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Incubate to innovate

Updated: Mar 8

Innovation. Every organisation wants it but few actually achieve it.


Innovation is defined as "The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which customers will pay. In business, innovation often results when ideas are applied by the company in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers"


The challenge most large corporates face is how to implement innovation. It's a way of thinking and acting. Not just producing new, market leading products.


In a UIE article Jared Spool recounts the dangers of innovation labs in corporates. He states that for innovation to succeed in an organisation, it must be deployed on a wide scale. Every team must be involved so that innovation can permeate all levels of the business and infect as many individuals as possible. There is a basic assumption that all companies are already structured into multidisciplinary product teams and are familiar with Agile methodologies.


I disagree. As with all infections - the body (or organisation) will instinctively try to fight off any new ideas or ways of working and often will gain a resistance to innovation. The conditions must be right for innovation to take hold.


Innovation must first be the preserve of the few. It needs to be nurtured, cultured, grown in a lab - a safe space - before being released to the wider organisation. I speak from experience as a founding member of an innovation lab within Centrica British Gas: The Accelerator Hub


In the Medium article "The myth of the innovation lab" the writer explains innovation labs are not safe spaces for R&D. Often they are little more than "Innovation Theatres"- places where senior leaders can point to forward thinking work - but where innovation fails to move outside of these spaces. So how then did The Accelerator Hub side-step this?


In the beginning

It happened by accident. The data science team wanted a "front door" to engage with the wider business to show how artificial intelligence and machine learning could solve business problems. The Accelerator Hub was born.


Early on it became clear that no one understood the role or limits of Data Science. Most of the problems coming to the Accelerator Hub were people problems. Sure, business problem data could be gathered, sorted, categorised and identified - but the underlying reasons for these problems could not solved. Data Science could tell us the WHAT, but not the WHY.


The Accelerator Hub needed to evolve. So we parted ways with our host and became our own organism: an innovation consultancy with our own core principles: PACE - Pioneer; Accelerate; Connect; Evolve - and methodology: FLITE - Feel; Learn; Iterate; Test; Evangelise. Using these ideas we were ready to take on business challenges and solve people problems.


The Lab

In order to innovate, we needed a safe space - our very own spot away from the rest of the business where we could work outside of the rules and red tape of the massive organisation that is Centrica. We commandeered a boardroom and promptly set about refurbishing it. Out went the boardroom table, in came comfy couches, a coffee machine, sharpies and the multi-coloured post it notes. Up went colourful methodology posters and branded signage. The Accelerator Hub was now a real hub - a place to do things differently.


A decorated room does not spell innovation. It does however plant a very physical flag in the ground. Entering the Accelerator Hub now meant we looked different to the rest of the company. Visitors / clients would now have a relaxed chat over coffee on our couches, rather than sit a boardroom. The very first impression when entering the Hub was people first focus - not business.


Patient zero

They say beggars can't be choosers. When you're a new business starting out you can't be picky about the work you take on.


We were burning through our funding. We had senior managers poke their heads into our space and ask difficult questions about funding and our reason for existing. It would have been very easy to take on any old project to show that we were earning our keep. At that time we were asked by several teams to build a website, redesign corporate posters and create logos.


It took courage to stick to our guns - hold true to our core principles (PACE) and hold out for the right first project. Luckily we didn't have to wait too long: HR came calling with internal people problems...and an idea for automation. This problem ticked all our boxes: It was a pioneering project, we could accelerate it, we could connect HR to an AI team and we could evolve the solution into stepped iterations.


The results can be seen here. The output was a research document with quantitative and qualitative data, insights and recommendations. We pinpointed the most pressing problems to tackle by importance and complexity. This was presented to HR and the AI robotics team. This became the functional spec for the robotics team to begin building an employee assistant - a conversational interface for employees.


Our first client was so impressed they gave us another piece of work; Evaluating how employee feedback is handled in Centrica. Another research project - no problem. The result: A 78 page research report identifying problems with Workday - the main interface between HR and employees. This was presented to Workday - the US platform provider and served the basis for Centrica renegotiating their contract with this SaaS provider.


We were off to a flying start. We had infected patient zero and they in turn were bringing us more business.


Three steps forward, two steps back

No story is a straight line. Here is our kink in the road. We lost our safe space. A new senior leader was hired in a corporate reshuffle. He visited the Accelerator Hub and wanted the space for his own team. To add insult to injury he then asked us to design an excel presentation for his team. It was a dark time for the Accelerator Hub. We moved just next door to our original space - in an open-plan corner we created the best space we could and continued to innovate.


Connecting and evolving

We now had two projects under our belt and an influential client speaking highly about our work. Others in the business took notice. Some shameless promotion didn't hurt either. While working on our first two projects, we also organised innovation talks with external speakers- lunch and learns - and innovation challenges. Our lab space could easily be configured for larger presentations and we could easily dial in other offices to broaden our reach.


Soon we had visitors from other parts of the business drop by for a chat over coffee. Each Accelerator Hub team member would take turns to host visitors and craft our sales pitch. When you're a small team everyone has to be flexible and wear several hats. We were all salesmen, facilitators and evangelical about innovation.


It was over this period that we began connecting with other innovation teams within the business. Centrica Innovations is a business unit devoted to charting the future strategy of Centrica. They approached the Accelerator Hub to help them understand customer impact of Home Energy Management - an ecosystem of next generation renewable energy technology. We now had a long term client able to provide continuous funding.


By now half the team was busy with long-term research work. The rest of the team took on facilitation work. Intensive week long design sprints (pioneered by Google) to solve specific customer problems with British Gas UK Home division.


In the space of a week, the UK Home team was able to break down a problem, ideate, prototype and test a solution with customers. Enthused by this "new way of working" the head of customer experience commissioned another problem solving design sprint...and brought more British Gas teams knocking on our door.


Looking forward

With a steady stream of work coming in and an ongoing long-term research project, the Accelerator Hub can now look to the future - how will we evolve to spread innovation further?

The demand for our way of working is increasing. Soon we will have to start training teams in design thinking methodologies so they can innovate on their own.


Customer Experience team members are now asking to sit in on our design sprints. They have seen the results of doing things differently and want to drink our Cool-Aid...and start selling it.


We will also look to expand our range of skills within the Accelerator Hub to support the development of robust prototypes and proof of concepts. This will allow us to move passed the lab and experiment in real world environments with live users.


And best of all...we got our room back! The wider business has now taken notice of the work we are doing. They understand that we need a dedicated space to continue innovating. We are also in talks to expand the Accelerator Hub to the US division in Houston.


What I've learned so far

The Accelerator Hub's journey has not been easy. We had the support of some influential people fighting our corner including a very enthusiastic communications expert. We did a lot of presentations and sales pitches. We were on hand to deliver our vision in various forms to various people - anyone who would listen. During all this we tried to remain positive. We had an open door policy and were people first in everything we did. We also said no to a lot of work coming our way.


Here is what I've learned so far about spreading innovation in an organisation:

Have a clear vision. Take the time to figure out exactly what makes your innovation lab tick. What is your purpose? What are your principles? What is your methodology? What work will you take on and what will you reject?

Be strategic. Where are you best suited to add value and make an impact in the organisation? Which clients can influence others and spread your message? Find your friendlies and detect your detractors.

Be brave. How do you side-step business processes and work differently? Pick your battles. Learn to say no to senior management. Do what you must and ask for forgiveness later.

Be resilient. There will be setbacks. Projects might fail or there may be push-back from the wider business. How you overcome adversity tests the strength of your vision, purpose and methodology. Keep on keeping on!


Back to the point

I've charted the rise of the Accelerator Hub to make this point: Innovation must grow in an incubator. It must be allowed to grow and evolve in a safe environment - a lab or hub apart from the wider business. It grows by influence. It influences by it's successes. People are naturally attracted to success. Every successful project is a chance for your clients to sing your praises. Word of mouth is the most potent advertising. It creates fear of missing out - "FOMO syndrome". Now that is infectious. Only then can innovation spread from organ to organ. Eventually the whole body (organisation) will be changed. It's a gradual process.

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