Some of the best business ideas were dreamt up in a garage--Hewlett-Packard and Harley Davidson, Disney and Mattel, Amazon and Google.
So when IT leaders at $18 billion Progressive Insurance wanted to foster that kind of inspiration among the company's 26,000 employees, they launched the Business Innovation Garage (BIG). A resource that's available to help employees test innovative ideas, the garage is staffed by a manager and a rotating group of "mechanics"--IT analysts, system engineers and developers who don blue shirts like those worn in auto repair shops.
At the recent CIO 100 event, CIO Ray Voelker described the award-winning garage as "a secure think tank to try things out, walled off from production systems so we can take more risk." And he said it encourages employees to work with IT--instead of going around IT.
The garage is one of several IT-enabled "innovation services" at Progressive; others include the Edison program for crowdsourcing employee ideas, and the Action Factory, a series of one-day sessions to accelerate discussions of business problems.
Designed to foster rapid experimentation, BIG has over 145 experiments completed or in progress. It began as an online collaboration platform with mechanics working in a small cubicle space, but it now has its own room at one of Progressive's main campuses in Cleveland, next door to the coffee shop. "The public location allows people to stop in and ask questions, learn about BIG if they're unfamiliar and see mechanics and other employees collaborate on experiments in real time," says Erin Baginski, a Progressive IT director and the leader of the BIG initiative.
Any employee, from a call center agent to the CEO, can submit an experiment. "Sometimes the ideas end up being rerouted to the team that can provide a fast answer, but most are true experiments that take research and testing to learn more," Baginski says. Mechanics lead the experiments, working closely with the employees who proposed them to identify business partners to include in the effort and conduct intake meetings to get a better idea of intended results. The goal is to "pair up the right people to solve those problems through small, collaborative, cross-functional teams," Baginski explains.
One recent experiment explored how the company could leverage wearable devices to improve the customer experience. In an Accenture survey of 200 insurance executives, 63 percent of the respondents said they believe wearables will be adopted broadly by the insurance industry within two years.
"All [BIG] experiments are successful as long as we learned something and took action. That could mean changing directions on an idea, putting an idea on the shelf, or further advancing the idea into a formal project," says Baginski.
The garage also provides a new way for employees to get help from IT. "We're already seeing evidence of better communication between the business and IT due to BIG," she says.
Executive Editor Mitch Betts contributed to this article.