by Richard Pastore

What’s in your garage?

News Analysis
Mar 30, 20154 mins
CIOInnovationIT Leadership

Digital-ready C-Suites, or D-Suites, are launching innovation spaces as part of an effort to support digital transformation and disruptive ideas. Some big companies are already on board with the concept. In the spirit of tech innovation, Capital One Financial Services aptly calls its The Garage.

apple garage
Credit: Thinkstock

Innovation is not an end game. Although most companies have innovation as a goal, it is a means to transform. And transformation is the way to remain relevant and effective in an evolving business environment. These days, that environment is digital, and the disruption closing in on companies that fail to transform is a primary reason futurists predict mass extinction for 40 percent of the Fortune 500 within the next decade.

Digital-ready C-Suites—dubbed “D-Suites” by the CIO Executive Council, are investing time, money and people to jump-start and/or accelerate innovation as part of their transformation mandates. Many are forging dedicated idea “nests” to spawn, experiment and pilot their own disruptive ideas.

Inside Capital One’s Financial Services Division innovation space, The Garage

Toyota Financial Services built an award-winning Innovation Lab, managed by IT but used by the entire C-suite and their collaborative teams. Clothing retailer Chico’s innovation team leverages partnerships with universities to surface and test innovations. Capital One’s Financial Services Division launched its own version in November 2014. Its official name — The Garage — was inspired by the fact that many of the greatest technology companies started with a few dedicated employees in a literal garage. One of those legendary garage whiz kids, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, was on hand in Dallas to cut The Garage’s digital ribbon.

[ Related: Why companies opt to insource for IT innovation ]

“The whole concept of The Garage is that great companies have been formed by ideas, and some of the best ideas are born in places that are very unstructured, notes Sanjiv Yajnik, president of Capital One’s Financial Services Division. “Generally, the way in which companies set themselves up is to silo innovation efforts by particular function. But that type of structure is not as conducive to innovative thinking.” The Garage is a physical manifestation of a space without hierarchy, without silos, where creative people can envision possibilities and turn those visions into reality, Yajnik says.

[Related: This C-Suite Recognizes That Failure is Part of Innovation ]

At 9,000 square feet and growing, with cutting-edge platforms and tools, floor-to-ceiling white-board walls (sporting a “Woz was here” graffito that no one dares erase) , and progressive-design furnishings, The Garage makes for an impressive VIP walk-through and evening reception space. But it’s the 40 full-time dedicated innovators that populate it, and the personal commitment of top-level leaders,that best validate the seriousness of this endeavor for Capital One’s lending group.

Product managers, software engineers and designers collaborate in The Garage in a product pod structure, supported by development operations people and solutions architects. But it’s not their sandbox alone. The company rotates in agile teams that need to accelerate their programs. Their shared goal is to bring lending products and experiences into the future in a way that reflects how customers live.

“Today, customers move in and out of the digital world seamlessly—they don’t think about living in a digital or an analog world,” Yajnik says. “They are talking, texting, moving digitally and physically–looking for what technology can do for them.” The innovations generated in The Garage will help keep Capital One relevant for that customer.

To thrive, innovation spaces need the driving force — and active participation — of the boss. Yajnik is the official sponsor for all of the work that goes on in The Garage. Day-to-day responsibility for the facility resides with Chandra Dhandapani, CIO and digital transformation leader for Financial Services.

D-Suite executives recognize that their commitment to innovation platforms pays dividends beyond the breakthroughs birthed there. They are magnets for talent, which is increasingly more emotionally and intellectually attached to projects than to companies. “You attract the best people by giving them an environment where they can make something amazing,” Yajnik says. “Create vibrancy and break down hierarchy so that great talent wants to be there.”

To avoid The Garage becoming The Ivory Tower, the company is attempting to acquaint as many employees with it as possible. The facility has already hosted internal hackathons, design-thinking sessions and training, Dhandapani says. There’s an online virtual tour and ongoing updates via an internal blog. And yes, folks can drop in to let off steam and break up their day with foosball or air hockey. Digital scoring, of course.