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Enter the Carp Tank: An inventive contest that makes innovation exciting

The leadership team at Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS) Atlanta, a nonsectarian social services agency, had a challenge on our hands: We wanted to create a culture of innovation. How do we inspire staff to be innovative and not afraid to fail at trying something new? And, at the same time, how do we break down silos and encourage staff members to work together?

In the end, we devised a way to drive people across our many departments to come together, develop ways to improve operations, showcase them for the leadership team, and have fun doing it: the Carp Tank Innovation Competition. Here’s how it happened, with lessons for your starting own idea-generating campaign.

1. Find inspiration.
First, the directors of each service area read author Ron Friedman’s The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, and were inspired by his insight; among other eye-opening topics, he devotes a chapter “what games can teach us about motivation.” As a step toward creating a more innovative workplace, we decided to create something like Shark Tank, ABC’s hit reality show competition where budding entrepreneurs get the chance to bring their business dreams to fruition. Through a Shark Tank-type contest, we realized we could encourage staff to come up with ideas to improve the agency, and award money to fund the projects deemed best.

2. Determine the rules of engagement.
We designed the Carp Tank contest for staff who have great ideas, aren’t afraid to fail, and love creating better ways of doing things. Though completely optional, we encouraged staff to work with colleagues in multiple service areas, come up with a great idea, and pitch it to a team of judges for the chance to make the program a reality. We asked for ideas that either improve on an existing program or process, or constitute a new initiative that adds value to the agency. For several months, JF&CS staff received email reminders, including articles about innovation (accompanied by memorable pictures of carp) to inspire them. In April, teams were chosen to create prototypes of their ideas.

The Carp Tank Innovation Competition event was held in early August. A panel of five volunteer judges – all entrepreneurs, business strategists, and innovators themselves – heard from seven teams. They were so impressed with the innovative ideas presented, they unexpectedly kicked in additional funding.

Winning Carp Tank presentations included:

  • A project for the Ben Massell Dental Clinic to improve an existing intake process with automated “kiosk” devices at the check-in counter, set up to communicate with the software used for appointments. Patients could check themselves in to their appointment, saving time for a reception team already juggling multiple tasks and patients. That team received $5,000 to fund two new check-in kiosks.
  • Therapeutic Support “Animal” Engagement to better meet the emotional and social needs of older adults and young clinical patients. This program uses a social robot called the “Joy for All Companion Pet” to foster long-term companionship. Extensive research has shown that the use of robot pets provides innumerable benefits to older adults and their caregivers, and for children dealing with anxiety. This team was given $2,000 to launch the project.
  • An Enhancing the Clinical Experience project to improve existing reception areas, and the client experience, across the JF&CS campus. These improvements include things like noise reduction, through soothing water art, quiet toys, sound absorbing wall art; and better communication, using computer kiosks for check-in and digital or standard bulletin board in reception areas. The team received $1,750 to launch that project.

3. Remember that intelligent failures are different from preventable ones.
As much as Carp Tank was an experiment in innovation, it also created a valuable mini-experience in risking failure. JF&CS leaders wanted people to take a stab at trying to innovate, and to understand the difference between innovation and a good idea. 

“I think the most important lesson is that successful innovation takes multiple attempts and continual refining – even in the face of failure,” said Faye Dresner, JF&CS Interim CEO and Chief Program Officer. “We are living in a world where people get a trophy just for participating. Innovation takes resilience and grit, and Carp Tank was an opportunity to see what that means. Our response should never be to just give up after the first attempt.”

Carp Tank, season two?

Agency-wide support for Carp Tank was overwhelming, and staff members are already clamoring to get more ideas in front of the judges. We consider it a success, and a stepping stone to continue inspiring JF&CS staffers to be innovative and to “feel comfortable failing.” Whether or not we make it a recurring event, it’s definitely served to spark a creative fire across the agency.

Loren Solomon is Chief Marketing Officer at Jewish Family & Community Services.

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