The micro-content formats, quizzes and polls were fun to read and peppered with stories. Had we sent an email, a survey or run a workshop, we would never have got the initial response we had.
  3. Since the project, many of the people involved have themselves become mentors and started sharing their experiences from the project with others on SmartUp. Again, they weren’t asked, we simply provided them with the tools. This was something we really didn’t expect. The peer to peer sharing of knowledge that emerged is something that that has gained real traction across the bank. Since joining SmartUp we’re seeing it take root in different ways across many of our clients — it seems that being able to share what you’re passionate about is what triggers this kind of knowledge sharing — regardless of topic.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve also learned that at least two of the twelve bankers-turned-designers have progressed their careers and been promoted to leadership roles in the business. Whilst we’re quite pragmatic at SmartUp about the impact that we can have on a organization, we are asking this question:

Had these people not been identified, had they not learned how to put design thinking and experimentation mindsets into practice, had they not then shared this new knowledge and positioned themselves internally as mentors and leaders, would they have been overlooked for promotion?

Before closing off this post, I wanted to share one last thing. I joined SmartUp having spent 6 years at IDEO working closely with organizational designers and 5 further years running innovation initiatives within businesses from hotels to banks. Nearly every day over this decade (and more) we were seeking to solve one problem, “How do we create a culture of innovation?”

I think everyone reading this knows that there is no silver bullet — it’s complex and hard — but most of the people I’ve worked with believe in the power of people and that the organizations we work with have the capabilities and the talents within them. The question has always been, how do we know what our people know, how we find out what their talents, passions and skills are, and how do we reveal them?

That’s why I joined SmartUp, I couldn’t be more excited to work with our amazingly talented team as we go about revealing the real knowledge of our clients’ teams. If you’re looking to create a culture of innovation and believe that the answer lies with the people inside of your organization, get in touch. I’d also love to hear thoughts on this post.

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