Company Culture Through Grassroots Innovation

November 15, 2016

How do you start a grassroots innovation initiative that takes off — and spreads?

A small team inside ExxonMobil IT, the global organization that works in partnership with all ExxonMobil business units to provide integrated technology solutions, has been working on an answer to that question for more than two years now. They’ve learned a great deal as they’ve focused participants in on specific problem areas and refashioned the steering committee that evaluated employee ideas.

Earlier this year, Christopher Bailey and Jeff Rosenbaugh of ExxonMobil IT authored a piece for InnoLead titled, “Ten lessons from ExxonMobil on spurring operationally-focused innovation.” Bailey later joined us for an IL Live conference call to discuss their experiences in more detail.

You can read highlights from the call below, or click play to hear the complete audio. (Click the “down arrow” at right to get an MP3 file for later listening.)

What is #innovation?

IT function within ExxonMobil acts as a separate company. ExxonMobil is a corporation with a number of different companies working together. A couple years back, there was a strategic reassessment of the IT functions.

#Innovation was a team that was created out of these strategic initiatives to say, “Let’s understand a little bit more about the space of innovation and how we can make that a part of our culture within the IT Company.”

[We looked] around in academia, and other companies, [and asked,] what are companies doing in order to help push the culture of innovation and make this a part of something that everyone does and that everyone can get involved in?

Developing an Effective Team

ExxonMobil’s Christopher Bailey

The team is myself and the manager, Russell Householder. We’ve actually tried to keep the team relatively small, primarily to encourage this idea that we’re not an ivory tower. We’re not the group that does innovation for the company. We’re the one that enables other people to be able to make it happen.

In order to do what we do, though, we use a lot of part-time resources. To be able to help us out with this, we have people sprinkled throughout the company. We call them “#innovation franchises” that help us with different aspects, whether it’s training, putting on crowdsourcing events, all of those pieces. We do this full-time, and then we get interested people to help us on the side.

The Grassroots Innovation Forum

The Grassroots Innovation Forum, an in-house online platform for pitching innovative ideas, was driven off of the stories that we would hear and [that we] experienced ourselves. On their drive to work, someone might have an idea that pops into their mind. They would come in. They’d talk to a friend at the coffee bar, and they’d get them excited, and they’d go talk to their manager about it.

For the most part, because these were relatively smaller initiatives or they didn’t have a lot of data around them, these ideas tended to get squashed under the weight of all the other initiatives, all the other programs that were going on at that time.

There wasn’t really space for these small hunches, the seeds of an idea, in order to grow naturally, and be able to explore, and see where they would end up.

…We said, “There’s something here. What if we were to create a space where these kinds of ideas could be shared [and] could be grown? We could be able to tell if it’s desirable to a large community of individuals.”

Encouraging Innovative Ideas

Originally, we actually started saying, “We’re open to all ideas about anything.” The challenge that we faced with that was our selection committee was made up of people primarily within IT.

We didn’t really think through some of the ramifications of that. We thought if somebody had a very specific business idea like, “Let’s create this new fuel or this new lube,” that we’d be able to push that over towards another place [in the company.]

The problem that we faced was that the steering committee didn’t know what to do with it, and people within the community didn’t have enough shared knowledge to be able to converse equally on those kinds of ideas. One of the things we had to do was scope down to specifically IT-related ideas.

We’ve had to educate leadership to understand a little bit better the kinds of ideas that are going to be produced through an approach of this nature. What we’re doing, at a high level, is we have a virtual tool that’s always out there. People can submit ideas at any time, vote on ideas, and comment on ideas.

Every month, we look at the top ideas. We pull those ones out and say, “Hey, selection committee, let’s talk about these ideas, and what do we want to do about [them]?”

…We’re not implementing any big building or cultivating processes to take ideas and make them bigger, or make them more innovative, more transformational. By virtue of that, you tend to target core innovation, so iterations on existing ideas. You’re not going to stand a high likelihood of creating transformational innovation through this kind of a process. If you want that, there are plenty of other processes and tools in order to target that kind of innovation.

Selecting the Best Ideas

We [created] a steering committee. At least for ExxonMobil, and I think this is relatively common across other companies, you try to make sure that everybody’s voice is represented. You make sure that across the IT organization, you have a voice that’s speaking for all the different groups. You also have very senior leadership and decision-makers in that room. The basis for the initial steering committee was to get those kinds of leaders in the room, so that we can make decisions on ideas.

What ended up happening was we ran our first go of the forum, collected some ideas. There were some ideas that were highly voted, so we brought those to the steering committee. What we realized was that the steering committee, especially because these were senior leaders, were expecting something very different than what we were giving them.

These were ideas that were seeds. They were the beginnings of ideas. They didn’t have a full proposal around it, or terms of reference that detailed and described exactly how we’re going to achieve this goal.

But the senior leaders were used to seeing project proposals. [Here, they were seeing something that], for all intents and purposes, [was] a half-baked idea that needed some time to grow…

This became one of our first points where we had to go back to the drawing board and say, “This is not working the way that we were expecting. What are we doing wrong?” We started looking at a bunch of different companies around us that were doing similar things.

What was wrong was we put the wrong kind of people on that steering committee. We didn’t need senior leaders and decision-makers. What we really needed was venture capitalists, people who were willing to fund seed ideas and hunches and trying to see, “Could this grow into something bigger?”

What we ended up doing was — I’ll put this politely — we let go quite a few of them. We still kept a core group of that steering committee, and then we added additional individuals that fit more this “venture capitalist” mentality.

That, amongst a number of other changes, became one of the defining factors of success going forward in energizing people to make ideas happen.

Innovation Goals

…We’ve actually been working with [other] groups [at the company in] creating their own Grassroots Innovation Forums for specific business areas or opportunities.

A good example is there was a networking group that wanted to come up with ideas very specific to their area, so we created a service based off of Grassroots where we say, “We can help you create your own, target your own community, target your own long-term question that you’re wanting [to answer.]” That started to take off.

People tend to want that kind of a service after they’ve done more of the time-based crowdsourcing events. We’ll do a time-based crowdsourcing event with them using some virtual technology. Then, a lot of people will enjoy that, and they’ll say, “Yeah, it would be great if we could do this on an on-going basis.”

We’ve been working with multiple business lines to put together their own Grassroots Innovation Forum.

Tracking Forum Metrics

We actually went to MIT early on, and I was trying to come up with what would metrics look like. One of the suggestions that we got when we were talking with some of the researchers at MIT, they said, “What you really need to focus on is the stories.”

They were asking questions like, “What is management wanting to know?” We didn’t know what they wanted to know yet. They weren’t asking. We knew that we would need some form of metrics.

We actually started off with the stories, and focusing in on qualitative metrics at the very beginning. Later on, we’ve gone towards some of the typical types of metrics.

We have our stories that come out each month, but then we also have numbers on active participation, number of new ideas, percentage increases within those, number of votes total that have been spent, those kinds of things. We produce those, but we still primarily focus in on the qualitative metrics, the stories.

If we do head towards quantitative metrics, it will be primarily based off of potential future value for ideas — so, estimating what the actual monetary worth of an idea is or capturing that in retrospect.

Our Biggest Supporters

The most supportive [people for our work come] from two groups. There’s our own organization — we sit within what’s called the “Architecture in Technology Group.” These are the strategic thinkers for IT.

They’re always looking outside of just purely core innovation — “What else could we be missing?” They’re one of our big supporters. There’s also an organization that spun up about the same time as #innovation called Tech Spring. These are just people across ExxonMobil who are very interested in technology, testing it out, playing with it, and finding consumer-based IT, and finding ways that we can implement that. They have been some of our hardiest supporters. Actually, we have multiple of those people on the steering committee. These are our venture capitalists.

Some of our biggest down-players have actually retired. …Some of it was senior leadership that, in all honesty, didn’t quite get the space of innovation. They believed that this was a space that was wholly serendipitous. There was no way that you could put a process around this.

I think there was some clear misunderstanding. Most of those folks have retired now. The ones who are remaining have slowly been converted, as they’ve started to see some of the ideas that have come out.

We’ve had to play in the space, initially, of, “We’re just going to test an experiment and try something else, while some people don’t get it.” Then, as we start to show some of the results, not just the ideas but then also the change in culture that we’re able to point to, those kinds of things have helped to convert them.