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Why on-the-ground innovation works

11:45am September 17 2018

Participants of Westpac’s first Social Innovation CoLab at Soft Landing’s Smithfield site in Sydney. (Emma Foster)

After six years helping colleagues learn the art of innovation, I’ve found an approach that has had the most powerful results I’ve yet seen.

While I had hoped this unique approach – which we’ve called Westpac’s “Social Innovation CoLab” – would garner good feedback from participants about what they learnt, I wasn’t expecting the level of passion and personal engagement from those involved.

I realise how rare that is, given the number of programs I’ve been involved in as part of my role in Westpac’s innovation team to help build capability in innovation.

At its core, innovation is simply about understanding customers’ needs and problems; and accelerating how we create something customers value. Yes, the term “innovation” tends to be thrown around with many other business buzz-words. But actually, it’s a skill every successful business needs and it’s why Westpac invests in building employees’ capabilities in “customer centred design” and developing prototypes to test and learn with customers.

I wanted to design an immersive learning experience – where people would have the opportunity to learn new skills; and work in small teams to apply those to a social enterprise/community organisation.

We wanted to bring to life the key ingredients that experience shows can accelerate learning – creating a ‘learn by doing’ experience where people grappled with the very real problems faced by a small business in an industry completely different to banking; and had the opportunity to immediately apply their new skills to make a difference.

By bringing problem solving, team-based learning and purpose together, we created the Social Innovation CoLab.

First we worked with Westpac Foundation to identify Soft Landing, a social enterprise that addresses a major environmental problem by diverting old mattresses out of landfill and into recycling, and employs a workforce made up of people who face severe barriers to employment. Its positive impact earned it a Social Scale-up Grant from Westpac Foundation last year.

Second, we partnered with Westpac Institutional Bank, who sponsored 10 employees to join the CoLab and trained them in customer centred design and innovation skills before they were immersed over a four-month period in helping solve Soft Landing’s key business challenges – creating a sustainable funding model, improving mattress collection operations, and building consumer awareness.

During the CoLab, participants experienced first-hand some of the real challenges of running a small business, working closely with Soft Landing’s staff and the bedding industry more broadly to understand the challenges, canvas ideas with consumers, run market research and test and refine ideas, putting into practice the skills taught in the training.

I was impressed with the passion and motivation of the project teams – many people spent their spare time outside of the allocated sessions – on the project. Although the CoLab finished a couple of weeks ago, they’re still working with Soft Landing to see the recommendations come to life.

Evaluation interviews have shown there’s no doubt participants valued the opportunity to connect with work colleagues in solving problems for a small organisation in our community.

One said he’d been a banker for over 20 years and had never realised how important his skills could be for organisations like Soft Landing. Another said what she did in the CoLab was so direct and had so much value, highlighting the benefits large organisations with their scale and capital can bring to social enterprises.

The most consistent feedback was that it was so real – working with an actual social enterprise, solving problems that could help create incredible positive social and environmental impact – while learning new skills they can take back into their own jobs.  

As for Soft Landing, it has already started to benefit from some of the ideas generated during the CoLab, like improving consumers’ experience in getting rid of their old mattress and managing collection logistics.

At a time when all businesses are searching for new ways of building innovation capability, the CoLab is a powerful example of how combining problem solving and purpose creates a powerful learning and collaborative experience and delivers real value to members of our community.

Clearly, innovation is far more than shiny new apps and gadgets.  

Read more about Soft Landing which is expected to be at the next wave of change in the waste and recycling industry.

Lise Genzo joined Westpac in 2011 and, in her role as an entrepreneur-in-residence, she uses a wide range of methodologies and approaches to help change mindsets and behaviours to accelerate innovation. She incorporates Customer Centred Design and Lean Start Up practices with a specific emphasis on customer testing and prototyping. Prior to joining Westpac, she worked in the financial services sector in Australia and in the US where she completed her MBA and became an accredited Six Sigma Master Black Belt. Before that she worked in the public sector.

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