Macmillan’s Innovation Tournament: A Fresh Twist

To keep up with today’s rapid pace of disruption, every company feels the pressure to innovate. Most of them, when trying to shift to an innovative culture, feel like they have to pursue brand new ideas. But when I was recently invited to judge an innovation competition for Macmillan Learning, I saw that there is another way.

An innovation competition without any new ideas? This was the case for Macmillan’s Innovation Tournament. The goal was to celebrate the existing innovations from over the past 12 months.

As it turns out, there was already plenty of innovation going on inside the company: 217 employees submitted 46 projects—overall representing 25% of the workforce. Sometimes innovation isn’t about coming up with completely novel ideas, but instead making room to celebrate what is already there.

What they did and why 

I spoke to Kate Geraghty, VP of Communications and Training, to find out more about how the company designed and spread the word about the untraditional hackathon.

She told me, “Our Innovation Tournament required teams of two or more employees to send in a project highlighting an innovation that happened in the last 12 months or one that was currently in flight. The goal was to celebrate the work and the results, even if failure was a part of those results.”

Employees were invited to submit ideas in the following categories: What We Create; What, How, & Where We Deliver; Our Customers, Our Markets; and Our People & Culture. Macmillan brought in speakers like Dr. Linda Hill, co-author of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, to motivate and inspire teams. Tournament leaders sent promotional emails and opened Slack channels for participants, judges, and finalists. Weekly office hours were set up for employees to refine their submissions.

My research for my most recent book, Driving Innovation from Within, found that all successful innovation attempts start with intent—the decision to spot and act on an opportunity. Typically, when a person misses or decides not to act on an opportunity, there are three internal questions that act as blockers of their intent:

  1. Would this work?
  2. Am I capable?
  3. What would my colleagues or friends say?

Macmillan’s tournament addresses the third question—what would other people think? When existing ideas are celebrated, employees learn that it’s acceptable to propose their own attempts at innovation, and even more importantly, it becomes OK to try and fail.

In choosing to recognize innovative efforts and even celebrate the learnings that occur from failed attempts, the company takes major steps toward an innovation culture shift.

Celebration amplifies innovation 

Organizations are starting to recognize that innovation doesn’t need to come from startups and entrepreneurs. According to PwC’s innovation benchmark report, over 60% of companies view their employees as their most important partners for innovation, compared to 16% of companies that held the same view for startups.

An innovation tournament or similar contest using only existing ideas can help propel those ideas forward and amplify the likelihood that employees pursue new innovations in the future. Macmillan’s tournament acknowledges the historical innovativeness of the organization. Over 50% of Macmillan’s employees joined the final virtual event to find out the results. When internal innovation is celebrated, it lends an organic rise to the growth of future innovation from within the company.

If you’re feeling inspired to launch your own innovation tournament, take a moment to reflect on the following questions:

  1. In your organization, where do new ideas come from? Who is responsible for innovation (everyone or a select few)?
  2. How has your organization traditionally celebrated existing innovations?
  3. What is your team and organization’s general attitude toward failure? How do you measure and record learnings, even when the innovation was not pursued?

Once you start to look deeper, you might just find that the inspiring innovation efforts you’ve been looking for have already been happening within your organization.

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