Ideas in Limbo: How to Get Ideas to a State of Decision

It is easy to make a decision on ideas you are passionate about.  But what about ideas which seem interesting, but which you don’t know what to do with?  At PwC, we’ve discovered that there is this area of limbo where ideas live until they eventually find someone to own it, or someone to kill it.  At times, an idea with potentially enormous impact can suffer this fate.  Ideas in limbo are shuffled around between different people for many reasons, but typically it is due to passion, ownership, or alignment to strategy.  Ideas that lack passion suffer this fate because the idea is either a) not good enough for someone to say yes or b) not bad enough for someone to say no.  Ideas that potentially span the responsibility of many leaders in the organization present ownership difficulties.  And then of course, some ideas can be so far beyond current strategy that there is little present applicability to attract someone to want to take it forward.

So what can you do when the level of passion and support around the idea is not apparent and no one can reach a decision?  How can you help stop this vicious cycle of continually passing around ideas? Below are some opportunities to consider to finally reach a decision and obtain the ownership for ideas to move forward:

1.  Seek out existing work streams and communities with a need
Identifying a work stream or community that has a defined need is always the best option.  If an idea can garner support based on its relevance to the work stream’s strategy, the idea will get the attention and ownership it needs to move forward.  They are also in the best position to challenge ideas and help them evolve to create the most impact.  Many times, we will link the subject matter of the idea to potential networks or communities to generate interest.  Once interest is generated, obtaining ownership is not nearly as difficult.

2.  Create new communities and teams to assess ideas and reach consensus
Creating a new community of diverse personnel (across the organization) will provide a broad perspective and insight into where it could fit in the organization.  This is particularly true when the idea spans multiple business units across the organization.  Bringing all of these parties together is important when making decisions about the idea.  Also, generating the support from across business units will help accelerate an idea if multiple parties are interested in the idea’s success.  There is truth when they say it takes one person to have an idea, but it takes an army to implement the idea.  Setting up different people to be part of the “troop” will help in garnering support and responsibility.

3.  Connect the person who had the idea with potential owners
Connecting the person who came up with the idea with the group of potential owners can create a faster way to arrive at a decision.  Being able to have the person with the passion and the insight to elaborate on the potential impact of the idea is important for potential owners to consider when making a decision.  If the person with the idea can appropriately convince a leader of the need and impact of the idea, this can lead to a decision being reached more quickly.

Within our first couple of months of launching iPlace, it was apparent that we needed to develop ways to evolve and expose ideas to different people to make a decision and get these ideas out of limbo.  We average about 60% of our ideas are passed between two or more people before a decision is reached.  We used each of the different techniques above to facilitate discussion, drive action, and create ownership within our organization.  Reaching a unified decision and charting a course of action pushed ideas in limbo forward to action.

So how do you deal with ideas that are in limbo?

Posted in Behavior, Innovation, Organization | 1 Comment

Getting to your best mobile strategy

Tom Conophy of InterContinental Hotels Group describes the importance of a sound cultural and management foundation for mobile innovation.  This interview was conducted by Bo Parker and Alan Morrison of PwC’s Center for Technology and Innovation.

PwC: You have been doing some really interesting things with IHG. How did you get started?

TC: I’ve been in technology for 30 years now. I was approached by the chairman of the board to consider IHG about four and a half years ago. The company was going through a significant transformation of its core brands as well as its corporate structure. It had been without a technical leader for a few years, and the chairman and the new CEO wanted to reestablish IHG as a leader. So I was brought on board to help drive a technical direction and an overall strategy for the company as it relates to technology.

With that mandate, we embarked on a back-end refinement of all our core systems. We have a booking engine that does between $20 and $25 billion a year in revenue. We have a Web suite of tools—a Web complex that books about $4 billion in revenue per year. A logical extension for all of that was into the mobile space.

PwC: What’s at the core of your mobile strategy?

TC: When I came on board at IHG, the technical community was pretty demoralized. They were disenfranchised, and the business really didn’t view them as value-add.

I knew this all coming in, because the chairman told me what was going on. So I not only started to establish myself with the business teams, but also started to form the core of what is now a pretty powerful technical group.

We’ve established a little bit of entrepreneurial fever by changing the cultural attitude. We got rid of some of the Luddites, brought in some new blood, and just changed things around.

We have built up an enterprise computing platform following an SOA [service-oriented architecture] model, and the services that we’ve created have enabled us to turn on some great mobile applications rapidly.

If you don’t have the back-end capabilities, it’s hard to have a fairly intuitive device that somebody can use as a small pane of glass to look through to what that back end can display. You are not going to type a novel on the phone, but we do book almost $3 million a month now on mobile phones. We expect it to be toward $5 million by the end of the year. This time next year, I’d be shocked if bookings are not over $10 million a month.

PwC: So what did you do to get to that point?

TC: We had a mobile app out there for a long time. IHG was one of the first companies to put out a mobile app for booking, but it was pretty lame. It didn’t do too much. We recognized that the device had a nontraditional browser, and so we changed the format and would send out appropriately rendered screens for the phones. It had usage, but not very much. I think we might have been lucky to break $200,000 a month in bookings, not very much.

The early adopters tolerated an environment that didn’t work that well because the phones themselves were not that great and the infrastructure was lacking. The rendering capabilities were not super.

Then the perfect storm scenario happened. You had a higher adoption of smartphones. You had better resolution, better capabilities. You had the advent of 3G and better networking, and then the applications themselves became much more intelligent. So we first revitalized our mobile offering, which was the standard mobile booking application.

We gave it an overhaul from a look-and-feel point of view, streamlined the booking process to make it simpler, and leveraged inferencing capabilities—we knew data about you based on your phone, so we would not need to ask you mundane questions as part of a booking process. From a human factors point of view, we ate our own dog food, so to speak, and we were critical of each other relative to how it worked.

We targeted it for loyalty members first. That helped significantly. That was October 2009. We went from $200,000 a month in bookings to $1 million, and that was due to people using it on iPhone and BlackBerry devices. It wasn’t a specific iPhone app yet.

Then we built an iPhone app and released in May 2010. Right away, it was well adopted by the traveling public. It was rated very highly—we were downloading 4,000 apps a day or something like that. The ratings were very high, and we then surpassed the earlier players that had products out there already. Ours was rated higher because we took the time to make it pretty intelligent in terms of richness of capability without necessarily making the user interface complicated.

We translated some of the learnings from our overhaul of our mobile apps in general into the iPhone apps. And we took feedback from our early adopters. We reached out and asked them what’s working or what’s not working, and what would you like it to do? We had people internal to the business using it. We would set it up in lunchrooms and have people play and give us feedback on the spot. That’s not super sophisticated or scientific, but it tends to work pretty well.

PwC: And this is all in-house development?

TC: Yes, all in-house development. We had a small team of guys who were really deep into it, and so we just turned them loose and then did a lot of whiteboarding. I have a humanfactors passion. I’d come in and we’d project all of the wireframes onto large whiteboards and just basically rip them apart. But it was healthy; the culture supports that. It’s not uncommon to be critical and at the same time make suggestions. It’s a very collegial, very collaborative environment—one that might not work well at all corporations, but it works well within the technical community that we have established inside of IHG.

I have about 800 employees across the globe. I’ve always been a strong believer that you have to give people outlets. They have their day jobs, and then they have their passions. The idea is to try to turn on some of those passions. So we’ve established these labs, and we let anybody with reasonable ideas come in. I have two rules. One, don’t burn down the hotel, and two, don’t electrocute the guest. It’s all based on giving knowledge workers the freedom to experiment and then giving them the tools and the resources to make that happen.

PwC: It sounds like you are tapping into the increased ability to interact with the guest in some form or fashion. And as the guest gains an online presence, you can tap into that online presence more and more, and extract the information you need to respond to the guest’s personal needs.

TC: Exactly. We have the ability now to send alerts and things like that through the application itself. The standard mobile app is still humming on nicely, and the iPhone app has done fairly well. I think it’s done great, relative to our sector and our competitors. It is the leader by far. That one is equally well received and getting a lot of presence, and that’s helped to kick our bookings to $3 million a month and climbing. The adoption has been extremely high. I have some guys in the group working on another twist for the latest cut of the new Android 10.

We are looking at how to extend beyond booking. Think about a concierge in your pocket. Say it doesn’t matter if you are booking or not. If you are part of our family and you have a need, for whatever it might be, our concierge services help with ideas for places to go, and the app links to Yelp and other services that people use more frequently now.

We’re trying to make sure that IHG has a small position there in terms of your mind share, and it’s not just about, “I have a business trip and I need to think about where I’m going to stay in Prague.” The concierge for IHG can maybe answer this hotel choice question for us and then send the message that way.

We are also doing some things with instant messaging. Instant messaging has more than 350 million daily users, and we are thinking, “Why not enable a very simplified booking process through instant messaging as opposed to a traditional Web site or some other navigation?” It’s just another nontraditional access method. With template-based booking, you can turn that thing into a template, and then you can instant message it very simply with just a couple of parameters, such as a new date, as long as the system knows your profile and preferences behind the scenes. It takes all that into account, does the searches, puts together some potential itineraries, and comes back and says, would you like option one or two or three?

PwC: If mobile devices become dominant by 2012, are we entering a world of ubiquitous docking stations at some point?

TC: For most executives and most business types, it’s about quick access to information. There may be producers of that data, and they may be sitting in centers in the Philippines or India or wherever else cranking out systems support capabilities. But the executives are more knowledge workers, and they are taking data in small bites and small formats or dashboards. With the use of color and graphics, you can translate lots and lots of information, and you can set up filters to avoid needing to zip through a lot of stuff.

Our viewpoint is that the smartphone will evolve to a hybrid between it and a tablet of some kind. We are looking at these Droid tablets. They may be too big to put into a coat pocket, but they are going to be smaller than the laptops that people have today and there’s going to be a certain form factor that people will settle on. This is because finger sizes are the way they are, and eyesight is what it is. Unless you issue monocles with your devices, you can’t expect corporate computing to be done only on small-glass devices.

If you take the average size laptop and maybe take that to three-quarter size or maybe even smaller, that’s what we think people will end up using. The traditional desktop is for all intents and purposes gone in most companies. We think people will use a personally owned device, and with it they will have access to corporate content that most likely will be shifted into the cloud.

Several of the CIOs we have talked to over the years say they’re not able to do what you are doing. You really focus squarely on R&D [research and development] and the leading edge. They say, well, we have to keep the lights on and we need to X, Y, and Z, and just those things consume all our time and budget.

Those guys just don’t get it. Whenever someone like that talks like that, the CEO should automatically just fire them. They are not doing their job. Within the last four years, I have reduced my overall operating cost by 20 percent, but yet we probably do 200 percent more than we ever have. We do something called Fuel for Fire. We create operating efficiencies and savings that turn around and enable us to put more monies toward investments. I carve out what we call a CIO fund, and I pitch it whenever I submit my budget. It’s about a million dollars a year now. I have earned it through our track records. Remember, when I came to the company, the place was a shambles, and we were able to turn around the whole mind-set.

The gulags [IHG’s development labs] don’t cost me jack. We just took a couple of big conference rooms and changed them. I have done things like bring in free soda, juices, and water. This is not rocket science. We renamed all the meeting rooms after mathematicians and scientists. We put in stress-relieving rooms, where other things can be dealt with, foosball tables…. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is a big corporation. You have to establish the environment, but that doesn’t cost very much money.

What I call “traditional CIOs” usually came out of the data center world. They just don’t have what I call the killer instinct, and they certainly don’t have a software-centric background. Every time I come across a CIO like that, I can tell you exactly how they came up in the organization. Those that are really out there firing on all pistons have tended to come out of the software side. The rest either don’t know how to do it, or they are so risk averse they would never, ever risk their position by even attempting to do it, and they have established the culture of losing, frankly.

PwC: IHG is forward looking, but as of today, you still issue enterpriseowned devices, correct?

TC: Today we issue a BlackBerry, and then we have a series of laptops. By the first quarter of 2011, our goal is that you can have what we call a CP, a corporate phone, or an individual phone. And regardless of which way you go, you will sign a document that says that should you move, IHG will blank the device and all corporate information will be scrubbed.

PwC: But personal information would remain.

TC: That’s right. We really don’t want to cross that line. So we’re focused right now only on our corporate information, working through our legal teams to make sure we have all of our bases covered. The bottom line is that we want to communicate to the staff, “Here’s what we are doing, and here’s what this all means.” And then if they opt in, that’s great. If they don’t, they can just get a standard corporate-issue device they get today and be happy about it.

To read more of PwC’s thoughts around mobile and technology, visit our Technology Forecast site here.


Posted in Innovation, Mobile, Strategy | Leave a comment

The Power of a Challenge – Steps to Maximize Participation and Value

Organizations have thousands of great employees who come to work every day ready to fulfill their job responsibilities and tackle the issues of the day.  Though charged with specific roles and responsibilities, employees have a world of experience beyond just their typical responsibilities.  Tapping into employee knowledge to solve problems and create opportunities can create a powerful competitive advantage.  By tapping into a wide talent pool, companies are able to engage a large group of people, generate ideas in a time-efficient manner, and move forward the best ideas towards implementation.

At PwC, we have developed an approach to engage our employees around critical issues and opportunities.  Creating a “Challenge” for employees is a powerful way of soliciting ideas that respond to a current issues or opportunity.  Giving people an opportunity to share any idea they have is important, but creating a model which provides leadership with an ability to engage a large talent pool to create solutions for current issues is a powerful ideation machine.  We have launched over 25 challenges in the last 18 months, challenges from US Firm Leadership, to Market Geography Leaders, to Industry Sector Leaders.  Each Challenge has yielded ideas targeting specific opportunities and issues currently being faced.  Challenges help fill our idea pipeline with relevant, solution oriented ideas that can get traction, and get traction quickly.  Along the way, we have learned of 3 key advantages for why Challenges are effective in engaging people and generating solutions.

Generates buzz and gets attention
The greatest challenge of a Challenge (no pun intended!) is to get people’s attention.  With so many competing priorities and responsibilities, it is critical to generate attention in a way that will evoke curiosity and in turn generate participation.  With that said, it is also important to set the right expectations up-front in terms of how much attention you will get.  Of those you invite to a Challenge, typically about 10%-15% of the targeted audience will actually participate through ideas or comments.  This is a realistic expectation as there are many competing priorities, not to mention the percentage who will not read the communications and those who typically don’t put themselves out there.  We have seen some Challenges yield 15% -20% participation over the past year – exceeding our expectations.

  • When targeting a group of people to participate, consider the following:
  • Individuals have general interest based on their experience and may be knowledgeable about the subject matter.
  • A clear, concise, and focused Challenge statement encourages participation.
  • A comprehensive communications plan is necessary to target the various audiences.

Creates a powerful social contract
It is important to define a social contract in which a promise is made that each and every idea will be evaluated by a business leader for potential implementation.  Giving people that simple promise has opened up the doors to new and interesting ideas Leadership would never have considered or known.   Leaders and their teams have the opportunity to engage with those that have shared their idea or provided a comment to help further the idea to build out new networks and communities of interest.  Along with the social contract, it is important to set expectations and be transparent around the process of the Challenge.

Answering some key questions up-front in your communications will help attract people to participate and make that contract all the more powerful:

  • What is the opportunity or issue currently being faced? What will be the process to evaluate ideas?
  • When and how long will this Challenge be open? When should we expect to hear from leaders about the outcomes of the Challenge?
  • Why is this Challenge important to the overall strategy? Why does my participation matter?
  • Where will the ideas go once they have been evaluated and decisions have been made?
  • Who is sponsoring this Challenge? Who will end up implementing the ideas that are selected to move forward?
  • How will I be rewarded? How will these ideas move forward?

Turns ideas into viable solutions
If a Challenge yields 100 ideas and 5 move forward, this is a huge win!  Getting caught up in the quantity of what you want to move forward may actually prevent you from moving forward with ideas at all.  Focusing on a few is important to maintain progress and sustain efforts.  It is important to remember that it may be only one idea that has the power to provide significant impact and value.  At PwC, we have a well defined process for triaging ideas to Leadership across our Firm, representing different functions in our business.  Each Leader has a team of people that work with them to assess each idea and move forward with ideas deemed valuable to the business.  It is important for the business to be accountable for this process as they are in the best position to make a determination on the business value of an idea and take the idea from concept to reality.  And if you are able to implement only that one great idea – then mission accomplished.

Key considerations for ideas taking a path towards implementation:

  • Focus on a few – concentrate your efforts on a couple impactful ideas to increase the probability of the ideas being implemented.
  • Define a process to assess ideas, determine those that are most valuable, and prioritize for implementation.
  • Designate a business owner for each idea moving forward to be accountable for its progress and implementation.

Creating a strategy around challenges as part of your innovation management practices is important to yield ideas that will generate business value.   We have found Challenges to be a successful way to yield ideas that are relevant to business opportunities and issues we are currently facing.  These are some of the advantages we have found in using a challenge approach to sourcing ideas from our employees.  This has helped us implement almost 100 ideas in just 18 months.  Equally astonishing is the pipeline of 300 ideas under consideration in various parts of our business.  Challenges have fueled our pipeline with relevant, thoughtful ideas that are helping meet current needs.  Crafting a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to soliciting ideas through Challenge accelerates the delivery of solutions for current needs.

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Mother Knows Best

Did your mother ever suggest that you “rethink your decision…” as you defiantly stood your ground?  You were probably on the expressway to early bedtime… and had clearly made a choice which didn’t please her.  But little did you know, she was actually telling you to innovate!

Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes.  Rethinking a decision, rethinking a process, even rethinking a mood all prompt us to innovate.  I actually like the word “rethink.”  Rather than using the buzz words of change… rethinking puts you in the driver’s seat to consider new possibilities or different paths.  It suggests engaging your brain to find different options.

In a game of Memory (or Concentration for the 40 something crowd), you often want to select cards or numbers that have never been turned just for the sake of untried options.  Some trapped in an occupation that is obviously unsatisfying, wish they could rethink their life — a “do-over” of sorts.  Perhaps you’ve almost completed a major project and find yourself saying, “If I could start again, I would…” with the intent of capitalizing on your experience to make subtle improvements.

A local university uses as their tagline — “Rethinking Education” — suggesting a new way of doing business.  They’ve replaced intercollegiate athletics with a robust student-led activities program.  They’ve instituted an equal three-track admissions system, allowing more students the opportunity to study while at the same time, maximizing resources.  An incoming freshman may be admitted to the fall/winter, winter/spring, or spring/fall track (or fast track if they are in a hurry!).

We can rethink our approach anytime — trying a slightly different angle, new twist or complete redesign.  Innovation is exciting.  We draw from our environment and the people around us to apply life’s lessons in making something better.

As a 12 year-old, your mom may not have liked your colorful language or your retaliation methods with a younger sibling, but she had one thing right… “rethinking” keeps us learning and growing (even as adults), and gives us the courage to try new and different things.

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Does It Have To Be Rocket Science?

I spent a good portion of my youth imagining galactic travel, robots on other planets, and space habitats. (And yes, I watched every episode of Star Trek — a remarkable source of new inventions.)  So, when Marty Waszak, Strategic Relations Officer at NASA Langley Research Center, a kindred spirit and fellow crusader of innovation, invited me to speak to a group of senior scientists and engineers about the creative process, I was over the moon!

While thrilled with the invitation, I wondered what a lecture from me could possibly contribute to innovation at NASA — the pioneering leader in research, development and design… and an organization filled with rocket scientists.

Then, it occurred to me that PwC and NASA might have a few challenges and opportunities in common.  We are both heavily regulated organizations, obligated to deliver projects on budget and on time, staffed with highly technical people, and expected to continuously think creatively to provide clients with competitive advantage. This realization helped me focus on lessons I’ve learned as the Innovation Leader at PwC and what I could share with NASA.

Lesson #1: Innovation can come from anyone, anywhere
Innovation is the introduction of anything new or different.  Anything new or different implies innovation can happen anywhere, not just in labs or R&D centers, and by anyone, not only scientists and researchers. At PwC, we have simplified our innovation mission into one question which is relevant to every member of our organization: “What can I do differently today to deliver more value to my client?”

Lesson # 2: People want to be engaged and empowered
At a time when user-generated content rules the web, everyone wants to be empowered to develop strategies previously limited to boardrooms in the executive suite. Employees want to be part of something meaningful and big, and they often surprise if given the opportunity.  NASA and PwC, hire some of the brightest people. Let’s give them a virtual seat in the boardroom and empower them to cultivate their own vision and contribute to the success of the organization.

Lesson #3: Collaboration helps!
I doubt many would challenge my claim that collaboration helps evolve ideas into more valuable assets.  How do you foster an environment where an idea is only the beginning… and collaboration from colleagues is an essential next step?  Online tools that enable brainstorming can be an effective way to transparently showcase the process and benefits of collaboration. At the core however, is a cultural issue that needs fostering from all levels.

Lesson #4: Leadership must be part of the innovation eco-system
I don’t recall ever hearing a CEO say we don’t need innovation, but few truly understand the commitment involved in supporting a culture of creativity. Our social contract with our people at PwC states that if you submit an idea into our idea management site, iPlace, a member of the leadership team will read it, evaluate for possible implementation, and provide comments directly on the site. This direct engagement provides genuine support and the transparency creates a safe environment for innovative thinking.

Lesson #5: Recognize and reward innovation
Most organizations know how to recognize and reward accomplishments, but how do you recognize someone with an idea before it has been fully developed or implemented? If your organization has 3,000 ideas in its pipeline and resources only allow the implementation of 300, where do you the draw the line?  Recognition of all innovators creates trust, builds confidence, and helps accelerate the innovation mindset. Recognition is not a zero sum game. There’s an endless supply. Be generous!

These simple lessons resonated with the audience. Hopefully I influenced them to think slightly differently about each person’s role in the innovation life-cycle. I personally walked away with much more. Not only did I have an incredible day flying the lunar simulator, (successfully landing the first attempt and crashing the second!), sitting in the cockpit of a simulated 757 aircraft, and visiting a space robot who can build a station on the moon, I also met some of the smartest people on the planet, and was inspired by their long-standing commitment to improving the lives of others.

What I really learned at NASA has little to do with space exploration and everything to do with everyday life.  I was reminded that we all face similar issues — and innovation is really a people issue.  Maybe not everyone dreams of space travel, but everyone should be allowed to dream and have the opportunity to make a difference.

Posted in Culture, Innovation, Organization, Strategy | 29 Comments

It’s A Whole Lot Easier To Take Risk When You Have Nothing To Lose!

I was at a meeting last week of large enterprise innovation leaders.  We meet a few times a year and discuss the issues we face in trying to accelerate innovation at our respective companies.  What always amazes me is that whether you make rocket ships, toothpaste, drugs or even provide professional services, the core issues of innovation remain the same.  We all face similar issues around adoption of new innovations, getting management to understand the nature of breakthrough innovations, dealing with the resistance of existing business units to new ideas.  During this meeting one of the members made an interesting presentation about the history of a new innovation they were introducing into the market.

The product they were discussing was clearly a breakthrough and potentially even disruptive innovation.  It had been under development for a number of years and was now in customer trials.  One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation was how the innovation team found that the finance and legal functions were among the most resistant to the new product.  Each group was concerned about the risks this new product would create for the firm.

Finance kept insisting on seeing sales projections showing rapid growth to a very large sales volume.  Unfortunately like many disruptive products, it was very difficult for the team to commit to sales volumes since they had only some preliminary ideas on who would use the product.  Although they had a clear initial target market who was very excited about the product, the team believed that they were introducing an entirely new capability to the market which would be very attractive to a much broader market. The problem was that until the product was established, it would be difficult to these new customers to figure out how to use it.

The legal department kept worrying that if something went wrong the firm’s brand would be damaged.  Although the product had been extensively tested, the potential for problems still remained.  Meeting after meeting was spent in trying to convince the attorneys that although problems could occur the team had plans in place to mitigate any problem as it arose.

The company making the presentation was founded about 30 years ago by a small group of entrepreneurs who ended up disrupting an established industry.  The story about the company’s founding has been widely documented involving a few people with a completely radical idea of how to provide an important service.  The company started in the proverbial small warehouse with the initial few employees working around a single table that first night.  From that humble beginning the company has grown to a global enterprise whose name is a household name.  Employees retell the story with pride, proud to be part of such an amazing success.

I found myself wondering what had happened to the spirit of the original founders and how had a company founded on a disruption become so resistant to innovation?  Where’s the original founder?  He was clearly a risk taker, so how did he allow his company to become so conservative?  How had the conservative forces gained so much power in such an innovative company?  If a company as innovative as this was now resistant to new innovations, was there hope for the rest of us?  What had changed from that night 30 years ago to today?

After thinking about it, I realized that a lot had changed.  There only a handful employees when the company was founded and possibly even fewer customers.  If things went horribly wrong the worst that would have happened is a few customers would be unhappy and five or ten people would have to find a new job.  The risks have risen considerably over the past thirty years.  There was now a lot more to lose.  Today the company has over 200,000 employees and tens of thousands of customers.  It is publically traded with a market capitalization of over $50 billion.

This insight has given me a new perspective on risk and company maturity.  It may not be that companies grow less interested in new ideas as they mature, it may merely be that they have more to protect.  The CEO of this company is probably no less interested in disruptive ideas today than he was 30 years ago.  He just doesn’t have the luxury of having just a little to lose.

Posted in Behavior, Culture, Society, Strategy | 7 Comments

Organizational Hierarchy – Breaking Down the Barriers

Some experiences happen in our careers which forever burn in memory.  For me, I will never forget the first time I was given the opportunity to present to a Vice President.  Early in my career, I came up with an idea to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by revising our existing processes, and my manager asked me to present the idea.  To be given this opportunity and for my idea to be heard left quite the impression on me as a young employee.  I never forgot the sense of empowerment it gave me – I felt valued.

Giving people a voice to be heard by leaders is a powerful opportunity.  It gives those who sit in remote parts of the organization a way to communicate their ideas.  People are often timid to share their ideas with their superiors in fear of rejection or worse.  Nothing shatters someone’s confidence more than hearing “yeah, great idea but we have never tried something like that before”. Hierarchy has always been a challenge for innovation and more times than not, an opportunity like the one I had are rare in organizations.  Having an avenue to share something new or different can give people an outlet and make them feel valued.

We designed our innovation management tool, PwC iPlace, to specifically remove any indication of organizational hierarchy. When an employee comes to iPlace to share their idea, the only information available to them is the person’s name.  There is no indication of the person’s rank, location, or experience.   As a result we have found iPlace to be a vehicle with which everyone can share their ideas. Here are three important benefits we have realized in breaking down the hierarchical barriers.

Emphasizes the idea rather than the person
By removing the hierarchical barriers, people focus on the idea versus where the idea originated.  When you don’t know where the idea came from, the evaluation becomes focused on the idea itself and removes a bias that would normally occurs when you know about the originator.  Do you think a one to two year employee would share his/her thoughts on the idea with an experienced Partner while on the job? Nine times out of ten, I would bet not.  People are naturally intimidated by rank and level.  We have found in iPlace that the exchange between individuals is focused on the idea since there is no sense of the ideator’s background. Staff comment on Partner ideas, Partners comment on staff ideas.

Creates a dynamic feedback and communication mechanism
Creating a “safe” environment encourages feedback and communication, which leads to improved brainstorming and open discussions. Many times when in front of a superior, some tend to feel like you have to have a well formulated and articulated point of view.  Although this is important at times, it is just as valuable to share gut reactions and thoughts to help evolve initial concepts and ideas.  This helps in terms of not shooting down an idea initially and gives the idea life.

Gives the power and permission to everyone
Having an outlet that allows everyone to contribute free of levels, ranks, and classes gives the power to the people to share their ideas and speak their minds.  Giving people the “permission” to share ideas is key to empowerment.  As much as we try to create a comfortable environment, giving an option like this will help open up the organization to share ideas and receive feedback.

We have found that iPlace has become the place where our employees feel free to share their thoughts.  We have experienced great representation across each level and part of our organization.   iPlace has started to break down the barrier of organization hierarchy and has proven to be instrumental in generating and evolving ideas. Now the possibility of presenting an idea to a leader with the ability to implement the ideas is no longer the exception, but the rule.

So how do you create a safe environment for your employees to share their ideas? What organizational barriers do you typically experience?


Posted in Behavior, Organization | 1 Comment

Keeping an "Eye" on Innovation

Innovation is not necessarily limited to new technologies or new products. Today, companies are touted as innovative for reinventing business models, building entirely new markets, or looking through a different lens to creatively meet customer needs.

Employees are an important source of creative ideas. Not just those who work in central R&D, but anyone in the organization who generates an idea that can deliver value.  Our employees see potential problems in the trenches, which ultimately yield opportunities for innovation in products, processes or services. To foster an innovative culture, we first need a fertile environment that encourages people to think in creative and unconventional ways, and resist the strict process standardization borne out of cost-cutting measures.  Then we need to encourage awareness and widespread empathy for the people we serve — our clients and customers.

Encouraging employees to connect with customers isn’t about conducting market research or distributing a customer survey. It’s about seeing the world through their eyes — empathizing with them. By observing what customers do and listening to what they say, and even more importantly recognizing what they don’t say, our employees  begin to “see” what our customers see, think the way they think, recognize what they need, and anticipate what they want.

In the late 80s, Harley-Davidson Inc. was in danger of losing substantial market share to Japanese motorcycle manufacturers. Built and sold for a fraction of the cost, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki bikes created a crushing threat to Harley-Davidson. This wake-up call forced Harley-Davidson to re-think their business model simply to survive.

They began sending employees to bike rallies — to ride with the riders, talk with them face-to-face, bond with them, and see the motorcycle through the riders’ eyes.  After “seeing” what the riders wanted in a motorcycle, engineers redesigned the Harley, and sales people took trailers full of motorcycles to bike rallies offering 15-mile test rides to anyone wishing to try one of these American-made bikes. The effect was dramatic. Employees on the front line understood their customers were looking for an experience, a sense of freedom and individuality uniquely found in riding a motorcycle. They changed the focus of their messaging from quality workmanship to the passion and dream of owning a bike. They strengthened relationships with dealers and created the world’s largest motorcycle community — the Harley-Davidson Owner’s Group (HOG). Today, with over 4 million members, the HOG family includes everyone from Harley-Davidson’s own corporate officers to the newest rider/owner – all bonded by the culture they helped create.

History tells the rest of the story. Harley’s greatest success began in the late 80s and sustained strongly through the mid-2000s. While other American car companies were losing billions of dollars, Harley-Davidson gained a stronghold on the motorcycle industry, inspiring passion in motorcycle enthusiasts and extending its target audience to every person desiring freedom and individuality.

Seeing the world through our customers’ eyes gives us confidence and inspiration to generate new ideas that make an impact. … . At PwC, our approach to innovation includes programs that maximize our interaction with clients, and techniques that help our people “see” business issues through the client’s eyes and innovate based on their needs.  We have discovered that cultivating a culture of widespread empathy for our clients accelerates our journey to innovate…Do you see the world through your customers’ eyes?


Posted in Behavior, Culture, Innovation, Society | Leave a comment

Challenging Our People

One of Leadership’s core responsibilities is to address issues and challenges within the business.  But what if we flipped that model and gave part of that responsibility to our employees?  People are our greatest asset as we hire the best and brightest to join us in delivering the highest quality professional services, so involving them in addressing challenges is imperative.  Now with the power of new technologies, the discussion that once took place in a conference room can be opened to everyone across the globe for their ideas and thoughts.  As such, we found a way to tap into the knowledge and expertise of our people and challenge them to help solve the business challenges facing us.

Innovation challenges are time bound initiatives to challenge our people to share their ideas in response to a particular business issue.  Business sponsors are responsible for championing the challenge by setting the challenge question and assembling teams of people in place to respond, evaluate, and bring ideas forward toward implementation.   These individuals are members of leadership who are empowered to create organization change and have an extensive network to make it happen.  A challenge may run anywhere from two to three weeks focused on soliciting as many ideas as possible.

In our first fifteen months, the US firm ran about twenty challenges using iPlace. Innovation challenges are time bound initiatives to challenge our people to share their ideas in response to a particular business issue.  As a result, over 65% of the ideas in iPlace have come in as a result of a challenge (approximately 1500 ideas). The US firm hosts a range of challenges, focused on creating greater efficiencies, developing relationships, driving growth and opportunity, and developing new business.  By giving people a challenge, it ignites a sense of urgency and gives them a basis for their ideas.  Asking people to respond to challenges has helped yield ideas that are relevant to strategy and respond to key issues and opportunities in the marketplace.

We have experimented with various approaches to challenges including: 1) firm-wide challenges. inviting all employees to participate, 2) focused challenges. targeting a particular line of service, practice, or sector, 3) local challenges. within local markets and offices.  Each approach has yielded slight variations in results, but one thing is clear – challenge ideas have a greater probability of becoming implemented ideas.  We have found over 70% of all ideas implemented over the past 15 months we derived from a challenge.  Challenges have proven that they not only yield more relevant ideas, but that business sponsors of challenges have greater chance of making an idea a reality.   How do you challenge your people to help solve tough business challenges?

Posted in Contests, Culture, Innovation | 4 Comments

Tainted Love

The other night I watched the movie “The Invention of Lying”, which posits a world, exactly like ours in every way, except for the fact that the concept of lying doesn’t exist. One day, the hero finds himself the only person in the world who can lie, and high jinx ensue. The most unbelievable part of this movie was that, a total lack of deception aside, everything about the world was exactly the same as the actual world; companies were the same, brands were identical, in fact everything about Corporate America was unchanged. However, in a world with no manipulation, no exaggerations, no lies, would the American corporate landscape really look exactly the same at it does? It’s hard to believe that it would.

In fact, it increasingly feels, to the average person at least, like Corporate America is one giant shell game. If nothing else, there is certainly the perception that obfuscation is generally being practiced, and that few of the activities are to the benefit of the average person on the street. Ultimately, as with any relationship, once the trust disappears, so does the love. Whether its banks, mortgage lenders, insurance companies or oil companies, to name just a few examples, the consumer just isn’t feeling the love at the moment.

Perhaps what’s needed to inject some trust back into the system is a new type of service innovation, one that turns the traditional, business as usual attitude that corporations have on its head. There are already companies that are taking this tack, usually with impressive results. These companies put a premium on the customer experience, at any costs. Employees never need to say, “I’ll have to speak to a manager before I can authorize that”, rather they are empowered to do whatever it takes to fix a situation and to make customers feel valued.

In a recent article, Daniel Pink suggests an interesting possible dimension to this kind of service innovation: he says, “In business…we resort to a weird and inadvertent bilingualism. We speak human at home and ‘professionalese’ at work. And that might be hurting our businesses.” Pink points out that business relationships are based on trust and goes on to say, “trust depends on openness, respect and humanity. Yet we often resist taking that approach in our professional lives, even though we know it would be absurd to do anything else in our personal lives.” Pink quotes author and entrepreneur Jason Fried who claims, “In a world awash in information and choices, clarity is now a source of competitive advantage…The real winners in business are going to be the clear companies. Clarity is what everybody really wants and appreciates.”

What would a corporate landscape look like that was based on clarity, transparency and trust? Well, as per my problem with the movie, it almost certainly wouldn’t look exactly like the landscape we have today, where so many business practices rely on intentional ambiguities at best and outright deception at worst. There clearly are a growing number of companies that are beginning to realize that relationships with customers that are based on trust, mutual respect and honesty, have more long-term value than the alternative. Not surprisingly, these companies also usually rate high in employee satisfaction metrics, if only because, in allowing employees to develop a trust-based relationship with customers, it imbues their jobs with a sense of meaning and purpose. Also not surprisingly, many of these companies are also at the forefront when it comes to utilizing social media for customer interaction; responding in real time to customer issues and suggestions.

It’s clearly Pollyannaish to believe that standard business practices can or will change so radically for most companies, at least in the short-term. However, there does seem to be evidence that the innovation of bringing clarity, transparency and good faith to dealings with customers is a sound business strategy and not just the latest marketing gimmick.


Posted in Behavior, Culture, Innovation, Trust | 1 Comment