Break Down the Walls . . . Literally, Functionally and Psychologically

posted by WMC

Fifteen years ago I was asked to build a skunkworks for a major financial services company in the US. The goal was to find new and innovative financial products to serve our customers. We did discover useful insights that helped the company develop new products—but the most valuable insight surprised us all. It was discovering the critical factors that foster creativity and innovation. And keep in mind, this was over a decade ago, before the concepts of lean, agile, open office, incubators and hackathons were popular in business. In setting up the skunkworks, I had to start completely from scratch. So, how do you foster innovation in business? You break down the walls . . . literally, functionally and psychologically.

The first thing I did was find a building that would accommodate the team—about three hundred people. The location I found was a small, two-storey commercial office building that had been a call centre. There were a couple of offices on each floor, but the rest of the space was completely open, partitioned by small, six-foot workstations with short cubicle walls. There were nowhere near enough meeting rooms, but to keep costs down we decided to move in as is.

Once the building was set up, we were ready to get to work. The initial thinking was that to find new product insights and test them in the market, we would need to set up a cross-departmental facility, including every function that contributed to the customer value chain. We recruited three hundred volunteers. Marketing, brand, product, data analysts, systems developers and operations process managers all moved in to the second floor; on the ground floor, we set up a customer service call centre on one side, and a collections, recoveries and fraud call centre on the other. We even found room in the basement to install a high speed printer so that we could create customer letters and statements.

But we were innovating here. This couldn’t be business as usual—we wanted new ideas and new ways of creating them. So first, the leadership team got together and identified guiding principles that we believed would support innovation. The key one was—everyone has the freedom to fail.

Then, we set up six teams made up of people from each department, which we called “focus teams.” But now there was a new problem: there were not enough meeting rooms to accommodate these teams. So we created our own. We removed workstations in about six locations across the second floor and set up large tables surrounded by white boards . . . these “pods” became our meeting rooms. Each team was given one of the pods as its work area and was asked to focus on a specific consumer opportunity. The newly forged teams sat together around a table . . . every day, all day. We didn’t know it at the time—but we had just created an agile team, before agile was a common approach.

The ideas flowed and the focus teams came up with interesting and valuable product insights. But as I mentioned earlier, the key learning was how to foster innovation and creativity. And in fact, before I left the skunkworks and moved on to my next role, I was asked to travel across the company and talk about these new ways of working. This is what we learned, together, and what I passed on to other in the company as best practices for fostering innovation:

  • Commit to the vision: allocate time and space for innovation and promote an obligation to debate and dissent
  • Create a safe space: foster a physical environment that is open with lots of space to collaborate
  • Share everything: give people the power to share information and connect and make openness the default
  • Encourage experimentation: encourage customer-centred thinking and don’t punish failure
  • Build diverse teams: mix it up and look for ideas everywhere

I enjoyed my time at the skunkworks, and I carry what I learned from my time there with me today. These insights have become more common in the past decade, which is why I was interested to read about Google’s new insight into highly productive teams. Google found that the key to highly productive creative team is the concept of “psychological safety”—where team members feel safe and are able to take risks and share a new idea without the fear of being shot down. In other words, the freedom to fail!

Nancy Iceley is a consultant at our Toronto office. To see her article on LinkedIn, click here.

The opinions represented here do not necessarily represent WMC’s views as a whole.