Written by Ronald Poon

What is an innovation sprint?

An innovation sprint is a time-bound innovation competition (similar to a hackathon), in which teams collaborate intensively to ideate, prototype, and pitch unique solutions to real business challenges and problems.

It’s a structured process aimed at accelerating idea generation for new products and services. Innovation sprint competitions are usually run over 1 to 2 days, but can also be run over the course of a few weeks.

What are the key objectives of holding a sprint?

  1. Intentional Collaboration
  2. Targeted Idea Generation
  3. Rapid Prototyping
  4. Talent Retention and Employee Engagement
  5. Grow and Foster Innovation Culture

What does an innovation sprint at a large Fortune 500 company look like?

The best way to get a sense and feel of what an innovation sprint at a large Fortune 500 company looks like is to actually watch or attend one.

We hosted a large-scale innovation sprint competition (called Destination Digital) with the Bank of Montreal (BMO), last year. You can view this 2-minute recap video capturing all the fun and exciting parts of this extraordinary event here! (Prepare to be blown away into another galaxy!)

A Case Study into BMO – Destination Digital

Destination Digital was an innovation sprint held with BMO’s technology and operations (T&O) division to foster and drive innovation culture, boost employee engagement and morale, and promote intentional collaboration across the organization.

BMO’s T&O office contracted us, a hyper-specialized innovation consulting firm, to empower digital transformation across more than 50 cross-functional teams.

The hybrid event had over 250 participants, competing both in-person (across 3 physical locations - Toronto, Chicago and New York) and virtually. Participants had 30 hours to work on their prototypes and pitch their product innovation for 1 of 15 unique business challenges to senior corporate executives.

Each one of these challenges was sponsored by a senior leader within the bank and helped tackle a specific problem/opportunity that was aligned with the company’s overall innovation strategies.

How did BMO Destination Digital come about?

The idea for running an innovation sprint at BMO came about when Bradley Hadfield (the Co-Founder and Program Lead of Destination Digital) saw his wife Lara Skripitsky, CTO of McDonald's Canada participating in the McDonald’s Global Hackathon from home during the pandemic and became immediately intrigued. He saw the potential of bringing a similar program to BMO to energize employees and reinforce BMO's innovative culture.

What was the pain point that BMO was trying to solve?

The physical separation and distance caused by remote work during the pandemic deeply affected collaboration, team dynamics and people’s sense of belonging to the organization. Informal interactions (such as water cooler chats), spontaneous brainstorming sessions, and socials became scarce and limited.

The biggest pain point that leaders at BMO were trying to solve (coming out of the pandemic), was employee engagement and intentional cross-functional collaboration. Additionally, the innovation sprint presented a strong opportunity to crowdsource innovative ideas and products from employees, consequently building the foundations for a sustainable innovation pipeline.

A meaningful and exciting way to bring people together

Destination Digital helped resolve this problem by providing a meaningful and exciting way to bring people back closer together. For the majority of people involved with the event, this was their first in-person company event that they had attended in over two years (since March 2020).

The innovation sprint provided an opportunity for employees to work on problems that differ from their day job, learn new skills, and connect with people that they usually don’t get a chance to meet or work with.

Onova is an innovation consultancy that specializes in innovation strategy and product development

As a specialized innovation consulting firm, Onova has the unique capabilities to help develop business innovation strategies and product innovation developments. The consultancy also excels in incorporating cutting-edge designs when generating innovative new prototypes.

Onova was a natural fit for this problem for 4 main reasons:

  1. A proven track record working with the world's largest companies in running large scale (1,000+ attendee) innovation sprints and global hackathons.
  2. Expertise specifically in executing and delivering on complex hybrid programs, factoring in for all the nuances of engaging employees virtually and in-person, across as many as 40 countries simultaneously.
  3. Having the entire innovation sprint technology stack ready out of the box: innovation sprint management tooling, technology partner ecosystem for participant API/platform access, and vendor ecosystem for engagement activities.
  4. A long-term vision toward “intrapreneurship” and sustainable internal innovation at large companies. Success for Onova is working themselves out of a job and ensuring that the programs they start up with Fortune 500 companies can continue to succeed for decades to come, even after they're gone.
The Onova team putting on the final touches for Destination Digital after a dry-run rehearsal

Onova actively empowers digital transformation through company hackathons

Hosting a first-time hackathon can be difficult. When starting out, it’s hard to know whether you’ll get the right level of interest and enough participation in the event. Some internal corporate hackathons (such as the ones at Capital One and LinkedIn) only have a few dozen participants, while some attract hundreds or even thousands of attendees (such as the one at Microsoft).

Once there is a lot of interest and sign-up in the event, it can be hard to manage and keep track of all the groups of people (such as participants, mentors, judges and technology providers), the different workstreams and other various moving parts.

Recruiting innovation experts enable successful innovation sprints

Executing an event across multiple in-person locations, as well as virtually, can be extremely difficult to manage without proper systems and tools in place. Organizing 50+ hybrid teams into the right judging panel for their particular challenge stream can be an arduous and stressful task for first-time hackathon organizers — especially if teams decide to change the innovation challenge that they are working on in the final hours of the event (which we have seen happen numerous times before!).

Ensuring that all the particular elements of a hackathon (such as kickoff, submission, final round judging and scheduled games/wellness activities) go off without a hitch, can be a tall order. It can be challenging and demanding to organize an innovation competition of this magnitude and to put on a proper, professionally run and well-executed show.

If you want to learn more about what it takes to run a successful corporate hackathon, you should check out this playbook we wrote!

Destination Digital, BMO’s innovation sprint, solidified BMO as a digital-first bank

The reason why the BMO Hackathon (Destination Digital), was such a success, was because it united everyone under a shared common mission — of making BMO a digital first bank.

BMO’s “Digital First Strategy” is centered around speed, scale and the elimination of complexity. The Innovation Sprint was able to do just that: ideating over 50 new product ideas, at speed (in under 30 hours), without the usual confines and approval processes that accompany daily work at a large Fortune 500 company.

Destination Digital proved that employee engagement and business impact can go hand-in-hand — simultaneously pushing the needle forward for the business. It showed that productive and collaborative mission-oriented programs (like an innovation sprint), not only boost employee morale and talent retention — but also help create a long-lasting culture and greater ecosystem centered around innovation.

Thinking of running an innovation sprint or hackathon with your company?

We would love to help out! Jump on a discovery call with us (by emailing victor@onova.io or reaching out to Victor or Helen directly on LinkedIn), so that we can help you evaluate the scope, complexity and key objectives of the innovation sprint that you plan to run.

Interested in seeing how we can support you and your business in your innovation initiatives? Book an introductory call with Victor Li, Founder & CEO of Onova.
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