The challenge:

In these days of limited R&D capital, only sure bets from teams with the best track record tend to get funding from top management, leaving otherwise promising ideas—especially those from junior employees or employees from other areas of the company—to wither on the vine. Because innovation is the lifeblood of its work, BP’s Exploration & Production Technology division knew it needed a systematized approach to encourage transformational products and services. Its leaders wanted to ensure there would always be a channel through which creative people could bring forward ideas and suggestions without worrying about how they fit into a given department or project.

How CIMS made a difference:

Working with Steve Markham, a CIMS team leader and professor of management, innovation and entrepreneurship at the Poole College of Management at NC State, EPT set up an Innovation Board. Its mission: to nurture and promote sustainable growth in the innovative capacity and capability of EPT. Markham has had success setting up innovation boards at a number of companies.

Managed by a multidisciplinary board consisting of eight to a maximum of 13 members, the board meets every two weeks to consider new ideas submitted by employees via a user-friendly form on the company’s Intranet, as well as to get updates on projects already in the system. Board members serve for a time-limited period so that all disciplines have a chance to be represented and to keep the entire process fresh and exciting. Projects that are deemed promising can receive seed money—the average amount is about $150,000—to help the idea’s originator build a business case both within the company and sometimes externally, as well as to help secure intellectual property rights in some instances.

The results:

Since the Innovation Board’s inception in 2000, more than 40 employees have served on the Board, reviewing more than 700 ideas and awarding seed funding in excess of $20 million. Although many ideas never received support from the Board because they were ultimately deemed not feasible or commercial, approximately 65 have been turned into compelling business cases by BP employees, including 14 that have already added significant value to the company. Successful projects that were nurtured through the Innovation Board include Norman Sanderson’s technology that uses fiber-optic cables to detect pipeline leaks and David Charlesworth’s “ventilated trousers” technique to reduce drag associated with drilling in deep water when currents are adverse.

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