Innovation: Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Supporting and fostering innovation within a company is challenging and there are many ways that organizations try to foster innovation.

I have worked for companies that:

  • Tell employees they can dedicate 10 or 20 percent of their time to their own projects.
  • Host “Innovation Weeks.”
  • Form collaborative “Innovation Teams” to brainstorm innovative ideas.

All of these ideas are good, but in my opinion they never quite hit the mark.

The problem with telling folks to carve out their own “innovation time” is that it is incredibly hard to do. Not only do you have the pressures of your work looming, but what can you actually get into and accomplish during a meeting-filled Tuesday?

The company I worked for that held Innovation Weeks was onto something, but they had no formal process in place to evaluate the projects and move them from prototypes to actual features. The cross-functional Innovation Teams at my previous company had some good ideas, but they were way too loose, the parameters were just not tight enough, and nothing ever materialized out of the process.

For any innovation initiative to succeed, it requires buy in from the higher ups — not just lip service — and it has to be encouraged and fostered so that it becomes part of the company’s DNA. Saying that innovation should be part of your company’s DNA and making it happen are two different things.

So how do we do it here at Constant Contact and why does it work?

I think a key component to our success is that we have a dedicated Innovation Team that partners with the Internal Communications Team to host quarterly “Innovation Jams.” I can’t recommend these teams highly enough. They are a fantastic, energetic, and talented group of people who really own the entire process.

Here is how an Innovation Jam plays out:

  • Innovation Jams last 2 days (Thursday and Friday), and typically have a theme.
  • The Innovation and Internal Communication Teams start advertising the theme and prizes (yes there are some really awesome prizes) a few weeks in advance so that people can get ideas formulating.
  • The Jam kicks off with a pitch event, where anyone can present their idea and request help from others in the company. Some people form teams in advance, others ask for people to join that day. What is also super awesome is that the Innovation Team is comprised of a bunch of techies that are available to help fill any holes in a team’s structure so that everyone is supported in their project.
  • Each team has the rest of the day Thursday and most of the day Friday to get something together that they can demo at the “Science Fair.”
  • The Science Fair is held on Friday afternoons, also known around Constant Contact as “beer o’clock.” This might be my most favorite of our company events. There is beer, snacks, and a party-like atmosphere. Everyone attends, including the administrative assistants and the CEO. How’s that for buy in?
  • Sometimes there is a panel that judges each project based on the suitability with respect to the given theme, but there is always the crowd favorite prize that everyone in the company can vote on.
  • Almost anything can be demonstrated, including mockups, posters, or working code. Unlike other competitions and hackathons, you don’t have to have production-ready code in 2 days in order to win.

So what happens after all of the prizes are given out, the last bag of chips is eaten, only a few beers are left, and the poster boards are packed up?

Remember that really great Innovation Team I mentioned earlier? Well, they keep track of these projects and steward them through project plans, roadmaps, testing, etc. Not every project will make it out to the consumer, but nothing is intentionally lost or forgotten. Conscious decisions are made about each and every feature, idea, process improvement, etc.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? So why do I love our Innovation Jams? Let me count the ways:

  1. They are collaborative and bring people together who may have never had the chance to work together before. Integrations happen, APIs are expanded, new applications are explored. It also helps raise visibility of the people who are smart and dedicated, but who might not have the chance to stand up in front of the company to show what they can do. It is a great chance to get our core talent out of their cubes and in front of decision makers.
  2. Dedicated time. Rather than relying on people to carve innovation time out, the company carves it out for them. While participation is completely optional, it is encouraged.
  3. Unique ideas. Who knew that bacon and chocolate is a winning taste combo until someone put it together? We have lots of great ingredients and it is interesting to see how people are taking those and putting them together in new and interesting ways. Tie that in with 3rd party APIs, and the possibilities are endless.
  4. The ability to bring innovation to customers. And to top it off, great projects that started at Innovation Jams do make their way out to the customer! See Smart Coupons, some of the new MyLibrary feautures, and “copy & paste made simple” – copy and paste all your contacts into one field.

Sharing the innovation love – the Small Business Innovation Loft

File this under “you can never get enough of a good thing” or “taking it to the next level” – Constant Contact and the Innovation Team have launched a new program, the Small Business Innovation Program, designed to support entrepreneurs as they solve problems for small businesses by developing new products, features, and services. Program participants (we’re accepting applications now!) will work out of the soon-to-be-opened Innovation Loft, which will also be the new home to our internal Innovation Team. Entrepreneurs, tech experts, and marketing pros all working under one roof for one goal: helping small businesses. What’s not to love about that? Learn more.

All in all, we are putting our time and money where our mouths are. We are not just saying “innovation,” we are innovating with tangible results, and we are enabling innovation for others as well.

Have additional questions about innovation at Constant Contact? Ask me below in the comments section. 

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