In the hit show Shark Tank, contestants have only a few minutes to sell their big idea to sharp-toothed investors. It's a high-pressure pitch game in which only the best entrepreneurs survive. It's also a pretty good model for surfacing killer ideas. Just ask Tim Kippley, chief strategy officer at Geneca, a Chicago-based custom software development firm (and six-time Inc. 5000 honoree). Kippley instituted a version of the pitch contest and kicked his company's creativity into high gear.
Geneca's Revelation in 2012 was surprisingly simple, like most "aha" moments. The firm works with companies to create custom software applications. "Innovation is what we do for our clients," says Kippley--and it's what drives sales. "So we decided to look in the mirror and do the same things for ourselves that we do for our customers."
The result was the first Geneca Innovation Challenge, an internal competition modeled loosely on Shark Tank. Participating employees had three minutes to pitch their ideas to the entire company. Voting criteria were intentionally vague; attendees were asked simply to vote for the coolest and most engaging ideas--even if they had nothing to do with Geneca's core business. "Culturally, we think we can invent ways to do things better, faster, and cheaper," says co-founder and CEO Joel Basgall.
Before the Innovation Challenge, Geneca's invention process was rather ad hoc--once in a while, someone would stumble onto a good idea. Now, the Shark Tank competition ensures the whole company tosses around new ideas regularly. Plus, the contest lets employees collaborate and suggest improvements. "Now it's, 'We all think it's a great idea,' not just, 'Joel thinks it's a great idea,' " Basgall says.
In the first meetup, six people advanced to the next stage after pitching ideas that included an iPhone app that detects alcohol levels and a GPS augmented-reality game. They received intensive coaching from the innovation team, a group of about 15 employees from all levels in the company.
The process yielded significant intangible benefits. "Taking finalists from ideation to production is a great way to develop our employees, because it allows them to walk in our clients' shoes," Kippley says. "Plus, people get to expand outside their normal roles, so we as a company benefit from the natural cross-pollination."
The winning innovation, created by recent college grad Jack Morrissey, was an app designed to track employees' achievements and allow superiors to praise good work. Geneca now uses the app to track its own employees. "I don't need to be the guy that comes up with the ideas," Basgall says. "I need to be the guy that helps create an environment where a great group of people can have and execute great ideas."
Below are five tips for running your own Shark Tank contest:
1. Create an innovation team. Let employees opt in. Passionate people generate excitement and build a culture.
2. Be prepared to follow through. Will you execute on new ideas? If you don't, you're just paying lip service to creativity.
3. Lay the ground rules. Decide how your process will flow, if only so employees have realistic expectations.
4. Set a focus. Spotlight a major problem, customer issue, or cultural benefit you want to tackle. Your contest can be broadly or narrowly defined.
5. Think Big Picture. Reiterate the goal--to be more innovative or more customer focused--so the staff embraces the larger purpose.