How to Sustain an Idea-Forming Company Culture

Here at Adaptive Insights, we recently wrapped up our second Innovation Week. This event continues to produce useful, amazing new product features and processes. It also does something we consider even more fundamental: It fosters the creativity of an intimate startup culture even as we continue to grow around the world.

That entrepreneurial culture is worth preserving. But ironically, success can be the very thing that threatens a company’s innovative spirit. After all, it was easy to avoid forming departmental silos when we were a company of about 15 employees working out of a single Silicon Valley building in 2003. We all wore many hats, and the cross-pollinating of ideas between departments was natural and fluid.

But today, we have offices in five countries employing more than 500 people—with hundreds of workers added in the past few years. And as we grow, we know that we need to be proactive about preserving an idea-forming culture. That’s why, in 2015, we created Innovation Week. The aim was to make sure everyone in the company felt plugged into our creative evolution—to create a forum where ideas could flow through department walls.

This year, I like to think that we got even better at making space for collaboration and creativity. But before I get into why that is, let me first explain what Innovation Week involves and why its debut in 2015 was such a revolutionary experience for us all.

Innovation Week 1.0: A blueprint for creativity

Innovation Week was born from a simple concept: How can we do something to help trigger more innovation company-wide? What exactly does the word innovation even mean? A lot of companies in Silicon Valley were doing hackathons. But writing code for 24 hours didn’t seem like it would yield many interesting or functional results for an interconnected modeling system as rich and broad as ours.

Instead, we needed a format that would let engineers develop their ideas, set up an experiment, and then physically demonstrate those ideas. Our first Innovation Week began with ad hoc engineering teams forming to work on new concepts for a full, dedicated workweek where all regular tasks were sidelined. This culminated in a science-fair-like setup, where teams presented their concepts to masses of people milling about from across the company. Then came the judging sessions in a large room. Our judges were Adaptive Insights executives who head up the various departments and have the power to take an idea and implement it immediately.

Sparking new product features

IMG_1035-2We were awestruck by the ideas that surfaced from the first event. Ideas like Sparklines emerged, a feature that was added to Adaptive Planning and shipped a few months later. Here was an innovation that was going to offer our users an incredibly easy way of visualizing a chart or graph, that didn’t involve any learning or training on their part. Sparklines are small, word-size charts that allow planners to zoom in and see data trends with astonishing ease.

Users can look at a spreadsheet and easily visualize trends in the data. If the metric in question is editable, one can adjust the underlying data by dragging the data points until the desired effect is achieved. It’s the sort of feature that would normally take months of market research to determine its viability. But the power of a tight deadline and a small team of motivated participants made it a demonstrable reality in a matter of days, allowing executives, product managers, other engineers, and everyone at the company to visualize and experience what such a feature would bring to our software suite.

Innovation Week 2.0: Bigger and better

At this year’s Innovation Week, everything scaled, with around 80 employees participating. Some came with ideas; others came just to help someone else bring their idea to fruition. This time, even though I’m an engineer, I didn’t want to limit Innovation Week only to engineers. The ultimate goal of this process is to tap into the creativity of everyone in the company to create not only new product features, but better ways of operating the business as a whole. It was therefore critical to welcome any and all employees into the format.

We floated a number of audacious ideas in a preliminary meeting called “Spark Tank” (based on the Shark Tank TV show), where the innovator, people from across the business, and executives could tease out the details of the idea. If the idea had traction, the innovator would collect a team of three or four participants from various departments who helped him or her develop the idea.

IMG_1476We had the science-fair presentation again, this time filling two large rooms. More than 30 groups presented to our executive judges at the end of the week—and the ideas were jaw-dropping in their range. Our remote offices participated this time too, with teams from Denver, Colorado; Pune, India; Brisbane, Australia; and Queretaro, Mexico, appearing via video conferencing for the event.

At the end of this year’s event, a lot of really great ideas moved into development. Once again, we were amazed at how much can happen in such a short amount of time with motivated people, space to create, and a diverse set of minds weighing in.

Breaking down barriers

We’ve only conducted two Innovation Weeks so far. But we can already see that this is a powerful technique not only to build new innovations for our customers, but also to break down interdepartmental barriers and to get people working together. Those barriers don’t always come from the top down; they also tend to arise over time as a company scales.

Collaboration is in the original DNA of our company. In the early days, if you had a question or problem, you walked down the hall and talked to your colleague. Events like Innovation Week help bring back that fluid energy even when you have multiple buildings in multiple cities across the planet. It creates a place where people can form creative relationships across the organization—making it easier for them to reach out for help or collaboration.

It takes constant vigilance to identify and break down these departmental silos that naturally arise day after busy day when teams spend time in their own departments. But the resulting improvement in efficiency, creativity, and employee morale is more than worth the effort. Innovation Week is one of the best tools we’ve found to help us chip away at those silo walls.

Plus, it’s really fun.

Find out how companies like yours are benefiting from Adaptive Insights innovations.

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