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How Australia's Biggest Salary Packager Unlocked Creativity In Their Company

It’s Silicon Valley legend that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell rejected Steve Jobs’ 1976 offer to invest in Apple. Jobs, who worked for Bushnell at the time, asked US$50,000 for a third of his start-up today worth A$910 billion.

McMillan Shakespeare Group won’t easily make Bushnell’s mistake of ignoring an employee’s bright idea following its recent introduction of an ‘ideation platform’ for innovation.

A modern take on the employee suggestion box, McMillan Shakespeare’s ‘Thought Bubble’ ideation platform combines familiar social media with management dashboards and reporting to slipstream ideas into products and services. Employees publish their ideas on Thought Bubble for their peers to vote and comment. If the crowd likes what it sees, the idea goes to an innovation committee for investigation and prioritisation as a project.

With a market capitalisation of $1.1 billion, McMillan Shakespeare is Australia’s biggest outsourced remuneration provider and already has a five-year innovation pipeline. But it hopes Thought Bubble will unlock hidden opportunities sitting in employees’ heads, says the company’s Innovation Program Manager Fiona Hood.

It is digesting the results of the first two Thought Bubble campaigns that saw more than half its 850 employees* engaged to offer 120 ideas. From a shortlist of 20 ideas, the innovation committee earmarked three for investigation. Employees who offer the best ideas are showered in recognition and the chance to work on their pet project with the possibility of monetary reward as it crystallises into a product or improvement.

“The above-average engagement in the ideation platform owed to careful planning in the lead-up” Hood says. “You can have a great platform and brag about what you’re going to do but the communication strategy is key. If you don’t have the buy-in from staff and people who will use it, you won’t get any ideas to do anything with.”

Innovation is essential to be competitive but Australian organisations lag their foreign rivals. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found in its 2012-2013 Business Characteristics Survey that although businesses invested $28 billion to $34 billion in innovation, only 15.6 per cent spent more than $5 million a year. And more than two in five (42.6%) spent nothing. Australia also had mediocre performance on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, with declining innovation capability over three years and below that of eight of our top 10 trading partners including the US, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan.

Hood says that, for many, “innovation is a scary word” but it need not be. “Innovation is anything that adds value; it doesn’t have to be major. If you asked, ‘If you could change something, what would it be?’ that becomes more accessible to everyone in the organisation.”

With the help of The Strategy Group, McMillan Shakespeare deployed Thought Bubble over two months using a software service from US vendor BrightIdea that has Cathay Pacific, Merck and Cisco as customers. McMillian Shakespeare leaned on our expertise for platform implementation, training and promoting it within the business.

McMillan Shakespeare is digesting the output from its first two ideation campaigns including digital wallets and services for in-field staff as future projects.

Hood outlines a three-step engagement strategy to win over internal support and get ideas flowing into production:

Tell people ­– Hood worked with internal marketing to build interest, including an official launch day punctuated by gifts to workers and a 90-second introductory video. Updates and newsletters keep it in employees’ minds throughout the year. And leading up to the launch, Hood did a management roadshow: “We had to upskill the leaders and get them on board so the message got down to the people.”

Recruit influencers – Using its ‘ADKAR’ methodology and working with the company’s change manager, Hood identified influencers in the organisation. They evangelised the process and contributed early ideas, vital to build momentum and show the power of the ideation platform.

Cull ideas – Popular ideas are referred to a management innovation committee and business leaders for their feedback, with the most promising ideas prioritised for projects based on factors such as cost, time, impact and accessibility. Hood speaks to staff whose ideas weren’t adopted to explain why and encourage their continuing contributions.

The next steps for McMillan Shakespeare are to deploy a mobile app and cloud system. And it will deploy the ideation platform to staff at Presidian and United Financial Services, which it acquired this year for $157 million.

Hood says it’s important to get onside with business unit leaders who will benefit from projects spun out of the ideation platform. “It will only be as successful as you [business units] allow it to be, so you need to prioritise this as No.1,” Hood says.

She says the program is “still in its infancy and needs another 12 months to see the real, tangible benefits”.

“We’ve been really proud about the level of engagement, the number of ideas, the process in place and how to leverage the platform.”

*Employee figures (850) based on 2014 annual report

MMSG at-a-glance

Activity: Salary packaging, leasing & asset management services
Revenue: 389.6m [2015 annual report] Market cap: $1.1b [ASX] Employees: 1035 [2015 annual report]

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