Exec Spin: Building a Framework for Innovation
Thursday, May 30, 2019
Posted by: Kaylin Berg
Jay Rudman, CEO, TopstepTrader
Contrary to popular belief, innovation isn’t a divine spark sent by some mystical power above. It most certainly isn’t passive.
Instead, innovation is usually a process—and just like other disciplines, it can be learned, refined, and strengthened through practice. In short, you can improve organizational innovation by using the right framework.
At Topstep, innovation is a core value. It’s something we believe cannot be imposed on the organization from above, but rather must be allowed to bubble up organically from the team level. It is this understanding of innovation that led us to create our monthly “Innovation Lab.”
The Innovation Lab is the process we use to guide our chaotic, unstructured ideas all the way from inception to implementation. Each month, we gather our entire team for a series of four-hour workshops during which we learn, practice and finally unleash our next big ideas.
To clarify, the Innovation Lab is not just some team-building exercise we did for a couple hours on a few slow Fridays. In its entirety, the process lasted three years and guided nearly every facet of our new product development. This may sound excessive, but it was a vast improvement over our old process—which was not to have an innovation process at all.
Creativity without structure can be a messy ordeal. One quick exercise proves it. Take 10 seconds to think of everything in your refrigerator. Done. Good. Now do the same exercise with one change: think of every condiment in your refrigerator. If you’re anything like me, you could have a list double the size when you put structure around the challenge. Innovation is the same.
We learned this firsthand in 2018 as we prepared to launch our first new product since the company was founded six years earlier. The head of business development and myself spent months locked away in a tiny, windowless office as we hammered out the specifics of the release. Only as we neared the moment of truth did we realize that the majority of our team had not been there to learn from the experience.
How can we expect our teams to innovate if we exclude them from the process? This is when we realized the need for a cohesive structure to guide long-term growth.
We started by recognizing innovation as a core value. It already lived within the company, we just had to shine a light on it. Then, after much thought, we crafted a long-form description of this value pledging to continually improve our standard of excellence in everything we do through purposeful collaboration, ideation, testing and execution. Most importantly, the statement concluded with a pair of “never” statements: we will never judge based on results alone, and we will never change without clear objectives.
We eventually distilled this entire value statement to three simple words: Innovation never sleeps.
With this framework in mind, we started hosting our monthly Innovation Labs, and spent the entire first year listening and learning as a number of incredible outside speakers shared their stories. We also practiced solving hypothetical problems in a team setting. The sessions were loosely structured, but placed no limits on the creativity of solutions. We solved imaginary crises. We built paper airplanes. We learned that even the “craziest” ideas might provide the spark that inspires the most amazing results.
After we felt comfortable using a common framework for problem solving, we finally unleashed the Innovation Lab on our own business initiatives. We asked our teams to identify the next “big idea” which would double our revenue in three years. The question was purposefully vague, and the only constraints were that the idea had to fit within the company’s mission, vision and values. Each team then created a pitch deck and presented their ideas to the executive team.
The results exceeded our wildest expectations.
Suddenly, instead of a select few people at the top setting course for the company, we unlocked the collective brainpower and experiences of the entire organization. Their ideas and analysis challenged our assumptions and opened new frontiers for the company to explore. We began with the premise that we would fund testing for just one group; however, it’s beginning to look like we will test them all.
It should be noted that committing to a culture of innovation is not without its challenges. Like most activities unrelated to your day-to-day operations, it often feels like there is never enough time, people or money to make something like mandatory innovation sessions a priority. Also, some of your teammates will thrive in loosely-structured creative environments while others will suffer. In our experience, the benefits of having an innovation framework have far outweighed these concerns.
At Topstep, we set out with the goal of doing everything 10x faster, 10x better, and with 10x more people involved. We’re certainly not there yet, but we’ve made great progress through structured innovation. This isn’t some new-agey platitude or esoteric thought experiment—this is our ticket to our next multi-million-dollar idea.