Innovation Dressed Up In Overalls

Innovation is a critical element of any engineering team and our recent team awards night had me pause and reflect on why innovation is sometimes overlooked or not seen in the day to day of building of products.

We recently held our bi-annual “Purple Awards”. These are internal awards that recognise our team's contributions over the prior 6 month period. There are a number of award categories including the best results, best cross team collaboration, greatest innovations, and individual awards for living the MYOB values. It’s an important event in the rhythm of our business to ensure we pause, recognise and celebrate the contributions of team members and teams.

Sitting on the judging panel and having just gone through the process of submission, reviewing, selecting winners and the best part - the celebration, I was reflecting on the Thomas Edison quote that “opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work”.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is  dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Thomas Edison

Leading into the awards, Simon Raik-Allen, our CTO, ran an exercise where he engaged with the engineering teams to workshop with them how they had been innovating over the past 6 months. We consciously did this as we knew from experience that teams are often busy dealing with their day to day work and the nomination period can go by with important contributions being missed.

These workshops started off slowly with the teams struggling to think of any innovative things they had done during the period. But after some prompting and reflection the teams starting delving into the details of their work, the issues they faced along the way, the micro-decisions they made, and the pivots they took. Not long after the innovations came bursting through the clouds.

In the end, we had a great list of innovations and the teams were left with a much greater sense of accomplishment and achievement. Some of the innovations included:

  • Improvements to our infrastructure automation which allowed us to stand up new servers to support clients in half the time. This is a tough problem in general and the 50% improvement took new tools, technologies, and processes to achieve;
  • Improvements in the way payments can be made on invoices that are sent to clients. This was an example of where the innovation required full end-to-end design thinking around the user experience and new technology to support it;
  • A new digital signature system which allows accountants and their clients to share and approve documents without ever needing printed paper. The system has been applied to our online tax application and was an Australian first for a tax return not needing a wet signature.

Reflecting on the workshops it was clear the teams were not conscious of the innovation they were delivering on a regular basis. It got me wondering, why?

It was clear the teams were not conscious of the innovation they were delivering

One hypothesis is that the definition of innovation is too narrow - people perceive innovation being defined as a new product that has never been thought of before. A quick google of "2015 innovations" will provide numerous links (122 million to be precise) to brand new and exciting product innovations.

There is no doubt new products are innovations, but to me innovation is both a process and an outcome. Innovation can be applied to all sorts of problems, whether it is building a new product, improving a process, changing a pricing model, improving a design, etc. Innovation can occur almost anywhere and everywhere.

Innovation can occur almost anywhere and everywhere.

Another hypothesis is that innovation is not recognised because it is dressed in overalls. Teams come to work each day and tackling problems which span multiple weeks and months. It is a day in day out challenge.

Following the Agile methodology each team breaks down their problems into small tasks, they are iterated over, test and learn is applied, prototypes go back and forth with potential users, things are re-engineered over and over, and eventually, a great and valuable solution is produced. A common approach which occurs in engineering teams all over the world.

But from the outside looking in, even though this process has taken considerable effort from many people with a diverse range of skills all coming together the final innovation looks like a single point in time. But with this context, the process of innovation is not a light bulb moment. It is in fact dressed in overalls and is hence overlooked by the team.

The process of innovation is not a light bulb moment

Whatever the case, innovation is critical and it is great to see that innovation is alive and well at MYOB. A big congratulation to the Portal team for winning the recent Purple Award for Innovation. The uptake and feedback we are receiving from accountants has been fantastic.

Since drafting this blog, I attended the BRW Innovation awards night a few weeks back where MYOB was awarded “most innovative large company” and the “2nd most innovative company” in Australia!

This is great recognition for the team for their hard work and dedication to making business life easier. Love your work, guys.

Cover picture thanks to William Warby