Activating Your Grassroots Network

A Zero Distance team in action (Image: Infosys)

“We started hoping to mine our 8,000+ current client projects for innovation,” said Ravi Kumar S., EVP & Chief Delivery Officer for Infosys, a leading tech consulting and IT services firm.

“After looking at 4 or 5, we got excited because we’d found numerous ways to improve client outcomes,” he continued.

“Also, we realized it would take a decade to review the rest of them.”

Instead, the company decided to unleash a grassroots effort to encourage, tee-up, and vet the best innovative ideas emerging at the points where its people interacted with their clients. The program, launched last April, was appropriately titled Zero Distance.

“Most ideation frameworks are anti-innovation,” Kumar explained. “So our initial phase was to provoke ideation and participation with a call to action, informed with just enough design principles to guide the process without dictating it.”

To prompt that internal peer momentum, it identified 300 or so influencers across the company who’d serve as initial evangelists for the first 5 weeks after the program was launched last April. The team, dubbed them “The Jedi,” helped encourage incremental, adjacent and cross-functional ideas that could be subsequently celebrated.

“Once we had that momentum, we added a social tech platform for posting and sharing the templates, which pushed the conversation further along,” Kumar said.

But that organic innovation hit a natural wall, insomuch that employees were limited by what they already knew what to look for and do. So Kumar’s team baked a design thinking training module into every new participant’s first session, with the intention of empowering him or her to search for problems instead of identifying solutions to existing problems. This had the not inconsequential side effect of reaching beyond the activities of program participants alone to touch their approach to everyday business.

After the Zero Distance project yielded 1,400 of actionable ideas, it was time to take the templates to real clients. But the organizational change wasn’t complete.

“One of the most common reactions we got was ‘is this possible?’”

Since many of the ideas were conceptual, by definition, and not necessarily visual, Infosys designated a team to build prototypes to help better demo the potential for innovations.

Now there are over 8,000 templates, more than 90% of the company’s 180,000 employees worldwide are involved, and more than 70% of Infosys’ clients have embraced or are considering one or more innovations; for instance, in one instance, Infosys maintained POS apps for a sports equipment retailer that reported significant time lost to locating price information on SKUs with missing tags. Its team came up with a visual tool for identifying products and prices at checkout.

In another case, the team at a payment card client innovated a machine learning solution to speed identification of customers’ photos and, in another, a team built a tool to capture qualitative feedback for a clothing company’s research on new products. Open source solutions were used in both instances.

“We encourage our people to innovate beyond the stated objectives and client engagement specs, and find new problems to solve,” Kumar said. “Zero Distance is about enabling and rewarding them for getting closer to their clients.”

“Now it’s been embraced so widely, we couldn’t stop the movement if we tried,” he added.