We Are Strange: Corporate Innovation in Action

Been curious as to my whereabouts these past few weeks? Sat at home wondering what coffee shop I’m loitering in or whether, quite possibly, I’ve melted into a sticky puddle on the Tube? Well now I’ve come out the other side I can fill you in on exactly what I’ve been doing.

Snapshot summary: shut up in freezing cold rooms with the same people, ferried about the country in bright t shirts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. After 15 days pushed onto a large stage in front of important people to perform a corporate dance. For the winners, glory, for the losers, vending machine coffee. Scaring hashtag memories and bursting inboxes for all.

Make sense? Lets take it back a step or two.

In the beginning…

Cast your mind back to mid June. That crazy time when the temperatures were seasonally normal and people scoffed at England’s chances in the World Cup. Myself, alongside all those on two of my organisation’s career development streams were called into a room and informed that for the first three weeks of July we were to come off our day jobs and work on another sub-project titled “Innovation”. In true project style, the title Innovation remained as clear at ditch water to all but the organisers so what followed was a more detailed brief. Simply put, in teams we had between then and the 26h July to produce a new, innovative, solution to a problem being experienced currently by our organisation.

While we understood the aims and objectives of the Innovation Project as a whole, what we struggled with more was the idea of being removed from the business for three whole weeks. As you can imagine our day managers were less than thrilled but conveniently had been briefed in a separate meeting in a different building. Their ‘feedback’ pinged into inboxes just as we were being put into teams.

After brief conversations within our separate units, team names and compulsory hashtags were provided to those in charge. Given at the time none of us expected these to go any further than a internal communication or the organisation’s corporate social page, my group went for team “All Change” alongside #WeAreStrange. The hashtag in particular was done in good humour at the organisation of the Innovation Project. A week or so after that we were assigned a topic to base our separate projects around. For my team it was “how might we better identify member* needs of the future?” (*member being another way of saying our financial customers’) And with that we were all set off into the big world. It was now mid-late June and we knew that in a few weeks we’d be presenting an idea, a solution, a product to senior executives.

Late June – Another presentation on presentations…

Enter Capgemini, one of our organisation’s third party suppliers and soft skills trainers for the duration of the Innovation Project and organisers of several weeks of WebEx talks and dynamic team building sessions. On the whole these were good, it only took an hour a week to listen to the online video conferences and they required zero preparation (unless you had a question). Unsure of who did or did not know me, my signature intro ended up being “hi this is Alice, Alice Bennett here” but otherwise I held up my strong cool-kid reputation. Admittedly given my London location I often couldn’t attend meetings in person, but instead dialled in to noisy boardrooms only to question the benefit of me hearing fragments of ten different people instead of my team mates.

Other than these sessions our day jobs carried on as normal. All of us manically working away in the background to get what we could completed, tidied up or handed over for someone else to cover whilst we were away. It really did feel as if we were leaving our current teams for some shiny prospect that none of us could quite explain without making it look like we were going to be paid to do nothing for three weeks. Like parrots our default justification was “it’s development”.

July – week 1

Admittedly I was off in Majorca for the first formal week of tech training, led by second supplier IBM. Although I was off enjoying the sun I felt a bit sorry for the two remaining team mates who had to go through a tough five day boot camp into all things tech related from coding to the Cloud. As the heatwave blistered on outside, within the walls of the hotel the teams were shut away in ice cold rooms, spaces that were so chilly I later heard tales of people bringing cardigans and jumpers to keep warm.

Week 2

Getting over holiday blues and how Britain could possibly be so hot still, the day after I landed back in Birmingham I was off again up north to Manchester. Here all the teams spent three days with, you guessed it, another third party supplier. Cisco is very proud of its innovation labs up in the northern powerhouse city, so was keen to show us what a dedicated innovation space looked like. But before that we had to settle into our hotel accommodation and be presented with our team t shirts. Remember what I said before about assuming the team name would go no further than that? Well I learnt a very painful lesson that evening about making assumptions…don’t. So now everyone had brightly coloured t shirts with a team name and hashtag printed boldly across the front and back. And we had to wear them the next day. And we had to walk halfway across Manchester to get to Cisco’s offices. Coincidentally management had long gone to bed by the time we realised all of this.

Day one in Manchester and we spent most of the day sitting on bean bags, because the stereotypes of creative spaces aren’t reinforced enough nowadays.

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Comfy at first but try sitting on them for three hours…

On this day we learnt more about what Cisco were doing at the MI-Idea labs and we met with start-ups to understand the personalities, mentalities and ideas that fall under the umbrella term.

On days two and three in Manchester IBM were back again to teach us how to unpick and create our own chatbots and visual recognition (VR). We found these sessions to be a lot quicker and easier to pick up and in no time at all Mike in my team was formulating his own Gareth Southgate chat bot and I looking into the boundaries of VR. I also posted several witty social media posts such as…

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“Now, while VR can tell you there are coffee cups in this image, what it can’t recognise is that you have a problem.”

We started Wednesday’s session earlier than planned so we could rush back to Swindon in time for the England vs Croatia match. That evening both our bodies and souls were crushed. It would take several days for us to regain ourselves.

On Thursday all of us reunited in the conference suite, alongside the corporate graduates, to be briefed on another project we were to start working on. So now we had both an Innovation and Charity project to work on. As you can imagine we were so very, very, happy that day. So happy.

Friday was the first day were our teams all got together in separate rooms and started thrashing out ideas to tackle our theme. After so much time travelling or being lectured or learning or fighting off angry day job managers, the strain showed on everyone. We were all ready for the weekend.

Week 3

In the final week of formally being off project team All Change started to do that, change. We had a concept but how that would look on paper and how we could make it work for our organisation was a tougher challenge. It’s one thing to say your idea is innovative, but if that idea is a dancing unicorn handing out red velvet cake to customers then it’s not likely to be as well received compared to something that is crazy but works.

For our team this final week featured a lot of competitor research (which isn’t easy – turns out corporations don’t like to make their finances public) and trying to pin people down for answers. In any other situation you wouldn’t expect a specialist to have a free enough diary to meet, say, the next day however in our bubble project time wasn’t a luxury. We quickly learnt that saying “we have to meet tomorrow because we’re presenting next week” made no difference at best and at worst got them asking us questions instead of our team asking them. Quick emails from their side did the job just as well. Alex pulled together a great presentation and our mentor Steve was a star in helping and showing us how to build a mobile app prototype, an essential part of making our idea tangible to the panel and creating a stand out presentation.

Throughout this week there were touch points with our project sponsors, the wider project leads and general chit chat with the third party suppliers who operated in a facilitate, support and provide external perspectives on our idea. On the Friday we delivered a dry run through of the presentation to a dummy panel of persons whose role was to provide initial feedback. As a team we were quite happy with the response and readily took on board the tweaks and minor adjustments which the presentation needed.

Despite all the craziness we made time for this ‘official’ team photo:

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On the board: HOW TO LOOK BUSY – Dynamic team photos, post it notes, Latin team name (a jab at teams Acta Non Verba and Sempre Progrediendi), bean bags

Week 4

Back in day jobs = craziness = do not disturb = reminding team members we’re alive

Adjusting Innovation presentations = making time for research = making time for team rehearsals = trying to find rooms with phones (so I can dial in) = travelling back and forth from London to Swindon = shattered but ready

Thursday 26th July

Team All Change were fourth on the agenda after introductions and then the first presentation by Acta non Verba.

As we went up onto the main stage with all the big wigs, managers and colleagues of our organisation in front of us, we felt a little nervous. I’d never seen Claudia look so uncomfortable, bouncing on one foot to another as Alex set up his laptop with the presentation. “You’ve got this” I reassured her as we walked to the other side of the stage.

We not only smashed that presentation but completely owned it. All that was missing was internal fireworks or fire itself (the budget was there for health and safety checks).

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We did good for a team which had #WeAreStrange printed across our backs (or yeah, the t shirts just had to be compulsory attire on the day of the final presentation, didn’t they? Cool-kid cred reduced to minus figures in seconds.)

After post presentation questioning and celebratory complimentary coffee we returned to our table in the conference suite and listened to the other three groups deliver their problem statement solutions. As each group watched the other in turn we were all amazed by both the quality and complexity of what had been designed and tested in such a short space of time. These weren’t “have you considered setting up a Google docs account?” or “have you thought about getting Amazon in to fix this?” It goes to show that if you give people resource and a free space then the ideas that can formulate are without limit. What is that saying about a man and a fish pole?

During the panel’s deliberation time I sipped on my coffee and wondered how anyone could pick out winners when all the presentations and contents were so good but so different. To me it felt a little bit like comparing chalk and cheese.

After a lot of heated discussions, the three winning teams were as follows:

Most viable (i.e. something the business could start doing straight away) – The Dream Team

People’s Choice (voted for by the audience) – Semper Progrediendi

Most Innovative  – ALL CHANGE!! Yeeesss!

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All the teams in our assorted bright t shirts

I wish I could say we won a pile of cash or a mini break to Paris, but instead we were happy to accept a framed certificate and team photo where we all looked good.

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Team All Change (I’d say the dream team but the yellows were called that). Left to right: Me (Alice Bennett), Claudia Pellegrino, Mike O’Keefe, Alex Wheeler

After all the excitement and the close of the main event at 1pm there was only a little time to take lunch and crash. After that for most it was a case of taking off t shirts and getting back into the day job. I personally kept my t shirt on, firstly because I missed the memo about everyone bringing a change of top (and I don’t think my company is about to relax its uniform policies that much) but also because by that point I was beyond embarrassment. Enough people had seen me strutting about the office in heels, pencil skirt and black jacket like some product rep for a new health drink. I didn’t care anymore. Like the presentation I’d been part of several hours beforehand I was happy, if not a little proud to own the look on that day. And when friends outside of the challenge pointed to my top with a smile and a laugh all I had to do was turn on my heel and lower my jacket.

“Well, we are strange”

“Aren’t you hot in that black jacket?”

“You cannot begin to imagine.”

After all that you are probably wondering what All Change’s big, award-winning innovation idea was or indeed the ideas of the four other teams. Well, I guess you’ll just have to watch this space to find out… #WeAreStrange #SimplyInnovating

(A big thank you to everyone involved in the Innovation Project, including organisers, facilitators, educators and panellists. Of the third party providers there are far too many of you to name individually so I hope that in thanking Capgemini, IBM and Cisco will suffice. You guys know who you are, especially the person who thought bright t shirts were a good idea…)

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This Little Piggy Went to Market

You may be aware that I haven’t posted anything on here for a while. To be honest it baffles me too, although not quite as much as bafflement that I seem to have developed a mild addition to banana chips whilst conversely becoming less inclined to fresh bananas.

I’ve also been watching a lot of period dramas and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I think it’s having an impact on my writing.

All my notes are full of deep, intellectual rubbish, like Austen writing scripts for the Kardashians, or like me…writing about bananas…

Moving swiftly on, the main reason why I haven’t been writing much of late is because I’ve decided to do something very crazy (“very Alice!” – without jazz hands). I won’t leave you in suspense or give you three guesses because you won’t get it, I’m moving to London. There, ok, I said it, can we move on now?

Why? It’s a long story so I’ll shorten it to one word: work

Am I being forced into it? Well no, but then I wanted to be involved with this super cool project and the boss people were like “but it’s in London” and I was like “ok” and they were like “it’s in London though” and I was like “London, London?” and they were like “yeah, like the capital of England London” and I was like “ok I accept” and they were like “cool so you start in two weeks yeah?” and I was like “say whaaa?” (And there’s the Kardashian in me coming out.)

Yes I am very much aware this goes completely against my traditionally held beliefs and flies right in the face of a previous article I wrote: 10 Things I Hate About London but hey, call me a hypocrite.

So far London has done a good job of trying to kill me. First there was mental exhaustion and dehydration from trying to find house viewings on the hottest day of the year so far. Linked to that was the absolute destruction of my feet which over a week later still haven’t fully recovered. Those were all ‘fun’. Now that I’ve found a place in East of the city the fun has begun of moving items into said property. Then there was the delight of lugging the world’s heaviest bag of coffee and shampoo across the city via the Tube network (hey, they say things are expensive in London, ain’t no way I’m being ripped off by 50p on my Herbal Essences). So now my legs look like this:

(In fact they look worse than that now, but I didn’t want to clutter my phone with pictures of bruised legs – such images have a limited mileage.) I’ve decided that the self inflicted injuries are going to continue and gradually work their way up my body. Accept it, move on.

But hey, at least I’m covered on snack bars!

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Have I taken any clothes down? Nahh. Any books or kitchenware? No way! But do I have enough snack bars and a creative type duvet set? Hell yes!

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I was far too excited to buy a duvet set that featured more than two colours

I have so totally got this London thing covered (pun not intended).

I’ve leave it at that for now while you all digest the news and take a moment to worry about my well being. More will come as and when but for now things to take away from this post are 1) I’m moving to London for a temporary position at a different office 2) I am still alive and writing and 3) I need banana chips.

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What you can’t see in this photo are my swollen feet and the Yoda living statue behind me. My photography really wasn’t on top form that day.

(Ps Did you get it? Swindon = pig hill, piggy = Swindon = me? Did you get it? Huh? Oh I give up.)

Dear Joe…

The below article (titled “Dear Joe”) was written for a work newsletter which is produced on a rotational basis by those on my finance development program. It’s a light hearted take on when I did something very crazy; telling the CEO of a top ten finance institution to improve his presentation skills.

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‘You criticised the CEO? Are you crazy?!’

You know how in the movies the protagonist always has a life affirming moment on top of a mountain or in the pouring rain? Well mine took place in the West Swindon branch of Dominoes.

‘I didn’t criticise him, I just told him his presentation needed improvement.’

‘Oh Alice.’

And that’s when it hit me.

It had all started so well-meaning. Joe Garner had delivered a presentation to the 2017 Emerging Talent cohort back in November. All eyes in the room were on Joe as he tested his microphone on stage, it felt like I was at some kind of corporate Ed Sheeran concert. And yet, by the time it was finished I felt mildly disappointed.

Because no digital communication in the history of mankind has ever been misinterpreted, I decided to email Joe my feedback. ‘Dear Joe,’ I started, ‘thanks for taking the time to present on Friday. At the risk of sounding critical…’

Fast forward eight hours and there I was in Dominoes having the above conversation with my housemate.

‘I’m stuffed, aren’t I?’

I received a prompt reply from Joe the next day. Thankfully he’d seen the well-meaning in my email and thanked me for the feedback, whilst also responding to one of my points. ‘How can we expect people to magically buy houses when we don’t educate on finance?’ I ever so delicately put. Well, Joe says, funnily enough it was a topic currently being looked into by ExCo and something that I might want to be more informed on if I so wished.

Next thing I know, I’m outside the office Graeme Hughes, Relationships and Distribution Lead and ExCo member. He and Hannah Faulkner, Joe’s Executive Assistant, sat with me for almost an hour discussing past, present and future ideas for finance education. Graeme explained the different approaches Nationwide had taken in the past and why they hadn’t been as successful as hoped. I took a powerful sip on my strong coffee and gave my response to these comments. Graeme’s eyebrow lifted as he leaned back in his chair.

‘Ok, so what do you propose?’

I came away from the meeting with a splitting headache but feeling as pumped as David Cameron. The firm handshake and broad smile of Graeme said what Hannah readily exclaimed. ‘I am so glad to have met you! We must meet again!’

All said and done I really need to stop emailing Joe Garner.

Waterfall vs Agile Project Management Models

Waterfall Project Management

When you complete each stage of a project in isolation. You can’t move onto the next stage until the previous one has been completed.

Teams may have frequent meetings in the form of monthly boards, where decisions are made by stakeholders, or dial in meetings with team members who may not work in the same office location (e.g. a Tester who works offshore).

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Waterfall Methodology

A project example would be upgrades to multiple interlinked computer servers. Server one must first be upgraded first before server two can be looked at.

Pros

  • Methodical and the traditional method of running projects.
  • Works well for projects where there’s one end goal and nothing in between.
  • Enables clear investment decision points and reviews at stage ends and also ensures everything is completed before progressing to the next stage.
  • (Pro or con!) results in stricter levels of governance as projects need to fulfil specific criteria before being allowed to develop and implement.

Cons

  • Slow. A hold up at one stage affects the rest of the chain for the project.
  • This also includes potential impacts on dependant projects who rely on other projects for meeting their deadlines.
  • This in turn can lead to resource inefficiencies, project overspend and failure to meet to time scales.

 

SELRES_18becb00-8b2c-49eb-bb78-305b4e1cf3bdSELRES_a42bbdd4-aaaf-44c1-801a-95ab1f7d3246SELRES_a92ed792-ef54-4bda-9325-efc9bfdaab93AgileSELRES_a92ed792-ef54-4bda-9325-efc9bfdaab93SELRES_a42bbdd4-aaaf-44c1-801a-95ab1f7d3246SELRES_18becb00-8b2c-49eb-bb78-305b4e1cf3bd Project Management

Instead of aiming to complete whole stages in isolation, Agile projects take a more cyclonic approach, tackling a project delivery in multiple smaller stages (or sprints). Sprints tend to last between two and four weeks.

Teams keep each other informed via stand up Kanban/scrum meetings. An appointed scrum master leads discussions to enable the different teams working on the project provide updates. A) with what they are going to tackle during each sprint (at the start), B) progress updates (during) and C) what they have achieved (at the end). Meetings tend to be more informal and visual compared to Waterfall and the use of whiteboards with post its and/or dedicated software are adopted more frequently to enable updates in a quicker paced project.

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Agile Project Methodology

An example of an Agile project would be the development of a App. Over the course of multiple sprints teams are able to gradually build and test the App, first with the basic code, then the functionality, then finally adding in user appeal – pictures, sounds etc.

Pros

  • Fast moving. Enables teams to quickly identify any faults and either fix or ‘drop’ them before too much money and time is invested.
  • Deliveries grow over time, a project leader can start to see formation much earlier into a project, where in Waterfall the change is sudden.
  • Considered to be a more resource efficient model and allows for greater collaboration.

Cons

  • Agile is not a suitable method for all projects. A single delivery can’t be built over time (for example, the delivery outcome ‘running a marathon’ cannot be done in separate sprints. You sign up, train, then run it. An Agile approach would be useless in this instance – you cannot gradually run bits of the marathon over twelve weeks!)
  • The working environment must contain all persons on the project (project lead, governance, software architects, testers, accountants, etc.) to enable collaboration. These resources can only be dedicated to one project or sprint. If resources are split between multiple projects (as they can be on Waterfall) then the sprint may fail to meet its delivery.
  • As sprints are quite short and projects adopting Agile are quicker paced, the project lead must ensure that suitable investment and project governance/review points are put in place as the cycle system doesn’t naturally allow for any sudden or prolonged stops.
  • As it’s a new methodology of project working, team members may require additional support and/or training.

 

 

And there you have it. A (very) quick overview of the two main methods of running projects. I want to add here that I am by no means an expert on either approach, having only started a career in business project management and governance three months ago(!) but hopefully for that reason it will help any new starters in the world get to grips with the basics.

(Also, I hope that doing this will stop Mumma Bennett getting into hysterics when I talk about my job- ‘Waterfall? Ha, ha, haah! What’s Waterfall?! I don’t understand, what’s water got to do with technology upgrades? You’re so corporate!’ and so on and so forth…)

 

And who says you don’t learn awesome things from this blog?