Nearly every company in the world claims that innovation is important. What matters are the actions the company takes that support those claims.
Intuit is a company that considers innovation to be important and all employees are expected to be innovative and make an impact. Intuit has built an ecosystem of activities supporting Innovation including: unstructured time, innovation jams, training, lean start-ups, innovation awards, and innovation tools. Central to these efforts is an employee centered innovation network that increases interest, support teams and build capabilities across the company. I am currently the leader of one of the most robust and effective innovation networks at the company – the Innovation Catalyst Community. The Innovation Catalysts have been written about elsewhere [Martin 2011, Castleman 2013], but this article will focus on the cultural impact of this network and the implications for other organizations.
It wasn’t that we didn’t care about innovation; we just weren’t investing in it.
Although today Intuit is recognized as being an innovative company (Forbes 2013, Thomas 2013, Upbin 2012), it wasn’t always that way. We were a caring and collaborative organization where people mattered, but we were not an innovative culture. It wasn’t that we didn’t care about innovation; we just weren’t investing in it, especially across the entire company.
All of this began to change in 2008, when leadership recognized the need to change the way we’d been working as a company, with more of a focus given to creating innovative offerings that delight our customers, instead of just incrementally improving them to make them easier. When our new CEO, Brad Smith, told us in 2008 that we were going to be a “premier innovative growth company”, many of us thought that sounded absurd. However, we also realized that we were the ones who could make that happen. Different initiatives started popping up, some sponsored and some not. Unstructured time was introduced when an engineer developed our first mobile app on her own time over a weekend. Idea Jams began to proliferate to get teams to come up with new ideas and pitch them to our leaders. At the same time, a group of us created a strategy for how we could get the company to move from talking about Designing for Delight and to start doing it. Included in that strategy was the development of a network of Innovation Catalysts who were passionate, trained employees that coached and facilitated other teams. The strategic goal was to form a globally disbursed, cross-functional team of innovation experts, who would be champions for innovative activities and drive cultural change across the organization over time.
Suzanne Pellican was tasked with creating the first Innovation Catalyst training class in September 2009. She pulled together a small group of us to create the curriculum and teach the 3-day training session to the first group of Catalyst participants. Then, she did something brilliant: she created a community network of the trained Innovation Catalysts to support each other. This included providing an online portal where members could share documents and report what we were doing, along with an email list to encourage direct communication. She also held community meetups to bring the members of the network back together periodically to learn and share.
Our original training was not a complete success. We rushed through important things, plowed through our processes and tools, and forced trainees to make choices about which areas they would get more hands-on training from. I’d spent many years creating innovation and user experience training at Intuit, and feared that the result of this training would be much the same as my previous efforts – people would find it interesting, but ultimately not make any real change. Thankfully I was wrong. It was that employee network that made all the difference. By joining the network upon completion of the initial training, participants were returning to a work environment that included a supportive network of other employees who had shared experiences with them.
The vision of the Innovation Catalyst Community is D4D in the DNA. (D4D = Design for Delight. It is our term for how we use Design Thinking to innovate). This vision makes the mission clear to everyone joining the Innovation Catalysts: Build Design for Delight Capabilities across Intuit. No specific “how” is dictated, although there are many tools and resources that are available. As long as Innovation Catalysts are building these capabilities in the company, we’re on track.
Innovation Catalysts use D4D tools everyday, often without even being conscious of it.
Today, there are over 180 active Innovation Catalysts who are passionate and highly engaged. They share best practices, interesting articles, ask each other questions, jump in to help one another, and share their stories. They communicate using email, in-person meetups, and a thriving closed Facebook group. Most of the activity happens organically within the network. Towards our vision of D4D in the DNA, most Innovation Catalysts use D4D tools in their everyday work, often without even being conscious of it. In addition, D4D is being used in every Business Unit, in nearly every group at the company, mostly without the help of Innovation Catalysts anymore. The Innovation Catalyst Community thrives and continues to train, inspire and provoke teams to go beyond incremental and obvious to delight customers.
We do still nurture and encourage the Catalyst network. Without this, the inertia of everyday work might dissolve the impact we have on the company. Current ways we provide support include:
It is insufficient to create training sessions that stand alone.
The current Innovation Catalyst network effect is in full motion. We train Innovation Catalysts and then get them involved in helping others, which gets more people learning the skills and approaches we want them to use, encouraging more people to join the network. We currently have a waiting list of employees wanting to join the network. The impact of this flywheel is that we end up with more innovators and leaders, more innovative products, and a more innovative corporate culture. It’s a virtuous cycle, and the basis is the action of individual network members.
From our experience, I can definitely say that it is insufficient for a company to just talk about innovation. It is insufficient to create training sessions that stand alone. It is critical to create mechanisms for reinforcing innovation learnings over time, and supporting the employees in their efforts to evolve their skills. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to create networks focused not only on the innovations themselves, but the passion, skills and capabilities of each other.
Wendy leads the Innovation Catalyst Community at Intuit. She spends her time training and supporting this 200-person community using design-thinking so they can inspire others to innovate. Wendy has a PhD in Cognitive and Perceptual Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin, and has 20 years of experience in Experience Design and Design Thinking. Prior to working at Intuit, she worked at Remedy, Motorola, Philips and Lucent.
This series focuses on the increasing trend of organizations to train their employees around the skills of innovation, in order to create a base for cultural change across the organization, and also to increase the flow of idea execution. The series also examines an approach to supporting and engaging employees once they have been trained, so that they can continue to be engaged by the innovation program and drive value to the organization.