Innovation takes root

By Yukthi Gunasekera

In June 2010 a group of young, smart and ambitious Staffers (all of them Assistant Vice Presidents) told Top Management that they felt innovation was a critical ingredient of business success. Agreeing with the AVPs, Top Management gave them a challenge: “Show us a road map on how we can systematically create a culture of innovation across the John Keells Group”.

The AVPs thought long and hard about it. They researched the topic. They studied the most innovative

companies in the world to find out how they did innovation. Finally, they convinced Top Management that they had the plan – the magic formula. And so the “Year of Innovation” was born.

Driving innovation in a small company is no big deal; however, how do you drive innovation in a large and diverse conglomerate like John Keells Group? Where there is a will, they say, there is a way. The AVPs decided to decentralise the initiative and asked every division (the corporate centre and the various Group Companies) to come up with their own road map to achieve their own version of innovation nirvana.

An initiative of this magnitude also requires proper branding and messaging, so  the AVPs aptly called their initiative “Innovate”. Realising a ‘call to action’ was also needed, they came up with the tag line: “Innovate for John Keells”. Then they embedded the name and call to action in a logo (See below).

Appreciating the fact that competition fires up innovation, the AVPs put a reward system in place that would recognize the Group’s top innovators at the end of the year. The stage was now set for the Innovate drama to unfold.

At the Corporate Centre, I had the good fortune of being in an Innovate “Fostering Team” with two other colleagues. Our brief was straightforward: do whatever it takes to create a culture of innovation at the Corporate Centre. We put our heads together and came up with the idea of holding “brainstorming sessions” for our staff. Realising that we could not do everything single-handedly, we got a few enthusiastic colleagues from the various functions at the Centre to volunteer as “Energisers”.

We took our Energisers’ role pretty seriously – every meeting had energisers of a different sort: “Wild Elephant” [energy drink] or KIK Cola from Elephant House or Mars bars!  The ‘fun’ environment was designed to unleash creativity. The Energisers got our message and mixed it with lots of enthusiasm. They, in turn, ensured that plenty of energizing drinks and foods were served at all brainstorming sessions. We were on a roll!

We divided the entire Centre into four groups and entrusted four (4) separate Energiser Teams to take on each group.  The Energisers asked them – in a relaxed and fun environment that sometimes included screening of children’s cartoons – to come up with ideas that would enhance our business, both at the Centre and at our Group Companies. The enthusiastic participants came up with more than 150 ideas. Not all ideas could be considered as “Innovate” ideas. But as the saying goes “Rome was not built in one day”. We felt we had taken a critically important first step towards creating a culture of innovation at the Corporate Centre: the brainstormers believed they were capable of coming up with creative ideas.

Soon Innovate spread like a vine across the John Keells Group. It even jumped across the sea and reached the Group’s resort hotels in the Maldives. Take for example Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo – Maldives. They wanted to do their own version of Innovate. They wanted to grow plants without soil. Yes, you read it right, plants without soil! At the Hotel, soil is in

short supply and greens are in great demand. Heads and hands got together and they waived the magic wand of Innovate, and out popped mint leaves, pak choy and lettuce – fresh and pesticide-free! Thanks to an in-house produced hydroponics system, a method of growing plants using mineral solutions carried with water in a network of pipes, the Ellaidhoo team was able to grow these plants in their own back garden. No big costs were involved: the project was completed using discarded material such as shady nets, galvanized iron pipes, wood, and an old water pump. Only a few PVC pipes were purchased and the whole project was completed within a few hundred Dollars.

Similar innovations began sprouting across the Group: Ceylon Cold Stores forayed into the local cola market with KIK Cola; Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo built a sand barge to dredge the sea; and Jaykay Marketing introduced the ‘neighbourhood mall’ concept with K-Zone at Moratuwa. No doubt we still have some growing up to do on the Innovate tree, however     what is thrilling is that our collective planting has begun to bear fruit, and the future seems  bountiful – filled with a forest of innovations!