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For most organizations, growth, and innovation go hand in hand.

Innovation enables you to create new products and services that generate additional sources of revenue. It reinforces company culture and promotes deeper engagement. And it helps organizations attract the creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who often become your most valuable assets. But innovation is easier said than done. While an organization may think it is being innovative if it doesn’t go past academic exercises and brainstorm sessions it’s falling short. Innovation involves action. It means putting ideas to work.

In a custom software company like Geneca, innovation plays a key role. Last year, we decided to get more creative in how champion innovation by producing our own version of “Shark Tank”, based loosely on the hit ABC show. While it certainly had its challenges, not only did our Shark Tank bring out the innovators, it also taught us some valuable lessons along the way.

Swimming With the Sharks

While the idea of doing a shark tank sounds like fun, doing it right requires a serious commitment from the top. It takes resources to implement and, in our case, requires ongoing product support. Once you have alignment on that, you are ready to take the next steps:

  • Find your contestants: Two months before the shark tank event, we held an “anything goes” Innovation Meet Up where interested employees got three minutes to pitch their ideas.  The meet-up audience each received five votes to use on one or more ideas.  Six shark tank contestants emerged with products that ranged from a digital wallet to an iPhone app for drinking establishments to detect alcohols level by bottle size.
  • Set the tank criteria: Next, the Shark Tank judges (for us, this was our Executive Team) set the criteria to evaluate the Shark Tank contestants.  Since we were planning to design and develop the product, we needed to consider the potential for monetization.  If the product was for internal use, were there enough nontangible benefits to the workplace?  Was the cost to develop and support the product reasonable?
  • Create the business plans: In order to move on to the shark tank, each Meet-Up finalist was required to submit a business plan for their product or service.  Employees from our Marketing and Finance Departments volunteered to coach the contestants on preparing their plans.
  • Pick the winner: The judges met with each finalist to review the requisite business plan as well as product demos.

Our winning product was an online business process gaming application called GRIT (Geneca Recognition Instilment Tool). Through GRIT, employees are able to recognize and reward each other for going above-and-beyond. GRIT was selected because while it was clearly strong on fun, cool, and learning, it also did an outstanding job reinforcing our core value of giving and receiving feedback.

OK … We Have a Winner. Now what?  Now it was time to build the winning product.

We treated the development of GRIT the same way manage our client projects. This meant creating roles similar to those in our typical engagement – including the client side. We took this seriously and even wore hats when we played the client role to help us stay in character. Once there was agreement on the scope, cost, value proposition and success criteria for the first release of the product, development began. Just as with any other product launch, a change management plan was adopted that included employee communications (what “it” is; when it’s coming; and how will I use “it”).

In Q4 of 2013, we launched GRIT at a company meeting to an enthusiastic audience. During the meeting, each employee received a welcome email with a link to the system and basic starting instructions. However, this is not the end … nor should it ever be in the life cycle of a product. Geneca will continue to improve GRIT as a valuable workplace tool.

So What Did We Learn?

We emerged from our first shark tank experience a little smarter in several ways. First, from an implementation perspective, we gained some important insight on how to bring the winning idea to production:

  • Establish a set of repeatable guidelines for taking a concept from ideation to product launch
  • Commit to the financial investment (in hard dollar costs) to not only build but continue support of the product beyond the launch
  • Engage leadership to provide sufficient business coaching to the finalists
  • Make sure you have the appropriate roles in place for ongoing product support

Role-playing the client side of the project provided us with benefits well beyond the value of delivering GRIT to Geneca.  This allowed us to really “walk” in our clients’ shoes and experience how they see us. Just as important, it also helped the finalists (for the most part our younger employees) go beyond their IT roles and learn what’s involved in growing an idea into a business.

As we get ready for our 2014 Shark Tank adventure, we go in a little wiser but equally enthusiastic. To continue the conversation, contact us.