“Sparks” – Why there’s no innovation under water

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In the last weeks there were two contributions on Twitter, which inspired me to this post.

I exchanged myself briefly with Luise and she motivated me to write down my experiences on this question. A few days later, Maike Kueper shared the following questions:

Treasure 40 already dealt with the topic of ambidextry, the conflict between optimizing value creation (execution) and experimenting and finding new solutions (innovation). I share Bodo Antonic’s observation that in many companies the hamster wheel of optimization takes up the entire time. In order to find new solutions, companies try to resolve the conflict with extra innovation departments, internal start-ups or perhaps also by funding external start-ups. I see the danger of ivory towers in which exciting technologies and crazy ideas are generated. If these units do not solve a customer problem or fail to transfer innovations into execution, then this is just a big money-incineration machine.

Even if this type of conflict can be successfully resolved, I see untapped potential. On the one hand, in most cases only new products and services are generated, i.e. the problem of the end customer is solved. However, there are certainly also many internal customer problems for which new solutions need to be found. On the other hand, the employees who are involved in value creation know best about customer problems.

Learning from Alexander Fleming – Innovation Days


Drown | Source: LibelSanRo on Pixabay, CC0

In early 2017, innovation was introduced as company prority and I were faced with the question of how we could experiment more and find new solutions. However, everyone was deeply involved in their daily business, the hamster wheel of which Bodo Antonic speaks. One person is “heads down”, the other “under water”. Under water, however, it is difficult to ignite the fire for experimenting and finding new solutions. How do you get people to get out of the water? Where are the other innovators in the company? I had no idea and I realized that I would have to start my own experiment. A “campfire” event had to come up to let the spark of experimentation jump over, one day on the topic of innovation.

I quickly found the right format. From the intrinsify.me events I knew the Open Space format , which was perfect for my project. It scales for small to very large groups. After all, I didn’t know how many people were coming. Furthermore, the agenda is created at the beginning of the event. People in the hamster wheel usually have little time to submit abstracts and I also wanted to keep my experiment lean and avoid curating contributions or even a program committee.

So it just needed a large room for a plenum and a sufficient number of breakout rooms. These do not even have to be physical rooms, but can also be corners of the room or coffee corners. The rooms will then be named according to the motto of the day.

Only a invitation was missing. The first time I invited my local busines unit. Meanwhile we had five of these events and step by step additional participants were invited. Today the invitation goes to the whole site and field offices. This makes the group of participants more heterogeneous, which is good for the event. We have not yet managed more than 50 participants. Most people cite the “hamster wheel” as the reason for not taking part.

Alexander Fleming

Source: Calibuon at English Wikibooks, Public Domain

In order to increase the tension and set impulses, we give every Innovation Day a motto. The invitation only states a year for the time being, the first time it was 1928, and the participants only find out what this means when they come to the event. 1928 is the year of the invention of penicillin, which was more or less accidentally found by Alexander Fleming. He experimented with bacteria in Petri dishes, which he put aside. One of them was mouldy and the penicilin was discovered. This is exactly what I wanted to achieve with Innovation Day: Set up petri dishes. In some petri dishes something is growing, some remain empty and perhaps one will become the great disruption. After the short impulse to the motto of the day we start with the session pitches. The participants pitch their ideas or problem statements and the Open Space is kicked-off.

What has come out so far? Exciting projects and innovations that solve real customer problems, e.g.

  • A cabinet with a “touch screen” on wood, a great demo for trade fairs and the chance to conquer a completely new market segment. This was made possible by Innovation Day, which brought together electronics craftsmen, hobby carpenters and software experts.
  • In one of the customer’s products, new technology was installed. Instead of colourful PowerPoint slides, the added value could be demonstrated to the customer live. This was made possible by Innovation Day. Within one hour the contact to the quality laboratory was established, the team found out by X-ray how to open the device non-destructively and a concept was developed.

The real highlight for me, however, are not the innovations, but the good vibes. Between participants and topics. This coupling creates complicity. The participants organize themselves. Quite the opposite of normal everyday life, in which projects are assigned “resources”.

I would like to see more non-technical sessions. I am sure there are also problems in the areas of finance, HR and leadership that require innovative solutions and could benefit from the different perspectives of the participants.

Incidentally, I find it exciting how the principles of open space are slowly diffusing into everyday business. From time to time you can also hear sentences like “Those are the right ones” or “I use the law of two feet” outside these events.

Sparks from the outside world – Innovation Sparks

In order to let the spark not only spread between employees and topics that already move us, we have come up with another format. Innovation Sparks is our series of events with external guests. We copied the concept cheekily from 12min.me. 12 minutes of short presentations, 12 minutes of Q&A and 12 minutes of networking ensure that it remains entertaining and fits well into the lunch break with 2-3 speakers. At first glance, the topics often seem irrelevant.

At the first event we had the founder of babo blue visiting. The startup invented a blue beer and was pitching at the German Shark Tank. What can a technology corporate learn from this? The founders have succeeded in differentiating themselves in a highly competitive market. And during the subsequent discussion about patents, our internal experts suddenly came to light on the subject of patents. Now each of the 50 participants knows where he is going when it is about patents.

A little more thoughtful was the baseball coach who spoke on the subject of failure. It’s an integral part of baseball. A good batter (the one with the bat) hits only 30% of all attempts. Certainly, such a format will not bring about any change in the company for a long time to come. But even on this topic there were accomplices who want to learn more together.

We record lectures and Q&A so that the spark is also transmitted to others who are not present at the event. Here good vibes help. Video amateurs in our company have the opportunity to experiment with their equipment and improve their video editing skills.

More sparks – The Innovation Club

In the meantime we have founded an Innovation Club. This is not an association in the classical sense, but a network of people in the company with whom it has already “sparked”. Projects, events and articles are shared via the Social Intranet and the idea of networking is lived beyond the events.

And also from external organizations the spark has already jumped over. In the Fablab we have found the possibility to quickly build prototypes and to experiment together with creative people outside the company and to find new solutions.

Does it spark something for you?

The Innovation Club is still in its infancy and we still have a long way to go before the spark spreads to everyone in the company. In my Petri dish, which I planted at the beginning of 2017, a delicate plant has grown in recent months. I’ve learned a lot. The most important thing: It needs a breeding ground that ensures that people get together and come together with themes. When it “sparks”, the rest organizes itself. The following tweet is a perfect match:

So work on the breeding ground in your company. You already have the ideas and people. Make sure the spark happens.

If this post sparked something for you, I’d appreciate an exchange. Do you have questions or inputs? Do you also run an Innovation Club or would you like to start one? Or do you have something exciting to contribute to our Innovation Sparks? Simply send an email to [email]tobias@companypirate.de[/email] or contact me through one of my social channels.