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Shell aspires to be the most competitive and innovative energy company. This requires staff to build capacity and take responsibility to enable an organizational culture that promotes creativity and innovation. Shell GameChanger sponsored a staff driven program called EMPOWER to build innovation capacity based on meditation practices.
Shell GameChanger invests in early stage, radical ideas in energy and provides coaching and incubation to make a proof of concept using fastest route to failure approach. Ideas can be submitted from internal Shell staff or external proponents and are screened based on a their disruptive potential.
GameChanger provides a 'safe place' for ideas to start by providing access to capital rapidly and easily to anyone with a bright idea. It also provides the organizational space for staff to work on ideas that they have a passion for even in the midst of busyness and also provides guidance to de risk the radical concepts through low-cost experimentation, partnering, and other strategies.
In early 2011, Shell CEO Peter Voser shared his vision, both internally and externally, for Shell to be the most innovative energy company to address the global energy challenges.
A few of us brainstormed on how we can play a role in achieving the CEO's vision. Since Shell has over 100,000 staff spread in over 100+ countries, we would need to change individual attitudes as well as the overall organizational culture that would support creativity and innovation.
We quickly realized the importance and need of enabling a culture change, including defining various roles in the innovation process that staff could choose to play (beyond idea generation only) and also ensuring that we should encourage our peers to rethink whether innovation should only be limited to technology.
Finally it was our hypothesis that if the culture change can be driven from 'bottom up' by empowered staff then it would be more effective and sustainable.
We interviewed many colleagues at work “what does innovation mean to you?” and most would mention companies or products, such as Apple and the iPad; new and groundbreaking technology. Ask “how are you innovative?” and the response ranged from “blank stares” to statements such as “I am an admin and that’s not my job”.
Over the course of a year, we engaged over 2000 staff across Shell and asked them "What are your personal blockers to being more creative and innovative" - the answers would usually revolve around the following top three blockers:
1. Lack of time, stress, lack of energy or lack of interest to think longer term
2. Fear of failure as well as memory of past incidences when there was a lack of organizational support for failure or taking risks
3. Judgements about oneself and others that prevented from leveraging on organizational diversity, experience and values.
These interviews told us was that the blockers to being innovative and creative were less a lack of 'technical or professional' skills and more a reflection of a 'lack of mental and social' skills. It has been well documented that it is this that often kills an innovation before it is given the justice to be experimented.
How does Shell ignite the innovation spark at every level of the company?
We collectively agreed that we could achieve the goal set by our visionary CEO if:
a. we could build our capacity to innovate and thereby unleash our own potential
b. we could identify, define and then share various roles in the innovation process (beyond 'idea generation') then staff who want to play a role could choose to play those roles and feel a part of the innovation culture.
I had a decade of the experience volunteering my time, teaching leadership programs using meditation practices for the non profit humanitarian NGO - the International Association for Human Values. I had designed curriculums before and set myself a challenge to design a innovation learning curriculum using meditation (mental silence) practices since 'silence is the mother of creativity'. We approached Shell GameChanger to sponsor this project for it had elements of novelty i.e. use of meditation to improve creativity and bottom up implementation as well as high potential value (benefits transcending to adjacent areas like improved wellbeing, improved safety, productivity, relationships, staff retention and attraction, etc).
We created the program EMPOWER - to build individual capacity and nourish innovation culture. It was strategically executed 'bottom up' in two steps:
Step 1: This step consisted of a one hour session (typically held over lunch time) called ‘Introduction to EMPOWER’. The session was organized by staff for other staff at a site. The session was facilitated by Shell staff and during the session participants discussed and identified their personal blockers to being more creative and innovative. Through interactive processes, they also learnt innovation friendly habits and the value of nurturing ‘inner resilience’ to sustain their creativity using tasters of meditation practice. These Introductory sessions were organized by peers for their colleagues at Shell offices in UAE, Brazil, Nigeria, India, Malaysia, NL, UK and USA. In less than two years, over 500 staff attended these introductory sessions. The sessions were organized during lunch hour to keep it in employee personal time.
Step 2: Participants that attended the Introduction to EMPOWER session in Step 1 were invited to attend the second step of EMPOWER – a deep dive in innovation learning and meditation practice. The full workshop was spread over 3 half days. Over 250 staff attended the full workshop in less than a year. The sessions were again organized by Shell staff and delivered in partnership and using meditation tools provided by IAHV.
The key behind the success of EMPOWER were the enthusiastic employees who believed in the mission and took responsibility to play a constructive role in building a culture for innovation, often going beyond the description of their day job and sometimes even without the explicit support of their line managers.
Like in any innovative idea, there were many challenges in designing and implementing the EMPOWER program:
- Getting the organization to understand, appreciate and then actively sponsor this bottom up effort to nourishing the innovation culture. We overcame this challenge by doing multiple staff interviews and building a convincing business case for change and then leveraging on the ‘few’ stakeholders in the organization who understood the value of ‘soft skills’ in the innovation process.
- Developing the 'Introduction to EMPOWER' module that would need to have the right balance of 'innovation learning content' (so participants find it worth their time to attend) as well as 'inspiration' (so attendees feel connected to the EMPOWER mission and support and participate in the full workshop). We overcame this challenge by doing pilot sessions and being flexible to listen to the feedback of attendees and modifying the content and delivery. In addition we leveraged very heavily on existing employee networks like the Women’s network to help us spread the word and give the program credibility.
- Getting the attendees especially those with a technical background to understand and appreciate the value of meditation (mental silence) in nourishing creativity and innovative thinking. This was overcome by providing online links, meditation CD's and literature about health and well being related impact so participants are inspired to give a fair trial to the practices and also to continue their practices at home so the benefits also percolate to the home front. We also created a Yammer group within Shell for participants to interact and share individual stories of change they had noticed and also share articles from recognized publications that would talk about the impact of meditation practices on well being and 'inner resilience'.
- Convincing the site leaders to allow the workshops to be held at their sites and getting permission for staff to attend.
- Most importantly, it was necessary to keep the bottom up momentum going and keep those who were volunteering their time to stay committed to our ‘collective’ goal of creating a positive, innovation friendly culture. This was addressed by active and compassionate listening and being very flexible in the content and execution of the program. We keenly appreciated everyone’s feedback, and went with the flow recognizing that there are always going to be conflicting priorities. At the same time, a core team maintained our self-belief and continued to be persistent. We operated very much like any entrepreneur would I think!
From a post workshop survey of ~200 participants from the full EMPOWER workshops:
- ~96% respondents highlight how they now have better understanding of their own blockers to innovation
- ~82% of respondents indicate they have better understanding of what role they can play in the innovation culture
- ~88% of respondents rate that workshop helps one to accept multiple perspectives – a key enabler for innovation
- “~90% would recommend the workshop to their colleagues”
- ~ 82% of respondents rated very highly that the training was a good use of their time
- ~ 82% of respondents said that their self-awareness had increased for substantial part of the day due to the meditation practices
In less than a year, the introductory sessions were attended by over 500 staff and close to 250 chose to attend the full workshops. This, for us, is testimonial that there was a ‘demand’ or need for such a training and EMPOWER was catering to that need.
Testimonials from EMPOWER participants speaks to the power and efficacy of the program:
- Gerard Penning, Executive VP HR Upstream International “(Empower is) very relevant to empowering people to be the best they can be, helping (them) connect to (the) inner self for rest and inspiration".
- Astrid Ravenhorst, Fuels Pricing Implementation Coordinator, Shell Downstream “The workshop truly connected a very diverse group of people, sharpened their minds, and made them aware of their opportunities to contribute to innovation. Besides this I also think it will have a positive spin off on HSSE as people are more alert and self-aware”.
- Jeroen Schiebaan, Upstream International VP HR “What stood out for me in the Dubai session was the need and ability to self manage and thereby keep options open, identify blockers, enhance relationships and contribute to building an environment where we are open to different ideas. De-stressing and de-cluttering one’s brain can help”.
Several senior technical research staff who attended the program appreciated our 'bottom up' efforts and have emailed us on how the workshops and especially the breathing and meditation techniques have helped them to rejuvenate and reinspire. Almost all participants report that EMPOWER has also helped in improving their health and well being, develop authenticity and collaborative leadership skills and will also help to create a safe and inclusive culture at work. In addition, the workshops brough together a wide mix of diverse staff of different age groups, experience levels, backgrounds and job descriptions, and it served as a nice way to get people to connect, break silos and start discussions around what ‘they’ could each do to enable a culture for innovation. There was also a healthy crsoss exchange of ideas and social bonds which would hopefully sprout in the months and years bring innovative ideas to fruition as well.
The following are some of the key lessons from our efforts:
There is a tremendous thrill tkick start 'bottom up' initiatives. If we seek to meet people from diverse backgrounds in our organization, then feel inspired and take responsibility to setup a grassroots initiatives in your own organization! It is a very powerful way to develop your social networks and leadership skills.
For bottom up initiatives to thrive, there needs to be a clear business case (which takes time and patience to build) as well as a senior executive sponsor/champion within the organization who believes in the mission and trusts those who will drive it. Finding the right champion will also take time and effort, but if you firmly believe in a cause that would help the organization, have persistence and humility but also faith and trust that the right sponsor/champion will come at the right time!
Organizations need to provide ‘space’ to incubate bottom up ideas and encourage staff to bring their whole self to work, because sometimes the skills that staff may possess in their ‘life’ outside work may be equally or even more valuable to the organizational needs than what the employee is hired for!!
I am most grateful to Russ Conser (Manager Shell GameChanger) and Sergio Kapusta (Shell Chief Scientist) for their inputs and for their belief and trust in me in developing and executing the EMPOWER program.
I am also very grateful to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Founder, International Association for Human Values) for his input, inspiration and guidance in developing the content of the EMPOWER program as well as the breathing and meditation tools that he has shared with the world.
Finally the program was a huge success thanks to the dedication and support of all the coordinators of the EMPOWER program at various Shell sites across the world who went beyond the mandate of their day job to support the program. Gyus you rock!
EMPOWER profiled by Wharton K@W: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=3063