VSP Global’s innovation lab (“The Shop”) was created in December, 2012, to innovate with external entrepreneurs and partners. When the company announced it would solicit ideas and involvement from employees, it got a surprising response.
“Nobody came forward,” said Jim McGrann, CEO of VSP Global. “People were excited by the project concepts, but knew they couldn’t succeed as after-hours hobby projects.”
McGrann and his management team had established the innovation lab to discover ways to draw on VSP’s expertise as America’s largest vision insurer, a leading maker of fashion eyewear, and lens researcher and services provider to corporate and medical customers.
“My background as an engineer meant I wanted to find a grand unified field theory,” he said. “We wanted to take advantage of the whole.” He also didn’t want to hire new people to pursue totally unproven experiments, noting that there are no “spare resources” in a business that runs efficiently.
“So we innovated our employee involvement.”
The Rotation Program, announced in late 2014, provides for 90-day, full-time employee stints in The Shop, and guarantees a return to their jobs thereafter. Participants are not required to be accountable for any impacts on their teams’ productivity during their absences.
“Initially, it wasn’t easy pulling people out of their jobs,” explained Jeff Ferreira-Pro, Idea Curator for The Shop. “Perhaps serendipitously, we ended up with individuals who had the greatest desire to innovate, and managers who were most willing to support it. We subsequently modeled the program on those attributes, and less on specific skills (which we can access in the organization once a project identifies a need).”
Those projects come from employee suggestions, via a crowdsourcing tool called Idea Bank, or The Shop’s own research, and then a design thinking approach is applied to structure the 90-day action plan. Each project is anchored by a one-page strategy document, headed with an explicit statement of target customer(s), and then sharply delineating project scope.
Thirty employees have already cycled through the 90-day program, working on eight different projects. One application, which uses iBeacon technology to overlay customer choice for eyeglasses on the wall of options provided in a given retail store, is now in operational prototype phase and being tested at the company’s Sacramento campus.
Another project, dubbed “Project Genesis,” embeds a sensor in a pair of eyeglass frames to enable activity and health monitoring for wearers. After a successful beta test with employees in 2015, an updated prototype and larger test group is slated for later this year.
“Some projects are science and technology based, while other are more market focused,” McGrann said.
“The key deliverable for every project is a final pitch to a business unit sponsor that includes the case for further development.”
“Not all of the projects get past that point,” Ferreira-Pro added. “Whether the project goes on or not, every employee gets a detailed review from their Shop mentor and coach, ideas for growth opportunities in their ‘day’ jobs, and membership in an alumni cohort that encourages innovation across our business.”
“I think our people involvement will prove to be the biggest innovation idea of all.”