Michael Harris, of Ecommerce Inc, talks about how he implemented the "Innovation Initiative" methodology in his organization in his HostingCon session

The Innovation Initiative with Michael Harris of Ecommerce Inc – HostingCon 2012

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In the first afternoon session in the management track at HostingCon 2012, Michael Harris, VP of information technology, Ecommerce Inc., gave web hosts an idea of how to get a whole company thinking and acting like owners.

Over the past 7 years Harris has developed a methodology for implementing innovation. While some people believe that great ideas are happenstance, Harris says this isn’t the case.

“I don’t believe in that at all,” Harris says. “Real innovation is methodical. You can repeat it.”

Harris says that he guarantees innovation will postively affect a company’s bottom line because a culture of innovation leads to engaged, passionate and motivated employees.

“We want to empower our employees to act as entrepreneurs,” Harris says. “Ultimately they will create wealth for themselves and the company.”

Traditionally, companies rely on outsourced think tanks or internal leadership to innovate. The “smartest guy in the room theory” doesn’t work, because it is too difficult for one person to consistently innovate.

At Ecommerce, Harris implemented the Innovation Initiative. The goal of the iniative was to innovate within the company organically, and create a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

Harris says Ecommerce Inc. focused the company’s brightest talent on challenging business problems and new opportunities by bringing together cross functional teams of 4-8 members.

Each team receives a specific challenge, and operates in an entrepreneurial, think tank environment. He says it’s like locking a team in the room, and sliding the pizza under the door until they figure it out. In reality, each team spends about 20 hours a week working on the team, and is encouraged to meet in person as much as possible.

“You need to provide teams full autonomy to make decisions,” Harris says.

The teams are able to self-organize, and are made up of employees from each department. While Harris says not to declare team leader, it is important to make sure that there is at least one member with project management experience.

“Let the team figure out the structure for themselves,” he says. “The leader will bubble up to the top.”

While operating autonomously, the team has access to an advisory board made up of senior leadership that acts as consultants and a sounding board for ideas.

The advisory board is there to support and challenge the team, not lead or restrict, he says. The board also makes sure the innovation team is progressing as needed. The innovation teams are given resources within reason since it takes money to experiment and prototype.

The innovation process can take anywhere between two and six months, Harris says. At the end of the process, the team will have a proof for success or a proof for failure. If it is a success, the team comes up with a project proposal, marketing plan, sales plan, working prototypes, and where applicable, design mocks. The team is not responsible for building the end product, he says.

“Failure in this case is actually a win because if we fail fast we’ve prevented ourselves from investing lots of money in an idea that never would have made us money in the first place,” Harris says.

Throughout the presentation, Harris emphasizes the importance of celebrating the team and the members. The innovation iniative gives employees a chance to leave their day job at the door, and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have had before, Harris says,

He says innovation denounces complacency, because employees start to care more. It’s about creating entrepreneurship in the company, he says.

Ecommerce created posters and T-shirts in pre-kickoff marketing to get employees excited about participating in the teams.

He suggests limiting the number of teams a company runs concurrently, since it can be a burden on the other employees that have to pick up the daily slack.

Talk back: How do you encourage innovation within your organization? Would you implement “The Innovation Initiative”? Let us know in a comment.

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