Given half a chance, anyone can innovate. With the right opportunity, anyone has the ability to make a difference. Whether an idea means to benefit themselves or their companies, they are important. Our team at Constant Contact helps colleagues flex their idea muscles at “Innovation Jams.” InnoJams give employees an opportunity to step away from their typical duties. Instead, they spend the time connecting with colleagues and new ideas.
While InnoJams should be accessible to all employees, some (particularly those working in sales and support) are unable to take part because they can’t be away from their duties for an extended period of time. We want every employee to be able to take part, and we’re working hard to make that a reality. As with all experiments, the InnoJam is a work in progress. It improves through feedback and iteration.
As with most hackathons, the InnoJam kicks off with an introduction: this time around, our CEO (Gail Goodman) introduced the theme and spoke briefly about why it was important. The theme was “Challenging the Status Quo.“ This theme was chosen because employees asked for it. While this desire was first exposed through employee surveys, addressing it through top-down action wasn’t the right way to promote employee involvement. Instead, employees developed their ideas for presentation to a panel of judges. Some companies might be reluctant to empower employees this way; Constant Contact is not.
No doubt this provoked some stress from those interested in pitching. Despite that, the employees of Constant Contact followed through. We had a packed house , with most (or all) of the company’s departments represented. Employees pitched over 30 ideas, with 44 projects submitted in total. Some people came with ideas ready for prime-time, or with a team ready to work. Others came with prototypes and snacks, or drinks to entice their colleagues.
Bringing the right team together can be difficult. We advise people not to work alone due to the amount of work. Even with a good team, victory isn’t guaranteed. The assembly of a team starts with the pitch itself: is this an interesting idea? One worth spending time on? With only a minute, could you share an idea in a front of a room filled with people? Can you state why it’s so important, and what help you need to reach your goal? It’s not an easy skill, at all.
Like most skills, improvement comes with practice. With a theme focused on internal improvements, getting people to attend was easy. Getting them up to pitch is usually more difficult. That difficulty may have been assisted by the theme. And of course practicing your pitch helps. You can practice with Toastmasters, your team or your dog. No matter how much time you put in, getting up in front of everyone can be difficult. Hopefully the theme and their practice helped our colleagues feel comfortable.
With pitching completed, participants started to form teams, settling in for the rest of the Jam. Everyone pitching included the help they need, to help speed up the team formation. With less than 60 hours to go from pitching to presenting, there’s a premium on time.
One way our team helps keep things moving is by creating a space for the collision of ideas. The InnoLoft includes couches, tables, chairs and of course, snacks. Collisions are important. Even a simple conversation can spark a mind with something new. And just like at Startup Weekend Bermuda, the winner may be the one who decides to pitch last.
The hardest commodity to wrest from people remains time. Just like our customers, employees have scarce flexible time. Do they spend it working on the things they have to do, or things they want to do? If the available time fills up with duties, when will there be time for fun and creativity? With shifting priorities, it can be difficult to find the time to focus on new things.
Thankfully, the management team at Constant Contact understands the value of giving their employees the time to innovate. The fact that we get time to innovate at work puts Constant Contact ahead of the pack in a lot of ways. We know ideas can go from pitch to product within 54 hours at Startup Weekend. It’s reasonable to expect the same sort of performance from our colleagues here.
I was once told, on a job interview, that only those working on R&D teams could innovate. I decided not to continue interviewing there. Innovation may be the principal task of an employee in an R&D group. To say it’s the only place ideas can come from is silly. Restricting idea submission only to those working in deep science stifles creativity. Filtering out ideas before they’re revealed is a sure-fire path toward failure.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to realize that great ideas can come from almost anyone, if you give them a little time, space, and put them with the right people.