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Lights, cameras, action: Innovation ‘reality TV’ style at Quill Corporation
By Stephen Shapiro
Quill Corp LogoInnovation — it’s the buzzword of the moment, and for good reason. In today’s highly volatile business environment, the need for companies to reinvent themselves repeatedly and rapidly is the only way to ensure long-term survival. Although many organizations recognize this fact, few can define what innovation means to them, let alone create a pervasive, innovative culture of their own.
The accepted notion is that sparking a culture of innovation would require hard work and a long time to produce results. I have found that sometimes the opposite is true; motivated organizations that know where they are going can move from bureaucracy to creativity with remarkable speed.

One such company is Quill Corporation. Quill leaped from Level 1 (see box) to Level 5 in a little more than six months, and reaching Levels 6 through 8 are in the plans for this year.
Quill is a division of Staples, the international office products retailer with extensive operations in North America, Germany and the United Kingdom. Based near Chicago, Quill is a wholly owned subsidiary that employs 2000 people and sells office supplies to small and mid-sized companies via catalogue, phone, and internet.
Moving at the pace Quill set was going to require some serious creative thinking. As Quill President Larry Morse said, “You don’t wake up one day and turn on the innovation switch.”
Our solution was to make change as painless as possible by injecting a sense of fun into the process. Innovation specialists have long understood that play is a prime source of creativity. The internal competition we devised brought play into the workplace – normally not known for fun — in a practical way that solved real business problems. We borrowed a few techniques from Hollywood. Quill Vice President of Strategy Kyle Anderson was a supporter of the project. “This light-hearted approach piqued employee interest and heightened awareness throughout the organization,” he said.
Susan Baird, now the innovation strategic projects coordinator, said several practical ideas from the effort have been implemented, and innovation is starting to look like an attractive activity. “Attitudes are shifting from skeptics to believers. Some employees are even starting to do their own brainstorming sessions. The transformation has been amazing to watch and for me the most rewarding experience of being part of the team.”
There are no silver bullets or one-size-fits-all solutions, but over the years I have found that there are eight levels that organizations move through on their way to creating a truly innovative culture:
1. Ad Hoc
2. Innovation Core Team
3. Centre of Excellence
4. Community of Practice
5. Innovation Management Software
6. Growth Engines
7. Imbedded Innovation
8. Organic Innovation
Level 1: Ad hoc – where the story begins
Quill had been focused on daily business pressures so long that little time was ever allocated for reflective thinking or innovation. Indeed, innovation was not understood, let alone practiced within the organization. Quill had done very well as a business in the past but the company now faced a market-place of extreme commoditization, and innovation had suddenly become a must.
Culturally, instilling innovation was going to be a challenge. A shift in thinking and attitudes was needed to advance from a functional process-driven to a cross-functional orientation aimed at achieving outcomes. In effect, it meant a shift from a production mentality to one of investments in the future.
Level 2: Innovation core team – laying the foundation
Quill President Morse became the primary advocate. His first move was to create a small core team of people responsible for shepherding the innovation effort; an innovation “veneer” sitting on top of the organization.
Given the size of Quill, this core group was quite small. Strategy VP Anderson took on the additional role of Chief Innovation Officer. And Susan Baird, formerly the president’s assistant, took on a full-time innovation role. I joined the team as an adviser.
This core team was responsible for generating awareness of innovation, building the necessary infrastructure, creating the training materials and plans, and developing a process for managing the innovation pipeline. These activities were largely coordination and administration in nature rather than content.
Once we agreed upon the plans and standards, our next step was to launch the Centre of Excellence. And this is where the fun began.
Level 3: The centre of excellence – the quillionaire
Faced with the challenge of creating a culture of innovation as quickly as possible, we decided to try something unusual. We brought the concept of reality television into the company. Considering their popularity with the general public, we opted for a competition like “The Apprentice” (an American reality television show with Donald Trump) or “Pop Idol.” And so we launched a competition called “The Quillionaire” in which three teams competed against each other each month to solve real-life business challenges. Because Quill’s tagline is “So Fast, So Simple,” the teams were named “So Fast,” “So Simple” and “So Quill.”
We needed a mix of people from across the organization. We found 24 people; eight per team. Some were selected for their creativity but most were picked for their interest in innovation. We would teach them the basics and they would learn the rest over time. To determine the teams, we gave them an innovation personality test to determine their natural style. Based on the results, we created teams comprised of different styles (creatives, planners, analyzers, relationship-oriented people, etc.). This helped ensure some creative tension during the competition.
Admittedly, things were a bit slow in the beginning. As Jim Layer, one of the Quillionaire contestants said, “Slowly everyone started stepping out of their work persona and growing more communicative, sharing there insights and inquisitiveness. And when we broke into our challenge team, the communication and creativity came pouring out. Everyone was involved and energized. The whole process has been such a positive one that I and my team mates look forward to our meetings. They have become the best part of our day.”
What do these meetings look like? They were noisy and exciting. Team members would throw out hundreds of ideas while someone frantically captures them on flip charts to make sure the best ones weren’t lost. Ideas ranged from the obvious to the ridiculous, from the practical to the infeasible, from continuous improvement to radical innovation. And when all was said and done, the teams converged on the solutions that they agreed would balance creativity, feasibility, value, and sustainability.
Not only were the competitions fun, they had the added bonus of generating real solutions to real business problems. The first challenge was to find the next “big idea” for Quill. The three teams went off with video cameras and worked on their solutions. After a month, they presented to a panel of judges comprised of three vice presidents and myself. The judges’ role was to encourage participants while still challenging their solutions. We avoided demotivating people but we did push them hard to think creatively and look at problems from many different angles. The judging sessions were professionally video taped. This footage spliced, with video from the brainstorming sessions, was used to create an entertaining reality show that is viewed on TV screens throughout the company and on the intranet. For the final episode of the Quillionaire, the employees will vote for the winning solution.
As Strategy VP Anderson put it: “The first challenge resulted in a great idea that is currently being implemented by a team of associates. They are excited about the opportunity to be creative and proud to share what they can do with the rest of the company.” The solution is predicted to generate millions of dollars in new revenue each year. Without getting into specifics, the idea is to begin selling a new product line that is not office supply related, has not been traditionally sold to small businesses, but is something Quill’s customers could definitely use on a frequent basis. The winning team are now advisers of the team that is implementing their idea.
Before each challenge, we conducted some basic creativity training. One technique we used was to consider how someone else, especially someone famous, might develop a new idea for Quill. During the exercise, a team member was given a television psychologist (Dr. Phil) as her filter. After thinking about it for a moment, she answered, “The psychologist solves problems. So maybe Quill should be in the problem-solving business rather than just selling paper and pencils. We could offer a business solutions portal on our website and call it ‘Ask Dr. Quill,’ a service that helps small businesses solve various problems in the areas of Quill’s expertise.”
The only real issue we ever faced during the competition were time constraints. Supervisors were told to expect the team members to dedicate about four hours a week to the competition. Some teams met for lunch daily, others worked evenings or found time during the workday. The key was to tell them what was expected (the outcome) rather than how they should do it (the process). So all we gave them were the challenges, the evaluation criteria (how they would be judged) and the deadlines. They did the rest their own way.
Level 4: The innovation community – spreading the word
Moving from a small central group to a more pervasive level of innovation required the creation of an Innovation Community. At this stage we selected 75 people from across the company, representing all functions. This group became the eyes and ears of business, providing insights into the specific needs of their departments, employees, customers, vendors, and other stakeholders. They served as advocates and apprentices for innovation, bringing news from the Community to everyone in the organization.
Community members dedicate two to six hours per month, participating in group meetings every two months. They also identify departmental needs and communicate them to the Core Group and the Centre of Excellence. They deliver quarterly workshops/brown bag lunches for their function. They facilitate innovative ideas through cross-functional best practices and brainstorming; capture local innovation best practices, knowledge capital, and case studies. And over time they will also be given specific business performance improvement targets. And finally they generate their own solutions to the Quillionaire challenges.
As we moved innovation into the organization, we created a “pull” from departments and vice presidents who wanted us to conduct innovation sessions for their groups. These became another vehicle for training the Centre of Excellence. In one session, we had 10 Centre of Excellence team members who developed over 200 breakthrough ideas in two hours. The Centre of Excellence team members are being primed to start leading their own sessions within their departments.
“As we began to put processes in place and create a structure for innovation, employees began to take notice with a close watchful eye. They were eager to provide ideas and were interested in how serious we were in implementing them,” says Core Team member Baird.
Level 5: Innovation management software – engaging the entire organization
At this point we had engaged 1 percent of the company in the Centre of Excellence and 5 percent of the company in the Innovation Community. The next step was to engage the entire organization. Quill wanted to do monthly challenges like we had been doing with the Quillionaire teams, but make them open to the entire organization. In order to do this, we needed some software to gather employee’s solutions to our challenges.
On the market there are a few commercially available “idea management” software products but Quill was reluctant to pay the relatively steep licensing fees. So we decided to develop a relatively simple software on our own. It was basically a bulletin board where people could post solutions to challenges. This worked well for the first couple of challenges as a pilot. Now it was time to develop the next generation of software. With the help of a small software developer in California, we launched a new Innovation Forum with more robust features, including online evaluation and creativity tools.
Another key feature of the Forum is the ability to run department-specific challenges rather than just centralized, company-wide events. Over time we hope to open these challenges to an audience outside of Quill; to customers, vendors, and even the general public. All of this fits in with our general philosophy of pushing innovation and decision-making down to the lowest levels of the organization and getting closer to customers and the market-place.
George Rodriguez, a Centre of Excellence member said to me, “The ability for people to find innovative solutions can be maximized by finding the correct balance between engagement, urgency, and prioritization. Bringing the Innovation Forum to Quill has publicly reinforced the importance of setting time aside. One small step for man but one large leap for changing company culture.”
The Future: Levels 6 through 8
Quill is in the middle of its innovation journey. Over the next 18 months employees will be focused on moving further up the ladder of innovation. At these higher levels, innovation becomes imbedded deeper into the organization.
Level 6: Growth Engines
This is used for discontinuous growth, or new products/services that require a different culture. The objective here is to create a portfolio of businesses via spin-off units. These growth engines may cannibalize the core business, but in the long run they will help the business as a whole.
Level 7: Embedded Innovation
At this level, major organizational change takes place. The objective is to make everyone innovative every day, moving from a process-driven functional organization to an outcome-driven cross-functional organization. The organization moves from “innovations” (ideas that have a beginning and end) to “innovation,” something that is continuous. Business targets become the primary measure of success rather than the number or value of ideas. When achieving this level, innovation is less reliant on central group.
Level 8: Organic Innovation
At this ultimate level, innovation is no longer dependent on structures or processes. Innovation is not something to do. It is natural, like breathing.
Creating a culture of innovation does not have to be painful. The injection of fun into the organization helps get employees excited about generating new ideas. The key is a commitment from top management to implement the best ideas. If employees see the prospect of their ideas being accepted, they will contribute.
An effort like this does require a commitment to free people to devote the time needed for innovation. 3M has a “15 percent rule” under which all employees can spend 15 percent of their time on innovation activities. At Quill, we managed to make major change with an over-all investment in innovation of less than 1 percent. If the time is invested wisely and leveraged properly, major returns from modest investments are possible.
Stephen Shapiro is the author of 24/7 Innovation: A Blueprint for Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Change and founder of The 24/7 Innovation Group, a management education and research organization focused on innovation and breakthrough business thinking. A former consultant at Accenture for 15 years, he founded that firm’s Process Excellence Practice. Shapiro has advised many of the world’s leading organizations including General Electric, Lockheed Martin, ABB, Xerox, Avaya, Vodafone, Intel, BMW WilliamsF1, Frito Lay, Barclays, UPS, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. His next book, Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW! (Wiley) will be in stores January 2006. For more information, go to

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