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Creating a start-up within your business

Technology and business models are evolving at an increasingly rapid rate and organisations need to innovate rapidly or risk being ‘eaten’ by the next digital disruptor.

Barely known five years ago, we’re now becoming familiar with the trend ‘acqui-hiring’ - whereby a company acquires another for its talent over products or services. While this presents a viable business strategy for technology giants, other companies have to take a different creative approach to innovation and talent development.

Embracing the innovation challenge

As a company we’re always striving to better ourselves, our technology and the experience we provide our clients, but we were a little cautious about driving forward certain projects because of our focus and pride on delivery of our core software platform, Darwin.

To challenge this mind-set we needed to create a situation that gave them total freedom; one with no code of business, no hierarchy and no rules. We needed a creative sandbox – a safe environment where people weren’t afraid to share their ideas in and have them knocked down.

We were holding our learning and development conference in Cluj (a fast-growing tech hub in Romania) and decided to take advantage of having the whole senior tech team across the various disciplines in one place and outside of their usual work environment. In total, 45 of our senior developers, quality engineers and business analysts from our offices in Singapore, Romania and London were present. This geographic split was essential, as each region brought its own development perspective, meaning that together they provided a comprehensive representation of the global market.

Creating a start-up within an established business

Once we were in situ, we set about developing our fictional business, starting with its name. We didn’t want anything too serious, and actually started off brainstorming names with TV show, The Apprentice, in mind. Eventually we settled on ‘Megathrust’ – something deliberately preposterous that underlined the whole point of the initiative – that no idea was too stupid.

In line with this, we invented a fictional CEO, River Bends, who was over the top and injected a lot of fun in to proceedings. Enthusiasm went up in response to him and the character reinforced the point that this was a creative process rather than an engineering one.

After an introduction by River, attendees were put into teams for the day. Rather than provide them with a leadership structure, we asked them to consider how they were going to work and what team structure they’d like to use. We wanted to instil the idea of zero management so that people understood this wasn’t about addressing a specific application challenge – but more about developing a way of working together whereby we could meet and overcome multiple challenges. It was interesting to see that some teams did end up implementing traditional hierarchical structures. These were the process driven people, for whom creativity is more of a challenge. However, others thrived on the lack of an organisational pyramid.

During the day, teams were asked to brainstorm different ways of working and eliminating unnecessary process from the organisation. At the end of the day they presented their ideas on structures and techniques, which were then implemented at our Innovation Week the following week.

Empowering employees

We found that completely empowering people produced some great ideas. Some teams decided to eliminate meetings for example, and instead purely use Skype and instant messenger. While they found some meetings were necessary, their number has been dramatically reduced – particularly in the technology team.

People became more experimental. We really wanted people to push boundaries so hard that we had to rein them back. Although I’m not sure we quite reached this creative Nirvana, we definitely progressed and continue to progress now. The problem we’re up against is that any technical team is educated to know their limitations - but we’re really noticing erosion of this attitude and less trepidation at the prospect of trying something new.

We realised the need to involve the entire team in innovation; it’s not the reserve of seniors in the organisation. A lot of great ideas come from junior people, which stands to reason as they’re newer to the organisation and don’t have that, ‘the way it’s done round here’ mentality.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement of the Megathrust concept is that we intend to repeat it next year, making it bigger and better. We want to make it a week-long event in line with our company conference to encourage the whole company to really immerse itself in creativity and emphasise the importance of this across the organisation.

Making revolutions a daily occurrence

While we’ve demonstrated just how effective dedicated innovation events can be, behaviour adoption depends on frequent repetition – meaning that making this a reoccurring event would increase its effectiveness. This is why we’ve made ‘revolution’ a theme in the company and implemented a number of schemes to encourage this on a day-to-day basis. We have our ideas lab for example, an online forum where people can post ideas about better ways of working and be rewarded for their wider implementation.

We’re also looking at how internal social networks can be used to collate knowledge contained on the organisation so that it can be easily searched and accessed. It’s the little things like this - besides the big showpieces – that are going to keep us at the forefront of our industry - being the revolution.

Pete Craghill is the CTO of Thomsons Online Benefits

Image source: Shutterstock/Chones