If you’re a budding entrepreneur, it’s hard not to applaud the sentiment behind Project Warhol, a $2 million dollar fund aimed at fostering internal innovation. It does so by helping employees transition new ideas into businesses, services, products, etc. by assisting them with the investment and support they need to make it successful.
The initiative is the brainchild of Next 15, a digital communications group that owns seventeen marketing businesses that span across various industries and services, from digital content to market research to public affairs. Next 15 agencies represent everyone from Amazon to Facebook to Spotify, so they clearly have an incentive to keep their creative juices flowing. At last check, the conglomerate counts over 1600 employees across 39 offices within 15 countries, making it a prime candidate to foster internal innovation at scale.
Staying at the forefront of marketing technology innovation is the aim for many companies, and Project Warhol is one of the ways in which Next 15 plans to do so. Not only does Project Warhol allow Next 15 to keep abreast of the latest breakthroughs in martech, but it also allows them to foster internal innovation and perhaps even revolutionize an industry or two in the process. In many ways, it is also the ideal opportunity for first-time entrepreneurs, giving them the help they need to avoid common mistakes of start-ups, where almost over 50 percent of all small new businesses fail in the first four years.
“Like a lot of companies, we are challenged by how technology is changing our industry,” explains Tim Dyson, Next 15’s CEO. “Every industry is being disrupted in one shape or form. We wanted to look at how we might disrupt ourselves from within.” Sure, going to executives and getting their input is great, but Dyson knows there are better ideas living within the Next 15 group. Project Warhol was born out of that belief of fostering internal innovation by tapping into all the great ideas in the business, and you’ll be able to disrupt the existing business model.
An Idea Borne of Culture
Next 15 believes in the methodology prescribed by Jim Collins: put excellent people in the room, give them basic parameters, and watch what amazing work emerges from that potent combination. “The people do matter and the framework does matter…a lot of what we do is to give talented people the freedom to do what they need to be doing,” explains Dyson If Next 15 doesn’t do that, he believes, the organization will be crushing those individuals’ ambition and talent.
A company without Next 15’s philosophy and ethos simply wouldn’t be able foster internal innovation via a project like Project Warhol. The group strives to be a meritocracy, without literal or metaphorical corner offices. Dyson goes as far as describing Next 15 as having a “counterculture,” and you can only have something like Project Warhol if it’s a natural extension of the way you operate an organization. If Next 15 was a traditional hierarchical structure, Dyson doesn’t think a Project Warhol-like initiative would work. The junior people in the organization wouldn’t bother submitting concepts, and there’s a high chance the organization would lose out on the best ideas a result.
The Framework for Fostering Internal Innovation
Employees with innovative ideas are asked to submit a description of their concept, as well as how it works. Moreover, employees are asked to describe their idea’s viability, as well as why it deserves financial support from the organization. Once submitted, an investment panel that consists of Next 15 board members and agency representatives, reviews the submission as employees personally present their idea. If approved, the presented concept moves on to stage two. At that point, the project and employee are paired with a business mentor, with the goal to develop a comprehensive business plan that will help turn the idea from a concept to a truly viable innovation opportunity.
How, exactly, do you ensure that the right ideas win out? To select its judges, Next 15 management made sure not to go with the most senior people in the organization. Instead, they put together a diverse team chosen on the basis of actually being good at judging such a competition. The judging panel was defined not by their job titles, but by their skill and expertise.
To encourage participation, Next 15 went out with a net and cast widely for ideas, with the transparent expectation that the launch of Project Warhol was going to be a learning exercise for everyone involved. Dyson was looking for ideas that judges could really dive into and provide actionable feedback, so that contestants could get back to work on their ideas, and re-submit after a bit of fine-tuning. “The ability to refine the ideas is part of the process,” explains Dyson.
In many ways, the competition is just the beginning. Next 15 will be creating an open database so that employees can review previously submitted ideas, as well as the judges’ feedback provided on each, so they can get a sense of how the process works. “We want to remove as much of the fear [of submission] as possible,” says Dyson.
Project Warhol started as a beta test with some of Next 15’s employees. As a result of that initial success, Next 15 has decided to widen the scope by giving it a wider launch. The goal is not only to foster the innovative spirit of their employees, it’s also to generate a clear understanding of the market and what is out there. A beneficial situation where employees are provided with the needed resources to aid their new ideas, while giving Next 15 innovated marketing technology their agencies need. In effect, it’s a type of market research — getting your people to think about what should come next and asking them, “If you could launch something that would help our customers, what would it be?” It’s that commitment to foster internal innovation that is positioning Next 15 well for years to come.