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Innovation Wednesday: Corel’s Virtual Garage

What happens to an idea deferred?

What happens to an idea deferred?

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Corel, the software maker who brought us WordPerfect and a whole host of design tools, didn’t want to risk finding out. Or, more accurately, one small band of engineering innovationistas decided to stop letting grassroots ideas get lost to the ethers – a familiar fate at even the most innovation-focused companies. So, a handful of employees created a unique system — a “virtual garage” — that helped the company capture, then evaluate and develop ideas that bubble up from the Corel rank and file. And, get this — it’s working. It says something good about the employees who made the system, as well as the company that embraced their efforts.

Failing to innovate is, or should be, the great fear of any company that wants to survive in a fast-moving world. Innovation can look like lots of things — endless meetings, arm-waving at whiteboards, focus groups, etc – but at the end of the day, innovation must create value. (Otherwise it’s just bloviation, which can also only be measured using trailing indicators.) One interesting blog defines the “cost of not innovating” as the estimated dollar value your competitors have gained that you have failed to capture through your own innovation efforts. No pressure there.

Intrigued by the Corel concept — I first heard about it here – I got in touch with Adam McKinty, Director of User Experience Design at Corel, and Jennifer Fraser, the Lead User Experience Designer, who walked me through the development of the system. It started, as these things often do, as mellow but persistent discontent from employees. “It stemmed from a conversation at our morning meeting,” recalls McKinty. “Rus Miller (a manager who has since been promoted to VP, Product Development) shared a frustration from his team – they had ideas but didn’t know who to tell. Or they were telling someone who didn’t seem to listen.”

It was a worrisome complaint. User experience, says McKinty, is central to the Corel mission. Research is a key part of that. But the ‘aha moments’ that could only come from people who worked with the product or talked to customers all day, weren’t being developed – and those people worked in a variety of teams in a variety of locations. “Not only did we want to harness those flashes of brilliance,” says McKinty, “we wanted to make sure our people felt that they were being listened to. And there is something incredibly satisfying to know that your idea is being taken seriously, and might actually be turned into a product.”

Fraser was tapped to lead the search for the perfect innovation catcher – “a repository for people’s ideas,” she says. She talked to employees, and then studied other idea collection systems in other companies and industries. But there wasn’t much out there, particularly around product design. “The big challenge was how to keep the innovation moving,” she says. “Collecting ideas wasn’t going to be enough.”

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But what is a “good” idea? As the concept of the “innovation portal” was being shaped, the user experience team realized that they had to teach the larger product development group what they were looking for. “We want to create customer focused products. People needed to understand what that really meant at the innovation level.” The company routinely conducts customer interviews, but they weren’t easily accessible to the entire group. Giving future innovators access to that data within the portal seemed to be an important first step. “We made it easy for them to listen to an interview file, and get first hand what customer needs and pains were.” Then, they created an application process that screened out any cool ideas that simply weren’t right for Corel. “Every question on the application form is from the perspective of the customer. They’re very specific.”

Ideas that make it through the process are “evaluated and ranked – assigned certain values for impact to users, market need and urgency to market,” says Fraser. Ultimately, the idea is given a score on a map of values, which can change over time – say, as new market information becomes available. And the cool part: “As soon as the idea looks like it may be turned into a product,” says McKinty, “the person who initiated the idea can become part of the team that creates that functionality.”

So far, the innovations that have come out the other side are what McKinty terms the “little gems” – elegant tweaks to existing products that he says creates a better user experience. One success story came in the form of a suggested change to the boundary functionality for Corel Draw Graphics X3. “Customer interviews showed that there was a need for a more efficient way to create a boundary around a group of many objects that were selected – a very specific need for say, a sign maker or vinyl cutter.” The idea worked its way through the Virtual Garage quickly. “We don’t have vinyl cutters working here, so we needed that specific customer feedback to make it into the design process.” The tweak was a hit. “I’m sure that when the product specialist first showed (the enhanced feature) to some of our customers, it must have seemed like a throwaway,” says McKinty. Instead, he was greeted with oohs and aahs. “It’s been a real morale booster all around.”

The quest for the innovation portal began about four years ago – the working group that Fraser led took about a year to get a version launched. (It was a side project for her.) It has been active at Corel for nearly three years — and has generated just short of a thousand new ideas. And people are getting noticed. “There have been internal team awards, significant recognition of 2 or 3 people,” says McKinty. And significant buy-in from the C-suite — the system is about to be rolled out to the broader company later this year.

What happens to an idea deferred? Can any company afford to take the risk that they’ll dry up, fester or worst of all, explode?

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