Operationally-Focused Innovation at ExxonMobil

February 22, 2016

As most readers of InnoLead are painfully aware, some of the best ideas for improving operations — what is frequently called “incremental” or “sustaining” innovation — are often squashed under the weight of other priorities and layers of management.

It was no different here at ExxonMobil IT, the global organization that works in partnership with all ExxonMobil business units to provide integrated technology solutions.

Before we implemented a unique approach that we’re discussing here for the first time, there was no good way to test ideas for these operational innovations, which were considered neither “disruptive” nor “breakthrough.” Pilots and experiments — where ideas are floated and tested with small groups— were not part of our normative culture or vocabulary.

Instead, all innovative ideas for operational improvements went through more traditional channels, and most of those ideas rarely made the cut; only the most ambitious and driven employees were able to turn their ideas into solutions with business value. But what about the rest of them?

At a company like ExxonMobil, these seemingly-minor operational innovations are absolutely crucial. With over 75,000 employees and $269 billion in revenue, even small, incremental innovations can create cascading benefits that yield literally billions in savings or opportunities.

So, to ensure we could accelerate the speed of innovation within the company, a small group of innovators began searching for a solution. The group, which we named #innovation, was charged with instilling an innovation mindset within ExxonMobil. We had a hypothesis: that a bottom-up, grassroots program to support “intrapreneurs” would fuel participation, quality, and speed of innovation.

To be honest, our thesis was more of a brainstorming hunch, posed as a question: “What if we created a ‘Virtual Café,’ where ideas could be shared, swapped, combined, tested, and selected for further prototyping on a global basis?”

That question yielded the birth of The Grassroots Innovation Forum (GIF).

Here’s what we did, the mistakes we made, and ten lessons for success that you might want to consider for your own company:

Getting Started

For its initial pilot, #innovation wanted to scope out a small area of focus for the Forum. The area selected was, “Ways to improve ExxonMobil through the creative use of IT.”

A digital home was created for this ‘Virtual Café,’ where ideas could be submitted, aggregated, discussed, and even voted on by the community.

The process we conceived would be simple:

First, a small group of intrapreneurs would be recruited to submit innovations for operational improvement in the Virtual Café.

Then, the community itself would react to the ideas, combining those that were similar, rejecting those considered trivial, and ranking those considered most promising.

Forum curators would then assess and nominate the ideas that had the greatest community support — or ideas with the most perceived potential.

Those ideas would be brought to a Selection Team for formal review.

This Selection Team was made up of executives and information architects, and the team was provided specific criteria for the identification and management of the ideas.

With that foundation in place, the Forum launched its first idea-generation campaign with a small community of approximately 100 intrapreneurs. Ideas were submitted and ranked, they were selected by curators, and the best were brought to the Selection Team.

And that’s when the bottom dropped out.

Overcoming Obstacles

The first meeting of the Selection Team was, quite frankly, a disaster.

That’s primarily due to the fact that the Selection Committee was expecting fully-developed solutions, not simply concepts worth consideration. As a result, the Committee was asking sophisticated questions that assumed our GIF ideas were more mature, like, “Where’s the full Terms of Reference and list of requirements?” and “How come they don’t have business value already identified?”

The #innovation team was forced to regroup and ascertain what went wrong (over ice cream, thankfully.)

In short, #innovation realized that – despite our intentions — that we had approached the GIF process like any other project in the company. Specifically:

  1. They went out of their way to ensure every business line was represented on the Selection Team;
  2. They had senior management representation on the Selection Team for funding needs; and
  3. They had robust criteria to score the ideas (a 20 question evaluation form) to ensure they selected the correct idea.

While this approach often works well for large projects that need significant oversight, our process was intended— by design — to nurture early-stage ideas and hunches. Asking our Selection Team to review these concepts was like asking a ravenous giant to sit at the dinner table and pick the seeds for future meals — the ideas would be devoured or crushed, not nurtured, under the weight of management and bureaucracy.

The Grassroots Innovation Forum was meant to reach into the nooks and crannies of the organization, and to find ideas that could be tested and prototyped in order to identify value. If #innovation truly wanted to realize our vision, we’d need a new approach.

Retooling For Success

To ensure the process was improved, the #innovation team spent considerable time researching companies, startups, and entrepreneurs that excelled at idea generation and selection. Ten key factors quickly surfaced, and those factors became the foundation upon which the GIF would be built.

  1. Get The Right People The Selection Committee is really a Steering Committee and should be comprised of “venture capitalists” within the company. Don’t arbitrarily appoint executives who represent business units or product lines. Instead, find people across all layers of the organization who are not only excited by new ideas, but are willing to get behind and promote them. They need to help select and mentor ideas.
  2. Bring Your Evidence — Selection criteria should be simple and structured in a way that drives the community to show you the evidence that the idea is worthwhile. In fact, if you strip an idea down to the basics, you really have three criteria or evidence to prove:
    • Is It Desirable? – Before the Steering Committee sees the ideas, each idea must receive a targeted number of community votes in the forum. This ensures that the Steering Committee knows the idea already has the backing and support of the intrapreneurs in the company.
    • Is It Valuable? – The Steering Committee may not be packed with senior executives, but it is comprised of experienced individuals who understand the varied areas of our business. This ensures the Committee can review the potential value of each idea, along with what the community thinks.
    • Is It Feasible? – Once the Steering Committee deems an idea to be valuable enough to pursue, the full group immediately discusses the best way to investigate the feasibility of the idea. They also match a Steering Committee mentor with the idea generator (whom we call “The Ideator”) to provide support and guidance. This approach forces everyone to iteratively develop the evidence that lubricates the innovation engine, making conversations around funding and effort much easier.
  1. Keep It Open— Make the entire process transparent. Invite each Ideator to the Steering Committee meeting to present his or her idea, and make sure the Ideators bring friends and coworkers to listen in. In essence, they are marketing the idea within the company, and building grassroots support for the concept.
  2. Keep It Simple — Simplify the idea-generation process, and strip it to its bare minimum. For example, we require just a title and description. In fact, we recommend removing detailed fields, categories, or metadata that might intimidate those with just a hunch about something. Don’t force them to write a dissertation. This will reduce barriers-to-entry, and will allow the community to foster and grow more quickly.
  3. Keep It Loose — When discussing your forum, use language that reflects the open, experimental, loose nature of the idea-generating process. We recommend using words like “seeds,” “hunches,” “prototyping,” and “testing.” Avoid terms like “business plan” that imply formality and might scare away entries. This will also help set expectations for the Steering Committee, ensuring they understand that they are going to be reviewing “hunches,” not fully formed business concepts.
  4. Be Draconian & Kill Ideas — Actively curate the forum by closing ideas that don’t receive enough support, and moving ahead those that do. In conversations with other large organizations, we learned employees stop believing and participating when their ideas languish in a black box for eternity. Set a cadence for review — for example, we give ideas two months to gain support — and stick to it. When ideas get killed, make sure you communicate back to the Ideator; don’t let them discover online that their idea was killed two weeks ago. And when informing them of the bad news, don’t suggest that the idea is “bad,” but rather point to the lack of community support, encouraging them to iterate with their colleagues and resubmit.
  5. Don’t Be Siloed — Cross-functional interaction is always preferred. For example, when focusing on information technology related topics, don’t leave the businesses out. The business units will know of opportunities that the IT organization doesn’t see, so help them combine their solutions into winning ideas.
  6. Focus — It’s okay to keep the topics broad, but try to control the flow of junk. Typically, junk ideas will get less attention over time, largely because your community is smart and will recognize an exciting opportunity when it emerges. But be sure to quickly kill ideas that stray from your strategic mission, otherwise the community will lose focus.
  7. Support Your Innovators — Show the love to your community, because they are your greatest champions. Support your first Ideators and give them reasons to come back. Yes, you’re growing a bank of ideas, but you’re also growing a community that can support the creation of those ideas; there can be no forum without a community to fill it. Start small and grow organically; once you have a base and success stories, you can go big and launch to a larger audience.
  8. Provide Updates — Let everyone know how the process is going. Newsletters, updates, or status pages are all worth considering; the goal should be to inform and remind the community that this is an active, vibrant forum where ideas can and do grow into solutions.

ExxonMobil IT implemented each these elements in a re-launch of its Grassroots Innovation Forum, and the results were staggering. The quality of ideas improved, the Steering Committee was more engaged, the Ideators were excited by the progress, and ideas began to move from just hunches into solutions. To #innovation’s delight, the community grew exponentially, ideation spiked, and the ideas continue to get better and better.

Download a PDF presentation about ExxonMobil’s Grassroots Innovation Forum.

Eighteen months after re-launching GIF, ExxonMobil’s community now includes more than 4,000 participants who have generated over 400 quality, vetted ideas. Nearly 25 of those are in production or under development.

The #innovation team has been attending internal fairs, business meetings, and recruiting events to share this story and build the community.

As is to be expected, most people are initially passive when they hear about the Grassroots Innovation Forum, thinking, “I’ve seen this kind of thing before.”

Their perspective changes, however, when they see the results other Ideators have realized — you can actually see the interest and passion ignite within them. As a result, the GIF has quickly become a catalyst for a culture shift around innovation. (Click the image above to download a PDF covering our experiences with the Grassroots Innovation Forum.)

And the #innovation team isn’t done iterating. Next on the horizon is expanding this forum to include non-IT topics, mini-challenges to target gaps in ideation, and a #innovation “InnoKit” (similar to Adobe’s Kickbox, which InnoLead wrote about last year) to provide our innovators with tools that help them develop even more ingenious solutions.

Our goal is that, someday, everyone in the company will be able to take their seed ideas and grow them into solutions valued by their customers. We hope these lessons are helpful to you as you look to do the same.