GameChanger is a simple, flexible, and real-time innovation process run by an autonomous team at Shell that invests in helping people develop their novel ideas from genesis to proof of concept. Ideas can and do come from anyone, anywhere at any time – in or outside the company. Successful projects graduate to an R&D program, a commercial license, or a new venture.
GameChanger has been in continuous existence within Shell since 1996. In a time of chronically low commodity prices, the nearly 100 year-old oil and gas supply business was facing a clear requirement to focus on current core business challenges in a still contracting industry. But visionary leadership recognized that increasing the focus of R&D on the near term alone might regrettably kill off the funnel of attractive long term options. The intent was to create some limited segmented ‘safe’ space where more novel ideas could still get started, thus creating a continuous stream of new options for future management investment. Explicitly, Shell leaders wanted a flow of ideas that were a) radically different, b) still relevant to the business, and c) that could come from anyone at any time.
GameChanger was triggered by a negative business environment driven by chronically low oil and gas prices. Excess cash flow available for R&D was very limited. Senior Shell Executives knew that it was necessary to put primary focus on the urgent problems of that day’s business. But they were also wise enough to realize that there was potential future regret in the heavy short-term focus in that many very novel and solutions of potential value later might never get started. Creating GameChanger was a management innovation that allowed them to convert an “either/or” dilemma into a “both/and” solution, by segmenting some limited space that would work by different rules, but within limited boundaries.
GameChanger was created as a new team within the parent E&P R&D division in 1996. A small separate team of people – hand-picked by management for their breadth and known innovation abilities – was entrusted with a modest but still significant budget (<10% of total R&D spend) to develop a novel innovation program.. As articulated by Gary Hamel in his popular “Bringing Silicon Valley Inside” HBR paper, Gamechanger was designed around the principle of ‘resource attraction’ to mimic the essential elements of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, but inside a company (e.g. multiple sources of funding, peer-review, emphasis on early experimentation).
This original team created the essential elements of the GameChanger process which, although details evolved slightly in the early years, remain in use today.
Ideas are submitted by anyone from anywhere at any time (1) via a web portal, and are also developed in focused-topical workshops. Submissions are kept very simple – a single free-form paragraph giving a rough description of the idea. Every idea’s submitting ‘Proponent’ is assigned a ‘Sponsor’ within the GameChanger team in weekly meetings. The Sponsor arranges for a ‘Screening Panel’ (2) wherein any two members of the Gamechanger team hear a brief summary of the idea from the ‘Proponent,’ and decide on the spot whether it was worth developing into a formal proposal. If needed, modest funds (<$25,000) can already be allocated by that two-person panel to do the work necessary to Mature a more robust investment proposal (3).
When ready, the investment proposal is pitched to an ‘Extended Panel’ (4), consisting of any three Gamechanger team members, plus at least three experts with deep relevant knowledge in the technology and business the idea was addressing. Experts are hand-picked by the Sponsor and are generally energized to have an opportunity to see and comment on ideas in their field of expertise at an early stage. The GameChanger ‘Sponsor’ orchestrates a simple process that creates room for questions to be asked before opinions or judgments can be made. In a key design attribute, the expert panelists are asked to render their recommendation, but the decision is left to the Gamechanger team members present, who after brief private deliberation, immediately take the decision whether to invest in the proposal or not using a consensus decision process. Proposals are frequently modified based on input from experts. The decision and the reasoning for it was recorded in summary minutes and delivered to the proponent promptly – usually within 24-48 hrs.
If approved, the project is allocated a tranched schedule of funding to Execute the approved proof-of-concept experimental program (5). The Extended Panel is reconvened at ‘Tollgates’ to take decision and modify plans for continued funding (6). An average project plan invests ~$500k over ~24 months in about 3 phases of work. Sponsors proactively work with Proponent teams to drive their projects through this plan, and adapt to changes and new opportunities along the way. The best projects ‘attract’ other people to help develop the opportunity by filling critical skill gaps along the road. The project is considered complete only if and when another team or department in Shell accepts a proposal to continue development of the proven concept (7).
Within 6 months, GameChanger was up and running and investing in novel ideas submitted by mostly scientific staff within the company. Early successes enabled by a simple fit-for-purpose process created quick credibility for the program. Staff liked GameChanger, as they had an outlet for creativity, and so did management, as they saw compelling and useful results. Early successes included new ways to explore for oil and gas using natural emissions from the earth, novel ways to process seismic images to make it much easier for humans to understand, and new ways to develop offshore gas fields much more cheaply. Within four years, the program was then replicated in other sectors of the company, which at the time had separate R&D divisions, and an additional integrating GameChanger program was set up at the corporate level to focus on the ‘between and beyond’ space.
This growth by replication occurred gradually. After success in EP, top management recommended GameChanger as a “best practice” innovation process. Thus other businesses (Chemicals, Gas & Power, Downstream-retail,…) started their flavor of the GameChanger process. In order to create space for ideas that did not fit in an existing Shell Business, the sector teams worked together and made a successful proposal to create a Group GameChanger program, where the membership was made of representatives from the sector business teams and governed under the corporation’s Chief Science Advisor. Group GameChanger then created the “Innovation Coalition” where all GameChanger teams and some other groups (Emerging Technology, Corporate Strategy, …) met periodically to exchange experiences, and worked on common issues (e.g. like the role of an innovator in Shell, crossing the “Valley of Death,” link with Shell Strategy via “domains” (see below), etc.).
16 years later, the essential features of GameChanger are largely the same, but some features have evolved. Notably in 2002, in an explicit repositioning of the Shell Technology Ventures group, the University liaisons team, and the GameChanger team, it was realized that GameChanger was essentially an angel investor in ideas regardless of whether the innovator worked for Shell or not. The team was enhanced by bringing some more commercial people from the venturing group into the GameChanger team both to connect to the wider entrepreneurial world, and help craft mutually attractive and fit-for-purpose deals. More emphasis was put on developing deeper relationships with universities at this time.
We established structured partnerships with eight strategic universities in the US and Europe – a program which was later graduated to a home as a part of the broader R&D capability within Shell. We began regular attendance and participation of external commercial ‘venture fairs’ as a means to tap the entrepreneurial channels.
To a large extent, this shift to a more open innovation model was a matter of making that which was already happening by accident a part of the intentional design. Rather than sit back and wait for ideas to be referred by sharp internal people who simply noticed something interesting outside, we became proactive. We began to work with the universities in standing strategic partnerships, assigned university relationship managers, made active visits to participate in networks, and invited outsiders to contribute to special topical ideation workshops. We also began to build better channels to emerging Small-to-Medium Enterprise (SME’s) via active collaboration with other venture capital firms, and participation in their networks at conferences and special events. We explicitly adopted a model of collaboration, not outsourcing, where our aim was to not just invest, but actively collaborate on emerging opportunities at both universities and SME’s by bringing our deep industry knowledge and blending it within the bounds of the project to make the pie bigger, not simply divide it up. The GameChanger process used for external ideas is essentially the same. Our only adaptations were: (a) the GameChanger team has to find an internal champion to be the active collaborator, (b) limit initial exchanges to non-confidential information, and c) creation of a pre-screening panel to quickly filter out unsolicited submittals of no potential relevance.
Although complicated by changing structures for Shell Technology Ventures over the years, the positioning between GameChanger and STV has remained mutually important and valuable over the years. Shell Technology Ventures drives innovation by developing and commercializing novel technology that is past the Proof of Concept (PoC) stage. GameChanger focus is on pre-PoC ideas. Thus, GameChanger is the ‘angel’ investor, and STV the next stage investor for that subset of ideas best developed and delivered by an independent venture company. These units collaborate wherein STV represenatatives take part in the GameChanger project panel approval and tollgate process as ‘experts.’ This facilitates later migration of successful GameChanger projects to STV. Of course this also means immature technologies spotted by STV can be taken-up by GameChanger for PoC development (after which venture investment may be warranted).
Over the next few years, we built up to a point where roughly 70% of our projects were conducted in collaboration with one or more parties outside the company walls. Roughly 50% of these projects involved universities, 30% small-to-medium sized companies, and about 20% firms in other industries. Collaboration with other firms in our own industry supply chain were rare as they usually got sufficient focus in other parts of Shell R&D.
Shortly thereafter (2003), GameChanger teams working across the business developed new tools and processes to enhance strategic alignment by identifying ‘domains’ for priority pursuit. Domains were defined as “a unifying and motivating vision of a significant value growth space for Shell that stimulates the creation of actionable ideas.” For example, “Upstream Bio” was an early domain that considered the potential opportunities associated with the supply side of a future biofuels business (the latter being already underway but still nascent). Domain concepts were developed by the GameChanger team using a social process involving the broader innovation community in Shell, and then proposed to management for prioritization and validation.
Domain development was triggered by the observation that GameChanger received a wide variety of great ideas that could lead to a larger divergence (of business focus) than desired. By articulating the (new) business and technical areas where radical innovation might have the biggest impact, GameChanger could “channel” the idea flow and also started to actively hunt for ideas to populate these domains. To avoid a too narrow focus on existing core business challenges, domains were established by bringing together a diverse group of internal (e.g. chief scientists, strategists, Business developers, young graduates, etc. and external people (though leaders,…), using a variety of lenses (or world views), such as converging trends, energy demand, sustainable development, urbanization etc. Candidate domains were developed at workshops and further articulated by the GameChanger team. Each year, the proposed set is presented for endorsement to senior leaders.
Domains thus created a new tool for connecting ‘bottoms up’ innovation from GameChanger with the ‘tops down’ strategic intent of the firm, and a shared understanding of the future uncertainties in the external environment. Domains became a useful tool to balance finding novel solutions to challenges already seen, whilst remaining open to opportunities not yet seen. The result was a sharpening of quality projects in the top of our portfolio and a better continuous culling of the bottom. More information about the linkage of domains and strategy may be found in the below linked 2011 article in the Journal of Long Range Planning (via Sciencedirect.com).
Later in 2010, in alignment with an aggregation of all R&D functions from the businesses into a single entity, all GameChanger teams were collapsed into a single team with full remit across the scope of the enterprise. This has been successful in enabling us to shape some important portfolio shifts (e.g. more alternative energy), but has come along with new challenges of calling upon more people to gain comfort in acting further outside the realm of their own personal experience. The GameChanger team now consists of one leader and 12 staff to cover the global opportunity portfolio for Shell.
The biggest challenges during this period were:
- Cultural differences between businesses - The scale of Downstream and Upstream is quite different, they have different time horizons, and different ways of working with internal stakeholders. We mitigated this by having a team that understands each of the businesses collectively and accepting that criteria should be interpreted relative to the Business norm.
- Scope & Scale - The GameChanger team has grown, and at the same time is necessarily more diverse in order to be able to smartly respond to any opportunities within the now larger shared scope. This has made quick informal decision making more difficult as any person may be called upon to judge an idea further from their own experience, but has gotten better with experience.
As we look to the future, GameChanger is in the process of innovating how we innovate ourselves. We believe strongly that the future belongs to open innovators, but this is much more than holding a few contests, or launching a few smart strategic partnerships. In an era of novel open innovation business models such as Kickstarter, X Prize, and Local Motors, we think there is a growing gap between the internal capacities of large organizations like Shell, and the rapidly evolving innovation frontiers of a flat and hyperconnected world. Developing new mechanisms that allow us to tap and scale ideas across that gap will be critical to our future success.
We don’t know what that will look like yet, but something we already believe in is what we see as a shift from ‘inside-out’ open innovation to ‘outside-in’ open innovation. We believe this will involve adapting GameChanger to enable novel things to get started in safe spaces, not only outside of the company, but outside of our direct control.
We see some key features of this space clearly, but do not yet know where it goes. For example, we see the need to cultivate and connect to communities and ‘scenes,’ not simply tap the large and amorphous ‘crowd.’ Scenes, which bring together a critical combination of people, infrastructure and diverse capabilities, foster innovation in ways that are unimaginable at the outset. However, GameChanger presently funds individuals and teams rather than scenes. As radical innovation is people-centric and, most particularly, interaction-centric, we need to move closer to how people are working together in practice, and think about how we can support scenes, which in turn enable and even accelerate the delivery projects.
We have had promising results from early experiments in engaging this new world. One example is our Ultralight Startups “Future Energy” program (link below). Observing that many external ‘venture fair’ programs focused on later stage ideas, one of our current team members worked with an existing external program focused on IT innovation to create a format focused on early stage future energy ideas. We conducted 2 events each in Boston and New York in 2012 with good success are expanding this program to more cities in 2013. In order to connect to a ‘scene’ where energy innovators already gather, we are conducting one special event in conjunction with the highly acclaimed US DOE ARPA-E annual conference this year. Response so far has been very positive. Recognizing that one of our biggest challenges is enabling GameChanger to deal with a very large volume of potential opportunities, as part of this event, we’ve also crafted a pilot mechanism allowing the community to vote for some of the ideas that will actually be heard in the pitch event. We are currently developing plans to also take this program entirely virtual with one completely online event this year.
Still, we have not yet fully developed the mechanisms we think it will take to succeed in this forthcoming world. The Ultralight Startups program has served as a good example how having a strong underlying GameChanger platform gives us heightened capacity to plug new mechanisms into this fundamental infrastructure. As we work to adapt GameChanger to the rapidly evolving external innovation environment, we hope to bring about the next generation of changes in innovation management, thus contributing some small part to helping Shell raise our overall innovation game.
The biggest challenge was coming up with the design itself, which was done well and quick. Part of the broader challenge was creating organizational buy in and ‘air cover’ for the concept. There was genius in the balance of the design that had compelling value propositions to both staff and management, that created enough positive space to get the program itself started. Staff were and are very happy to have a place where crazy ideas actually can be heard rather than being dismissed out of hand, and of course even happier when their ideas are successfully proven. Management appreciates having a place where they and their teams don’t have to be distracted by all the crazy ideas until the evidence exists to back them up. Additionally, GameChanger quickly became seen as a source of potential extra funding by department managers, which if secured, became a sort of external-to-team validation of their work with their own bosses.
Some other challenges have included:
- Recognition for proponents – Often, even if funded by GameChanger, proponents can be seen as heretics. In order to create a ‘halo’ that protects both them and their subsequent peers, we have an active program to promote successful GameChanger projects via internal corporate news and information channels. Spreading the ‘halo’ based on real success isn’t a complete antidote for skepticism, but it does increase the space for crazy ideas to have a chance to succeed.
- Deal structures for external projects – Whereas working with universities has become easier with standard contracts over time, working with SME’s remains a custom effort each time. Although we have found that careful listening and thoughtful interaction almost always creates a mutually agreeable deal structure, the process is generally time consuming. We are presently working on aggregating our collective knowledge to create some simple archetypes wherein we hope to be able to create mutually attractive deals both more efficiently and effectively.
- Interaction with other "new ideas" groups within Shell – Although we’ve now aggregated GameChanger itself into a single team and process, with an overall interest in innovation more broadly in the company, the number of interfaces to catch the full Shell innovation picture is rising rapidly. Management has recently created a new Innovation department within the R&D organization in to house existing mechanisms like GameChanger and Shell Technology Ventures, and then build around them a broader toolbox to help coordinate our collective action for the maximum effect of the enterprise.
- “Group think” by the Gamechanger team – Group think is avoided by diversity and flux. The balance is in creating a team of people who can see any opportunity from different perspectives, but also have an ability to listen and seek to understand each other. Flux is a balance between maintaining people who truly understand how revolutionary innovation works, whilst maintaining a constant flux of fresh perspectives. We generally aim to turnover about 25% of the team each year. To maintain the balanced diversity, we use the same basic collective process to choose new team members as we do to invest in projects.
In retrospect, part of the magic may have been in creating the ‘safe space’ for GameChanger to exist was the name itself. The word ‘GameChanger’ - at once, simple, clean, meaningful and intriguing - became a placeholder for the aspirations of enough people, such that those who might normally resist the change, were unable to impede or impair. Getting a ‘GameChanger’ idea funded became a symbol of status and accomplishment. Sitting in as an expert on a GameChanger panel was highly regarded. Having a GameChanger graduate in your ongoing project portfolio was a sign that you were an innovative manager. This has continued to create sufficient space that GameChanger remains alive and thriving – still delivering a steady stream of cool stuff (we think anyway).
The primary benefit of GameChanger is a steady stream of valuable options that management has the option to scale up later. The value of this benefit is not really known until long after an idea graduates from GameChanger and many others have put orders of magnitude more blood sweat and tears into it. We do audit from time-to-time what fraction of our core R&D program was derived from seeds starting in GameChanger which peaked at roughly 40% a few years ago. Although difficult to tell where optimal lies, our experience would be that in a healthy innovation ecosystem, 20% is likely a more ideal target as it indicates healthy evolutionary idea flow and some solid revolutionary ideas from other places, too.
But we believe that the corollary to ‘you get what you measure’ is ‘be careful what you measure as you just might get it.” So we are careful not to over emphasize the things that are most easily measurable. We record and track all of the typical things – number of ideas, decision success rates, and time in stage. These items are useful in driving process improvement. Most useful are probably yes/no decision rates at each stage (i.e. no is good), and time spent in stage – which has enabled us to focus on improving productivity by increasing speed. We have not yet found value in complicating it with more sophisticated measures.
But in the end, we believe the primary metric for success is the size of the smile on the face of our Sr. Leaders when we tell them about the 2-3 things we successfully delivered for them lately. Once the ghost has been spoken to, and an idea is understandable, a simple story is usually easily translatable into an unspoken value measure that surpasses all others that might be more easily put on a chart. Keep that going, and there will likely be a future for GameChanger. But if the smile ever recedes or is replaced by a frown, GameChanger will likely recede, too, falling on the ash heap of dead corporate innovation processes.
Charles Dickens once said, “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.” One of the key problems with crazy ideas is that absent information, people seem to feel compelled to judge an idea based on untested assumptions. In essence, GameChanger is a process that gives people permission and resources to ‘speak to the ghost.’ Rather than trying to judge an idea on insufficient information, GameChanger creates just enough space to generate real data, which then can drive informed decisions about whether further investment is warranted.
We believe the factors most responsible for our success are:
- Executive level support – Known to be crucial in any innovation program
- Dedicated funds – Funds are justified outside the team for the program, and inside the team for projects
- Dedicated people – Having people who are both of the right mentality, but also not distracted themselves by the demands of the current business is very important
- Autonomous authority – The ability to take decisions that might be provocative or controversial is key to starting truly novel ideas.
- Open but limited scope – Anything outside current practices but within the ‘strategic intent’ of the firm as an energy company.
- Open sources – being open to any idea from anyone anytime
Key learnings include:
- It’s the people, stupid – Revolutionary innovation is a social process. The passion of people is a key enabler, but can also be a blocker. Enable people, include people, talk to people, and good things happen. Treat ideas like inanimate objects and you have little chance of making something happen.
- Learn by doing – Although every once in a while an idea comes along that can be analyzed to success, most revolutionary ideas require actually doing something to create a learning opportunity. Only learning by doing floats up hidden assumptions where they can be addressed and assessed. Revolutionary innovation requires one to try many ideas, but also to quickly stop those that aren’t going to work.
- Be transparent, but fly below the radar – Potentially good ideas need to be widely shared and discussed to get better. Secrecy is a path to bad decisions and only invites suspicion. However, over-hyping an immature idea can invite more critics than one is prepared to handle if done too early. There is a delicate magic balance in being transparently open, without inviting too much attention too soon. Revolutionary innovation is intrinsically an exercise in ‘delayed gratification’ – hard work for the accolades that will come later.
- Create enough structure, but not too much – To this day, there was pure genius in the simplicity of the basic GameChanger panel process. Any less, and we would have wallowed in a world of possibilities without progress, and any more would have been stifling. Don’t design for every contingency – just get the basics right and then rely on the right people to make the rest happen.
Beyond that, it’s hard to overly generalize learnings. Big ideas start small, and grow on success. The magic of GameChanger came from the simple translation of the innovation principles from Silicon Valley into a particular corporate setting. These principles are likely common to any organization, but the manifestation in any particular organization is likely different. As the forces that impede innovation are similar no matter where you are, we believe similar programs can be established in any human organization. But it’s not likely to be a simple cookie-cutter program. Getting it right is probably a matter of considering the principles in light of local reality, then, as with any other innovation project, choosing a few simple valuable and doable things around which to get started. From there, we expect such programs would adapt to local demands and opportunities, and if successful, similarly establish themselves into the DNA of the parent organization.
Tim Warren – the visionary leader of Shell E&P R&D who saw the brilliance of a “both/and” solution. The GameChanger founding fathers – Ben van den Brule, Herb Yuan, Chris Mijnssen, Scott Jones, Andy Renwick, and Henk Haas - who found the genius balance in a simple fit-for-purpose process in the Exploration and Production business. Dave Austgen – who created the first GameChanger team in another business sector (Chemicals). Math Kohnen, Wim Schinkel and Leo Roodhart - who led the charge to scale up GameChanger to a cross-business Shell process. And all the current and former GameChanger team members since who have left indelible finger prints on our continued success. But mostly of all – all of the inspiring Proponents who had the courage to bring their crazy ideas forward, and the persistence to make them happen.