Fringe innovation unlocks power of diverse thinking

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Fringe innovation unlocks power of diverse thinking
Timothy Whitfield, Head of Technology, Digital Media and Demand Generation at Woolworths Group

In out-dated command-and-control structures, all innovation came from the top. The boss would say ‘Hey, I found a great new piece of technology’ and the company would rally behind this to make it work. However, these business models are no longer relevant as ultimately there is only a singular voice leading the company forward. An agile model enables this by making it possible for every team member to have a voice and develop transformative ideas that solve problems. This is what we call fringe innovation.

Fringe innovation doesn’t just naturally spring up in conversations or brainstorms. In fact many innovative ideas come when we step back and create space to deeply consider a problem and hear the voices of all parties. Especially the people that may not feel confident speaking up in a meeting. It’s the responsibility of leaders to create a culture of openness, trust and space to think, to allow these fringe innovations to manifest.

Performance Testing

One example of fringe innovation within WooliesX that impressed me recently was the adoption of a new and innovative way for PT (performance testing) to be completed prior to any work being deployed to our production environment.

Naturally, running one of Australia’s largest eCommerce retail platforms means that we take performance testing seriously. If we did not have an agile operating model,  we would have relied on one of the major cloud technology platforms to come up with a large PT solution and we would roll it out at scale. However, our agile model encouraged one of our Site Reliability Engineers to come up with a suggestion to form a Centre of Excellence (CoE) for Quality and Testing.

This CoE has an initial focus to ensure our customers have the best possible experience, but equally also empowers the developers to write better code. This CoE has started to utilise Enterprise and Open Source frameworks to enable Quality Gates (regular and automated check-points) in our Continuous Integration pipelines to provide immediate feedback to the individual developer that wrote each piece of code about how their work is going. The end result is more satisfied customers and a more empowered development team.

Fringe innovation doesn’t just naturally spring up in conversations or brainstorms. In fact many innovative ideas come when we step back and create space to deeply consider a problem and hear the voices of all parties. Especially the people that may not feel confident speaking up in a meeting. It’s the responsibility of leaders to create a culture of openness, trust and space to think, to allow these fringe innovations to manifest.

Diversity of thought, combined with a culture and operating model that empowers people is essential for a fringe innovation to flourish. Here are some key things to help encourage fringe innovation in your business today:

  • 20 Percent Time - Allow your team members to invest one day per week to think outside the box. This is often called 20 percent time and it is a key driver for fringe innovation. At WooliesX, we call this Practice or Chapter time. More information about that here.
  • Diversity of Thought - Employing a cross section of humanity into your business will allow a good healthy view on many key topics. More information about that here.
  • Let’s Rumble - Don’t be afraid to have a ‘rumble’ to unlock the potential of your team's fringe innovation. Sometimes the best ideas are those which come from open and opposing deliberation. More information about that here.
  • Empower every voice - Success for fringe innovation isn’t when you hear somebody speak up and share an idea. Success is when you have created a trusted environment to encourage the quietest voice to be heard. More information about that here.

There is a great quote from John Cleese which reminds me of fringe innovation: “If you want creative workers, give them time to play.” Fringe innovation is much more than solving a technical problem. It’s a new way of thinking that will unlock the creative potential of your team.

About the author: Timothy Whitfield is Head of Technology, Digital Media and Demand Generation at WooliesX part of Woolworths Group

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