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CIO100 2017 31-100#: John Ascroft, Jade Software

  • Name John Ascroft
  • Title Chief innovation officer
  • Company Jade Software
  • Commenced Role September, 1983
  • Reporting Line Managing Director and CEO, David Lindsay
  • Technology Function 10 IT staff in New Zealand
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    John Ascroft and his team at Jade Software first rolled out their Thinkubator programme to instil a culture of innovation and generate a pipeline of ideas and potential products for the company. The programme requires staff to work in teams and present their best ideas for possible commercial applications.

    Today, the Thinkubator is one of the services the software company provides to a growing number of clients.

    “Essentially, Jade has productised a unique method of building a culture of innovation where ideas are encouraged within an organisation,” says Ascroft.

    He explains the programme is designed to build and sustain a culture of innovation at every level of the organisation. It combines elements of hack days, more traditional team building activities, internal competition, and product development.

    The framework itself extends over eight weeks. “The Thinkubator poses a challenge and invites everyone in the company to form or join a team who then works on a response to that challenge. Company-wide voting finds a shortlist of finalists, and those teams then pitch to a panel of expert (mainly external) judges.

    “By using a central challenge, the programme can be structured to direct efforts as widely or narrowly as suits the organisation running it,” says Ascroft. Jade alternates between open challenges that encourage any idea, and challenges that focus ideation on solutions for its key markets.

    “By capturing and developing a wide variety of ideas, and by rewarding a combination of wide appeal (to colleagues) and expert endorsement (from the judges), the Thinkubator quickly inspires a large number of quality ideas. The team and competitive aspects of the programme build culture, and an in-built series of communications show how the business is dedicated to innovation both as part of the programme, and as business-as-usual.”

    The most recent iteration of the Thinkubator programme began with an invitation of any ideas from around the business without requiring a team to be attached. This allowed individuals to enter multiple ideas, widened the communication that led to teams forming, and reduced the barrier to entering an idea (by allowing people to suggest things without having to lead or join a team). Twice as many ideas came out of this version of the Thinkubator than any other.

    A number of new technology ideas have been born from the Thinkubator including a new Chatbot for the insurance sector, a digital way to stop problem gambling, a fun, automated way to make new connections across a business, using virtual reality to collaborate with colleagues, a new portal to alert consumers before power supply is cut, and many more.

    To manage ideas through their lifecycle, Jade has developed the Innovation Hub – an online repository to capture ideas. It’s where inspired individuals can suggest new ideas outside of a Thinkubator cycle. Operated as a SaaS model, the Innovation Hub allows staff to vote, comment, and actively participate in ideas. There have been over 150 entries into the Innovation Hub in its lifetime.

    Anyone at Jade can suggest a new project, an improvement to a product, new way of working, or anything else that they think will bring valuable change to the company. The structure of the Hub allows for the provision of information about competitors, strategic business alignment, and other commercial considerations.

    Ascroft leads an Innovation Team that meets regularly to assess the market viability on ideas and everyone in the company can track the progress of each idea as the best of them become projects or products.

    In one Thinkubator session Jade ran for a client, around half of the entries became funded projects within 10 months.

    Master Terminal, Jade’s flagship product, is the world’s leading terminal operating system for mixed-cargo ports. The Innovation Hub was repurposed and opened to members of the Master Terminal customer community and internal teams to encourage suggested changes or enhancements to the product. The product management team at Jade provide comments and feedback, and suggestions are tracked through to completion.

    Jade’s approach, championed by Ascroft, is to make innovation a part of the company’s regular way of working.

    Everyday processes at Jade now include Agile development, usually in two-week sprints and always with the ability to re-prioritise tasks (or add completely new ideas) within days rather than weeks. Creative, cross-functional teams aim to combine left-brain and right-brain thinkers, he states. For example systems architects and UX designers work together to solve real-world problems. DevOps ensures continuous deployment that lets new code go live quickly and with downtime measured in seconds rather than hours.

    Staff programmes other than the Thinkubator that encourage innovative thinking as BAU include:

    Innovation Showcases: Inventors like Glenn Martin (Martin Jetpacks) and successful free thinkers like Derek Handley (the B-Team) visit their campus.

    Learn@lunch: Jade invites experts in areas as varied as sports turf maintenance and Chinese medicine to share their thinking and introduce interesting elements of their discipline to inspire new ways of thinking.

    Beers & Ideas: This is an internal Friday afternoon event in which Jade staff give short presentations (Pecha Kucha style) on any topic they choose, work-related or not. “By encouraging cross-pollination of ideas, and of thinking styles, we make innovative thinking easier, and help it become a natural part of working at Jade,” says Ascroft.

    As well as this, Ascroft leads Jade’s Technology division, driving the direction and continual development of the JADE development language and database.

    His team is made up of a diverse group of technologists - men and women, of various ethnicities. Regular stand-ups, access to training, and mentoring from senior technologists all contribute to the collaborative success of the team, he says.

    He ensures Jade’s technology team has an active graduate programme. Their interns and graduates come from leading universities and high schools across New Zealand.

    “New ideas are part of our DNA,” he explains.

    “We are running projects to develop prototypes and demonstrations in technology areas that are new to the business and that we tend to implement. We also work closely with a number of tertiary institutes as well as Callaghan Innovation to build on the experience of others.”

    Divina Paredes

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