An innovation heartbeat – intrapreneurship to future-proof your business

Explore Assurity 7 September 2015 Finn Lawrence and Yvonne Tse

Finn Lawrence and Yvonne Tse review the first Startup Weekend run by Assurity’s Wellington branch in June…

It seems like ‘innovation’ really is the buzzword of the day.

Software is eating the world – and soon every company will be a software company. This tech future is ruled by speed. Code is delivered every day to be consumed as services by customers all over the globe.

So how can any company possibly remain relevant in this scenario where disruption happens by default and the landscape changes every day?

The answer has to be ‘innovate’. Facebook’s little red book, a copy of which lives on the desk of every employee, famously says:

“If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will”

“‘Embracing change’ isn’t enough. It has to be so hardwired into who we are that even talking about it seems redundant. The internet is not a friendly place. Things that don’t stay relevant don’t even get the luxury of leaving ruins. They disappear” 

Perhaps your business isn’t in an environment quite as competitive as Facebook, but the message is a powerful one: Evolve or become extinct.

Getting the ball rolling

We practise what we preach. Self-disruption means not staying still and constantly challenging the status quo. This is actually one of our core values.

As a company, Assurity is now of a size where some things have become ‘standardised’ and it can be hard to self check: Is this still the best way to do this? Does it still fit with our values? Does it make sense with what we know today? We want to avoid ‘because we’ve always done it that way’.

It can be hard to start ‘innovating’. Where, when, what? And it comes back to speed: here, now and the smallest thing we can do to learn something.

But who are the best people to do this innovating? Luckily they already work for us. Every company already has innovators – they are the people doing the work on the ground who are constantly optimising everything around them. They are the thinkers and the tinkerers. They may not even know it, but they are entrepreneurs at heart.

At a recent lecture by renowned innovator Larry Keeley (author of The Ten Types of Innovation) at Te Papa, a member of the audience who worked for a large company asked, “Who are the right people in my company to kick off innovation and how do I find them?”. The response was “Set up an innovation ‘team’ or ‘event’ and ask everyone to join in. Ask the people who show up ‘Who else should be here?’. They will know. Add those names to the ones in the room. Those are your innovators”.

These people are already here. The only step that’s missing is a platform or channel for their work; a lightweight, effective way to quickly evaluate multiple ideas and provide resources to the most promising of the bunch.

The Wellington Startup Weekend

As a starting point for us, we made a decision to work from the Startup Weekend template. In the commercial world, entrepreneurs of all sizes work non-stop over a single weekend – 54 hours – and pitch for prize money to continue their venture on Sunday evening. It’s high stress, high stakes and extremely competitive. The format however delivers – on average over a third of Startup Weekend companies are still going strong three months later.

For our first go at this, we didn’t want to plan too much – we didn’t even know if anyone would be interested. ‘Get good catering in’, ‘make sure there is good music and lots of space’ and ‘it’s really hard to mess up a Startup Weekend’ were the top tips we could find online from people who do it for a living. This sounded like fun!

We then made the bold decision to not offer to pay anyone for their time and to hold it on an actual weekend. We knew this would narrow the cross-section of attendees, but for a first time it served a dual purpose of keeping it cheap and keeping our numbers manageable.

This meant that the sum total of our ‘ask’ (what entrepreneurs call ‘what we need to make this happen’) was:

  • Use of our office for the weekend
  • Catering
  • Judging talent from the management team for an hour on Sunday evening

This made it virtually free to run and meant we weren’t caught up justifying the value of it. We could run a bigger event later once we had proven the concept on a shoestring.

From a branch of around 100 staff with no reward other than being fed and watered, we had 10 participants give up a weekend in June to work on solving the problems they face in their work every day. Nine of them pitched their own ideas on Friday evening and we formed three teams to work on the most popular ones. Teams were then introduced to Lean Start-up techniques which would help them validate, test and develop their ideas into Minimum Viable Products (MVP) over the weekend.

As the emphasis was to solve internal problems, we also had other staff volunteer as ‘customers’ who were interviewed on Saturday morning. We introduced Lean Customer Interview techniques which helped our participants to really engage with their colleagues during the interview and draw out meaningful answers to help validate their perceived problems.

Following this, teams began to iterate and develop their concepts, tracking their progress on their own Lean Canvas, a popular business model which we customised for internal use and set up on our windows. It was incredible to see participants interact with the canvases and watch them grow in size as teams started to transform their ideas into solutions.

On Sunday evening, teams presented back to management. The results were three well-researched problems and the foundations of great solutions that will benefit all staff. The passion demonstrated by the participants and their ongoing commitment to follow through with their solutions is a testament to the individuals who participated.

At Assurity, we want to have an ‘innovation heartbeat’ – an expectation that is set of our people to demand better from the company and from each other. We are by no means there but, as with any long journey, taking the first step is always the most difficult.

Now that we’ve taken this first step in Wellington, we can work on improving, extending and enhancing the work that we’ve already done.