Inside a Corporate Innovation Camp

Companies are using so-called innovation camps to come up with $100 million ideas. Paul Sloane reports from Amdocs' recent four-day event

Many large companies face the problem of how to find viable innovation opportunities that might result in significant new revenue streams. One approach that can deliver results is an intensive innovation camp. I recently helped facilitate such an event for Amdocs, a $3 billion company that provides software and services for most of the world's leading service providers, including AT&T (T), Sprint Nextel (S), and Vodafone (VOD).

This is the second such event that Amdocs has held. Organized by the company's chief scientist, Tal Givoly, its format is loosely based on gatherings such as Kinnernet or FooCamp, with emphasis placed on unleashing energy and creativity from the attendees. Last year's camp generated an idea known as Tera-play, which has become integral to Amdocs' products. It focuses on helping clients cope with the reality of a world in which trillions of devices—most of them not phones—are connected to the network and it addresses the systems, processes, and infrastructure to support this world.

This year, the camp was held in a pleasant parkland hotel in northern Israel during the first week of June. Hundreds of employees applied for the 75 spots, with participants selected on the basis of creativity, originality, and diversity.

goal: radical ideas for new ventures

The purpose of the camp is to identify entirely new business opportunities worth at least $100 million apiece in additional revenues. The first day consisted solely of a variety of wacky, mind-expanding activities, including learning skills such as origami, juggling, astronomy, and improvisational theatre. The stimulating diversions were intended to jolt people out of their normal thinking routines and to prepare them for important challenges.

On the second day, we refocused on Amdocs. Customers (representatives from nine clients attended), employees, and other participants mingled to generate radical ideas for new ventures. I led one session using a lateral thinking technique—"What if?" Magician and creativity expert Dimis Michaelides led another, challenging participants to come up with ideas through the use of analogies. From here, we selected the 35 most promising ideas based on the following criteria: Is there a customer need? Is it feasible? Can we generate significant revenues and profits from this? Does it play to our strengths?

The next morning, the Amdocs employees brainstormed to generate hundreds of additional ideas for innovations in products, services, and markets. We whittled these down to the best 50, leaving a long list of 85 potential new business concepts. These were displayed on large post-it notes around the room. Working in silence, individuals walked around, studied the ideas, and put colored stickers on those they considered the most inspirational (red), the most immediately practical (blue), and those that were attractive but probably impossible (yellow). Greater weight was given to ideas with red stickers, and this allowed us to select the 15 leading ideas. Each was worked up into a poster and presented to the clients, who commented on the ideas and then rated them. That helped the group narrow down the prospects to merely three.

Day four: Pitching management

Now the hard work began. The three ideas were divided among three groups of 25 people; each team spent the rest of the third day and most of the fourth researching its idea and preparing a short presentation. Each had a facilitator to help, but for the most part managed on its own. Typically teams divided into smaller groups to tackle such tasks as preparing demos, drawing up development or business plans, researching competition, and so on.

At the end of the fourth day each team made a 15-minute presentation to a panel of five management members who had joined via videoconference from the corporate head office in Chesterfield, Mo. They had the power to approve the ideas and release resources and funding. The presentations were professional but still managed to display some of the creativity and fun that had imbued the first days of the camp. Then the participants had to field tough questions from the executives: Why would customers need this? How can we make money from this idea? What technical challenges would we face to do this in the real world?

After short deliberation the judges delivered their verdicts. Two proposals were given immediate initial approval and funded for proof-of-concept work. The third proposal was more controversial. It divided the judges, who identified further risks and so did not give it the go-ahead.

The whole event cost over $100,000, not including the employees' time away from the office. Some people probably considered most of the activities of the first two days to be frivolous. Others were doubtless disappointed that the ideas they favored did not make it through the fierce screening process. However, the event brought Amdocs some powerful outcomes. The two innovation projects that were immediately approved promise significant future revenues. Other short-listed ideas can now be examined in greater detail. Delegates, meanwhile, made useful connections and learned more about other parts of the company. They also learned some practical thinking techniques, divergent and convergent. Above all they went away energized, empowered, and encouraged to continue exploring the innovation process within their own teams.

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