Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

View more articles from Fiona Smith

Freedom is the key to great ideas

Published 20 December 2012 05:29, Updated 30 January 2013 21:59

+font -font print
Freedom is the key to great ideas

Bankwest CEO and chief executive of enterprise services Andy Weir: “We are enabling people to have the autonomy to direct what the outcome is. It is important to be able to put creativity into the process.” Photo: Michel O’Sullivan

In 1974, Cyclone Tracy almost destroyed Darwin, the IRA bombed the Tower of London and Houses of Parliament in Britain, and Richard Nixon resigned as the American president.

This was seven years before the arrival of the first personal computer (thanks to IBM) and 13 years before Australia’s first mobile phone, which cost $5200.

That year, Art Fry, a scientist at 3M came up with the idea of putting sticky stuff on paper to make hymnal bookmarks – a product that was to become Post-it Notes.

Those little yellow blocks became a huge success for the manufacturer and, over the years, the fact that it was imagined during Art Fry’s company-allocated free time has also given birth to a new way of thinking about innovation – a “birth” that has had an extremely long gestation. Almost 40 years, in fact.

What 3M had discovered was that by allowing its scientists and technicians to use 15 per cent of their paid time to work on pet projects, these clever people could dream up ideas that could end up making the company a lot of money.

In 1974, this was a radical idea and it stayed a management practice that other companies wondered about for many, many years.

Google was incorporated 14 years ago and upsized the practice to “20 per cent time” to help get the best from its innovators – the result was Google Maps. Other technology companies followed suit: Apple and LinkedIn and, in Australia, Atlassian.

Now, this “tinkering time” is starting to spread into more mainstream sectors and, sometimes, even takes in people who are not techies. Why should people who know what an algorithm is have all the good ideas?

At Bankwest, anyone can have “innovation time out” if they are able to get a business “sponsor” for their idea.

The bank’s chief executive of enterprise services and CIO, Andy Weir, says although technology people do tend to be the breeding ground for ideas, project teams are also active.

As well as being able to spend 20 per cent of their time on innovation ideas, Bankwest holds innovation days every four to six months. These days are not unlike Atlassian’s now-renowned ShipIt days (formerly known as FedEx days), where people are given 24 hours to turn an idea into something that can be presented to the company.

At Bankwest, the people on the business side make presentations to about 100 technology specialists about particular problems they face, and then those specialists have a day to choose which problem they will tackle and come back with something useful.

“They will . . . work out how to tackle them in their own way,” says Weir.

A key part of this process is that the technology people are empowered to choose what problem interests them and are free to tackle it any way they choose. Innovation happens when people’s creativity is unfettered.

“Business colleagues love gaining access to that creativity. The technical resources love the empowerment,” says Weir.

Weir says that, in many companies, innovation is managed as a relay race, where a problem or challenge is handed down the line to the people who are expected to solve it.

“I’ve got a problem, this is what I need from a technological solution, a developer builds it, it is tested and then it is handed on to production,” explains Weir.

He says Bankwest’s approach is modelled on “agile development methodology”, which brings more creative capabilities right at the start.

“In agile development, it is more of a scrum,” he says. “We do it as a group, collaboratively, in iterations.

“They are enjoying it a lot more. We are enabling people to have the autonomy to direct what the outcome is. It is important to be able to put creativity into the process.”

Two top innovations from the Bankwest teams are:

  • A smartphone app that cost $25,000 to develop. It has been downloaded 300,000 times, equivalent to 25 per cent of Bankwest customers.
  • The Locate my Colleague app, which solves the problem of not being able to find people in the activity based working environment of the Bankwest Tower in Perth. Because no one has their own desk, the software locates people on a map when they log in to their computers.

Comments