Most companies are well-run and operate with a reasonable level of efficiency. The very best companies, though, are not satisfied with being “just ok” and work to constantly improve, innovate, and evolve to enable creativity that leads to innovation-driven growth. I have written extensively on the need for Innovation-Driven Growth (you can check out these articles on my LinkedIn page), but it’s one thing to talk the talk about being innovative, and another to walk the walk.
Member Driven Technologies (MDT), located in Farmington Hills, MI, is one such company. I had the honor of working with them for several years providing consulting and strategic planning for their senior leaders and board of directors. CEO Larry Nichols is one of the most engaging, thoughtful individuals you will ever meet, and he gets very creative when it comes to engineering fun that’s not typically associated with work or meetings. Senior leaders Scott Johnston, Matt Baaki, and Chris Kowal are similarly motivated to make this regional credit union service organization (CUSO) a national player in providing technology and related services to their credit union members (credit unions have members, not customers, hence “Member” Driven Technologies).
At their strategic planning offsite last year, one initiative that came from brainstorming was to ignite a company-wide focus on innovation. This may sound odd to you—after all, they’re a technology company; wouldn’t they already be focused on innovation? I have found in many companies, though, that most employees aren’t thinking about or looking for innovation. They think it’s someone else’s job, yet the opportunity for innovation is constantly available if we can attune ourselves to look for it. I’m talking about small innovations like reworking a six-step process into four steps, 15 minutes saved here, $50 saved there; do that over and over across dozens, maybe hundreds, of employees, and it makes a huge difference. MDT seriously wanted to kickstart this across the whole enterprise.
So I created two events for MDT: the Innovation Workshop and the Innovation Challenge. Last fall, I conducted a day-and-a-half Innovation Workshop. Larry decided to not require participation, so it was a “sign up if you want” workshop. About a third of the employees did, and judging by the post-workshop evaluations, they received tremendous value from the exercises, collaboration, creative thinking, and structured brainstorming. The idea was to get them thinking about innovation, to be open to it, and to come up with creative ideas that would lead to innovation. Now, if all MDT did was the workshop, it would likely have had minimal lasting effect. But, they put their money where their innovation intent was and followed up with the Innovation Challenge.
The Challenge worked like this: anyone who attended the workshop could come up with an idea, form a cross-functional team of at least two other employees, and build it. Seven individuals from MDT formed teams, and recently presented their innovations to a panel of three judges, who in turn voted on the best ideas. In order to make sure the teams had confidence going into the final Challenge presentations, I provided online assistance to any group with questions about their idea or presentation. A couple weeks prior to the actual presentations, I went to Michigan and spent a day working with each team on how to best present their ideas. Remember, most of these individuals are not people who regularly speak in front of their peers, much less make a formal presentation, but after these sessions the teams were feeling more confident.
There were rules though: in order to limit the scope of the challenge, the teams were restricted to internal process improvement innovations with a budget of no more than $1,000. The teams had to research the feasibility of their idea, as well as estimate the budget, anticipated efficiencies, and cost reduction if their idea was implemented. Most importantly, MDT encouraged them to be innovative. Yes, everyone still had to perform their daily job function, but I am constantly amazed at the companies who say they are (or want to be) innovative, but then make it difficult for employees to meet and ideate. Not MDT. They have an incredible, whimsical, and creative office space, and a senior leadership team who encourages innovation.
So what happens now? MDT will host another Innovation Workshop in June. I’m guessing they have seen the results and heard from their peers, and nearly every employee who hasn’t already done so will participate in the workshop. Then, this fall, they will have another Innovation Challenge: wash, rinse, repeat. It’s not enough to do something once; employees are looking to see if their company is serious about innovation and backing it with ongoing activities. I believe MDT is serious.
Another great benefit was the experience all the Challenge participants received by presenting their ideas. Public speaking is one of the few skills that’s really hard to actually practice. Sure you can speak in front of a mirror, but in front of your peers with a 15-minute clock ticking down to a hard stop? Nothing can prepare you for that; you just have to do it, then postmortem contemplate what you could have done better and improve for next time. There are a bunch of MDT employees who can now say they’ve given a formal presentation.
Congratulations to Carla Bettens, Erica Switalski and Emily Nabozny for their winning innovation related to Third-Party Notifications. They took home the trophy, but I have it on good authority the scores were very close. MDT may decide to implement many ideas presented through to execution, and as they do, every employee who participated will see the effect of their innovative efforts, and likely be encouraged to go after more. As long as the organization is consistent and does not let their foot off the pedal, the interest in innovation across the MDT enterprise will continue to exponentially grow.
What about your organization? What are you doing to stimulate Innovation-Driven Growth? Are you empowering your employees to think, individually or in groups, on company time, to come up with innovative ideas? If not, why? If you need assistance in getting an Innovation Challenge started, or need an innovation message delivered to your board, employees, customers, or conference, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s talk about igniting enterprise-wide innovation.