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A new way to put innovation at the center of company culture

Fri, 2nd Feb 2024

Slack, Zoom, Teams, “WFH”. It’s hard to believe these terms, now a part of our everyday vocabulary were virtually unheard of less than four years ago. With a huge percentage of the Aussie workforce now spending at least part of their week working from home, business leaders still have a long way to go when it comes to uniting their employees for a more collaborative (and, therefore, more successful) workplace. With teams (and individuals) working in silos, how can any department truly understand how another part of the business functions? Does Michael in Marketing have any idea what Elizabeth in Engineering gets up to all day? How can you bring teams together and get the entire business involved in product innovation? What is the secret to a creative, inspired culture that truly works as one?

While unifying a team can be hard work, encouraging various departments to cross their cubicle line or breach their Slack chat to collaborate with another department feels like a huge undertaking. So it’s time to get creative. 

Over the past two years, we’ve been trying something different, which might inform a playbook for your own business. We’ve been making our engineers the star of the show with Seven’s flagship innovation initiative, Ignite. With each series run over a three-week period, Ignite brings together cross-functional teams of engineers, product managers and staff from across the business to collaborate and develop ideas that push boundaries and advance Seven's offerings and capabilities. Add a bit of friendly competition into the mix, and you’ll be amazed at what can be produced.

The latest series, with a focus on Generative AI in Sport, saw a record number of volunteer participants from across the business, with nearly 60 ideas put to a company-wide vote. The top seven concepts were then selected for prototype development, vying for the top prize. The winner receives further development and integration into Seven's products and services.

Sure, taking dozens of employees away from their actual workload for three weeks at a time in the fast-paced world of network television isn’t without its challenges. But the payoff – from the perspective of both company culture and genuine innovation – is more than worth it. Slack channels were buzzing with teamwork across business and geographic locations. Every collaboration space throughout the office was filled with multiple check-in meetings and demo rehearsals. Far corners of the business were collaborating in a completely new way and on something far outside the normal day-to-day activities.  

Bringing together teams with diverse functions and backgrounds encourages collaboration across traditionally siloed parts of the business. Engineers work directly with sports journalists and commercial teams to gain insights into challenges from different perspectives.

On the technical side of things, prototyping real use cases within tight deadlines simulates the pressures of fast-paced development. Engineers are forced to get creative in scoping projects and leveraging available services in innovative ways. They gain skills that better equip them for tackling complex challenges and delivering working solutions under constrained conditions. By focusing on generating tangible prototypes, ideas move beyond the theoretical into a testable format. This hands-on process leads to new workflows and the development of potential solutions to be evaluated for wider implementation to the benefit of the business’ overall innovation efforts.

Non-technical staff learn about new technologies and the engineering process. Through participating in cross-functional teams, employees in areas like sales, marketing and content gain first-hand experience with the challenges engineers face and see how solutions are developed. They come away with a stronger appreciation for what's involved in bringing new products to life. This improved understanding allows for more informed input and collaboration with technology teams going forward. 

By the end of each series, participants have a deeper knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of emerging technologies. They learn how to scope projects realistically based on available resources and timeframes. This increased technical literacy among non-engineers fosters a shared language, and more productive partnerships across the business as new products are envisioned and built.

Of course, this is an account of one business’ success, but the playbook can be applied to any company looking to champion technology as a driver of change and business success. The cross-functional nature of mixing these teams breaks down barriers and improves communication across the business, and is a real moral boost for businesses looking to re-ignite in-office culture. Non-technical staff gain a better understanding of what's possible from a technological standpoint, while engineers learn more about the practical business realities and constraints of various departments. Junior talent can take on leadership roles as team leaders and project managers, while more senior staff can add new skills and technologies to their resumes. Relationships get stronger while fostering shared understanding and innovative ideas that address real needs.

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