In a prior role, I was responsible for leading a bottom-up innovation program at a large Fortune 50. Although I had top level support, the culture of the company at the time was such that the initiative was structured to be bottom-up. I had to win the hearts and minds of people and show value before the top leadership would jump in to champion the program. The purpose of this post is share some lessons learned around an innovation club I set up called “Club U3”. The U3 stood for unique, unusual, and unexpected.
The premise behind the club was to fostering behaviors in our employees that supported innovation. We wanted people to feel comfortable doing unusual things outside of their comfort zone, thereby expanding their knowledge, experiences, and insights. We wanted them to discover and share unique and creative ideas that had the promise of delivering unexpected growth and value to the company. We also wanted people sprinkled throughout the organization who could help champion the Club U3 cause.
We started small, just a couple of people at first. This initial team decided that we would grow only by word of mouth. When we identified people we thought who would be interested in the club we asked them to attend a meeting. We did not tell them what the meeting was about. We wanted people who were willing to take a risk. Take time out of their busy day to meet with people they did not know for an unknown topic. Initially, we got a lot of no thanks responses! We also found the risk takers.
In order to become a club member, you had to invite three people without telling them about the topic of the meeting and at least one had to show up for the next meeting. You also had to share or do something unique, unusual or unexpected at the next meeting. We let the person decide what that was. Inevitably, this led to a lot of fun and closer camaraderie.
We deliberately did not meet in a conference room. We met in unusual places. For instance, we met once on top of our 50 story building, in old abandoned bank vault down the street. We even had a meeting outside on the lawn. You get the idea, we wanted people to be outside of their comfort zone.
It didn’t take long before the Club U3 grew quite large and we were making headway on our goal of changing hearts and minds. After about nine months, things started to slow down and eventually the club died. Why? How could such a great concept die?
We met too often. As we grew we should have made adjustments. In retrospect, I think once every other month or even once a quarter would have been fine.
We ran out of unique places to meet! Nice premise, but there are a finite number of places to meet that people can get to and from during the course of the work day. I still like the concept of stepping outside your environment, but you should temper this with reality. We had a lot of stress trying to always find some place different.
It’s very difficult to have ten or more people say or do something unique, unusual or unexpected in a 30-45 minute meeting and also deliver club content and messaging. Some people were disappointed they could not share, thus officially join as expected due to the physics of time.
Execution takes time. Some members actually came up with great ideas that could be implemented, but not every idea was a quick win or could be accomplished immediately. So communicating a continual stream of successes was difficult.
My “driving force” behind the club, the organizer and pep rally person grew tired and lost motivation. She eventually left the club. Innovation is hard work and requires persistence.
I tell this story because it parallels the start of an innovation programs in general. You’ll start off with a bang and likely have a lot of success earlier on, but you need to be persistent and plan for the lean times. Be observant and willing to make adjustments. Don’t have all your eggs in one basket, have a backup plan, and additional resources available. Actively take advantage of the innovation champions (the club members) to help spread and support your efforts. Communicating value is key and not necessarily the wins. There is value in lessons learned from failed projects. Remember: Innovation is a journey, enjoy the experience.