How These 4 Tech Companies Create Time to Innovate – Built In Chicago

A sure way to catch the attention of Om Vyas, co-founder and chief product officer at oak9, is to express a difference in opinion or alternative approach. “I love being in a meeting and hearing someone say, ‘I disagree,’” he said. 

These moments create opportunities for discussions and lead to identifying potential for innovation and improvement. But leaders need to actively create the space for them to happen, as Vyas noted: “We can only get to a better solution if people feel safe enough to question what we do.” 

Developing an innovation-driven environment starts with gaining employees’ trust — and that requires a focus on one’s management style. “A culture of innovation is built and grown through transformational leadership,” said Lindsey Sagnella, VP of innovation and product management at BCV, defining that quality as being “receptive to challenging the status quo with innovative ideas.”

When employees are encouraged and empowered by their leaders to bring ideas to the table, innovation is inevitable. But there’s one key to this process that many companies miss: Employees must also have the time for creative, solutions-oriented thinking. For high-growth startups, making space for teams to work on innovations outside of their daily demands can be challenging. 

Built In Chicago sat down with Vyas, Sagnella and leaders from Ensono and Discover Financial Services to find out how they foster cultures of innovation and make time for their teams to dream big.  

oak9 team photo in the office
oak9

Om Vyas

Co-founder and Chief Product Officer

Oak9 seeks to protect cloud-native structures from security and compliance issues with proprietary security-as-code blueprints. 

What are some signs that a company has a culture of innovation?

Creating a culture of innovation may be more art than science, but one key is to encourage dialogue and ideas. When someone tells me they disagree and explains why, it helps us arrive at a stronger conclusion. Maybe they’ve considered something I haven’t or done it a better way before. People in all levels and roles across the company should feel comfortable using their voices. Being innovative is not an individual activity, so it’s incredibly important that team members work well with each other, challenge each other and support each other’s ideas. 

Leadership needs to provide a forum for continuous learning and offer opportunities to safely try new things. Most organizations, especially startups, are under constant pressure to deliver faster, leaving little time for activities that allow for the new ideas that drive innovation. I encourage teams to build time in their sprints for experimenting. 

People in all levels and roles across the company should feel comfortable using their voices.”

How do you make space for new ideas and innovative ways of doing business?

We host an innovation week called oak9 Build. The entire company breaks into small teams to work on interesting project ideas that are submitted by employees, such as building a new feature, exploring a new technology or improving a process. At the end of the week, we come together to present our work and pick a winner based on effectiveness, originality, teamwork, subject knowledge and innovation. 

These opportunities give us new perspectives, and employees can flex muscles that they don’t always have the chance to use. For example, during our last oak9 Build, software engineers worked on marketing content and our people operations team members became film producers. Taking risks, being innovative and trying new ideas are things every one of us needs to practice.

What are some of the challenges your company has faced in developing or maintaining a culture of innovation?

We’ve grown quickly in the last year and have remained adamant about maintaining our positive, innovative company culture. We defined our company culture early on and it continues to be our North Star. If we ever feel ourselves wandering, it can point us in the right direction. 

To understand how we are doing, we need to engage everyone and maintain a feedback loop. All employees have regular one-on-ones with their manager, and we have a “high fives” chat in which employees can give one another recognition in a public forum. This highlights the things people are doing across the company and gives people more context on our work. 

Ensono colleagues having a team huddle in the office
Ensono

Jennifer Bonds

Director, Systems and Software Engineering

Ensono is a managed service provider that tailors hybrid IT solutions. 

What are some signs that a company has a culture of innovation? 

Some companies define innovation by the number of patents and trademarks they hold, especially in the tech industry. While that’s fantastic, a truer mark of innovation is how a company’s employees talk about their daily work. Look for signs of innovation in conversations among peers as well as with leadership.

Conversational phrases that indicate a culture of innovation:

  • “Is there a better way?”
  • “Let’s take time to think it through.”
  • “Who else should we include?”
  • “I just read about this new tool and thought it was interesting.”
  • “Let’s schedule some calendar time today to see what we can come up with.”
  • “I have some ideas I want to share.”

How do you make space for new ideas and innovative ways of doing business?

Listening and providing employees time to innovate, such as with time blocks or hackathons, help foster a culture of innovation. When a great idea is presented, I find the most success when we make the time on the spot to work through it.  

For example, an employee on my team was completing an AWS-required training when he realized that we could use the technology to build our own product to better serve our clients. He worked on the idea for an entire weekend and brought it to me on Monday morning. We figured out how to make time for him to continue working on the project during company hours, and when we shared it with the larger team, there was immediate excitement about building the product. 

What are some of the challenges your company has faced in developing or maintaining a culture of innovation?

Our tech company is young and experiencing rapid growth, so keeping our staff level matched to our client growth and demand has been difficult. This can result in a lack of time, energy and the right environment for innovation — it’s hard to think of a better solution when each day is slammed with emergency client needs and growing to-do lists.  

Most innovative associates need to create to stay invested in the company. Using the Agile methodology helps us to define priorities and quickly see what can be shifted to find gaps for innovation. It’s worth the effort to make time.

Angel Diaz

VP, Technology Capabilities and Innovation

Discover is a financial services company that provides direct banking and payment services. 

What are some signs that a company has a culture of innovation?

The democratization of technology and ecosystems has put the power to innovate and deliver customer success at our fingertips. But with that great power comes great responsibility to continuously improve. When a company displays that ability to continuously improve, it has a solid culture of innovation. 

Continuous improvement is a core value at Discover and one of our driving behaviors. It shows up in our burgeoning patent program, which encourages our engineers to create disclosures. There’s also a path to make innovative ideas a reality through our existing product iterations. Innovation is encouraged, celebrated and rewarded in the context of everything we do.

How do you make space for new ideas and innovative ways of doing business?

There are two areas we focus on to establish a strong culture of innovation: Discover behaviors and Discover Management System principles. These concepts are core to every piece of training we provide our employees, and they’re how we make space for new ideas and innovative ways of doing business. 

It’s on us as leaders to ensure our teams have access to the tools they need to innovate and also the time to dedicate to development. Our global companywide hackathons are a great example. They bring our business technology talent together with innovators from across the company to think about how we can build a brighter financial future for our customers.

When a company has a great culture of innovation and exercises its capability for innovation, it reaches escape velocity. Escape velocity is that space within product ideation and product delivery where there’s freedom to continuously innovate.

It’s on us as leaders to ensure our teams have access to the tools they need to innovate and also the time to dedicate to development.”

What are some of the challenges your company has faced in developing or maintaining a culture of innovation?

We want to bring the right technology to our products to meet customer demands, which means we’re constantly evolving. The challenge is to keep that engine moving forward. By providing both digital and in-person learning opportunities to our engineers, they have an opportunity to stay on top of their skills and build their careers. 

Innovation needs to happen everywhere and all the time. The way that we help our customers is by institutionalizing innovation in our culture and providing the space for our people to exercise their innovation muscle. We continue to grow by delivering value. 

Two BCV team members sitting on a bench on the office holding a puppy with BVC on the wall behind them in light up letters
BCV

Lindsey Sagnella

VP, Innovation and Product Management

BCV is a digital media agency building social media presences for hospitality brands. 

What are some signs that a company has a culture of innovation? 

A company should welcome creative ideas at all levels of the organization and embrace open innovation. This can mean having conversations with other departments to help source internal ideas; it can also mean opening up the innovation process by encouraging all team members to share ideas and feedback on new concepts. There’s a direct correlation between visibility in discovery processes and the creativity that is generated companywide.

There’s a direct correlation between visibility in discovery processes and the creativity that is generated companywide.”

How do you make space for new ideas and innovative ways of doing business?

I am constantly fostering a collaborative, open-minded environment that supports sharing and encouraging new ideas. Working in such a fast-paced industry, we rely on one another to stay apprised of industry-related news and updates and to encourage ideas for how we can apply and pilot corresponding strategies. I love seeing team members bring new ideas to the table in day-to-day Slack conversations as well as during open brainstorms.

What are some of the challenges your company has faced in developing or maintaining a culture of innovation?

Through the pandemic, which heavily impacted the hospitality industry, we experienced a lot of challenges. To overcome them, we had to be creative and innovative not only in our approach to providing services to our partners but also in how we adjusted our infrastructure. Specifically, we realigned how we think about our client service support and thought about how we can evolve and become a stronger extension of support to our clients and partners.

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