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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Microgaming Idea Factory: Innovation in Practice within a Leading Online Gaming Software Company

The Microgaming Idea Factory: Innovation in Practice within a Leading Online Gaming Software Company

Key Takeaways

  • Innovation imposed by a central function often doesn’t work.
  • Crowd-sourcing innovation from staff is a better method, but ideas need to be nurtured and filtered.
  • A formal structure or process can offer focus for people’s creativity, helping them find the time and energy to step out of the ‘busy week’.
  • The ‘soft’ benefits as people build networks and develop new relationships may be just as valuable as the ideas themselves.
  • If innovation is something your organisation claims to value, then put real resource behind it: a budget, senior staff, people’s time, a process or structure.  

Microgaming were ‘there at the start’, developing the world’s first online casino in 1994 – a point at which there were only an estimated 623 websites worldwide (which in itself offers a fascinating insight into human nature – a year before Amazon decided to sell books, people were playing games online for money). From that starting point where ‘a few people were sitting around a wobbly table’ as the company’s CFO John Coleman somewhat wistfully described it, the company has boomed, drawing on a talent pool of around 2,500 people worldwide, and is a leading supplier of online gaming software.  

Like any other growing company, Microgaming has run up against many of the problems of scale and the challenges of success – from how to build collaborative teams across the business to ensure enough people are thinking about the medium and long term, as well as delivering on annual revenue targets or the day-to-day issues of their work. Most companies talk glibly about ‘unleashing potential’ or ‘harnessing people’s creativity’ (and other phrases designed to keep consultants in business), but few go beyond hoping this will happen as part of people’s work or offering a forum for suggestions – which rarely get followed up.

The Idea Factory was Microgaming’s solution – an innovation process that would empower staff to submit ideas, work up business cases, gain senior sponsors, utilise budget for prototyping and then see the finally selected ideas adopted and implemented. It was the brainchild of Lydia Barbara, at the time working on the company’s consulting division. ‘I’m always coming up with ideas,’ grinned Lydia, ‘and I knew I couldn’t be the only one. Microgaming is a very open company, but without a formal process for evaluating innovation, you still end up being dependent on what your personal network and line manager think of an idea. I wanted to find a way past that, so I pitched the idea to a few people and started building support. The Microgaming Idea Factory grew from that.’

The Idea Factory Process

Round 1

Ideas: Submissions for ideas are invited – they can be submitted over the website or by email using a simple business case template. The ideas are then anonymised and sent to the Selection Committee.

Vote: The Selection Committee, people drawn from across the business, reviews the ideas and vote yes or no. Once an idea receives 10 yes votes, it can move on to the next round.

Round 2

Pitch: People have two weeks to prepare a bigger business case and a presentation to support it, which they must pitch to the Selection Committee.

Sponsor: Their aim is to persuade one Selection Committee member to feel strongly enough about the idea that they are prepared to act as its Sponsor – giving up their own time to provide support and mentoring.

Round 3

Time to start building! The idea owners and Sponsors have budget to do whatever it takes within three months to find out if the idea is a good one. As they build a bigger picture and collect evidence, they may need to tweak their ideas – or perhaps even abandon them.

Round 4

The final pitch is to the Decision Panel, a small group of senior members of the company, who decide which ideas will get built.

The Idea Factory in 2016

Crowd-Sourcing Innovation

‘The problem’, John Coleman reflected, ‘is that with scale, many functions become centralised for efficiency. But you can’t centralise innovation. Or at least you shouldn’t. The people doing the work often know best how to improve it, while people working in completely different areas often have excellent ideas, but are too nervous or not given the opportunity to suggest them. Basically crowd-sourced innovation is superior.’

‘Most ideas are not good at conception,’ Lydia Barbara added. ‘But good ideas grow out of not such good ones. So what matters is to enable a free flow of many ideas, and then have an efficient way to nurture, refine and finally evaluate them. The business gets mature innovation ideas that are rooted in the people who will end up delivering them, and the staff themselves know that their abilities are recognised and valued.’

The Compliance Team – improving process

At first, I could hardly believe what the team were telling me. ‘New operators post all their documents to you for your due diligence process?’ I asked incredulously. ‘By actual post? To the Isle of Man? Doesn’t that really annoy them?’

Kim Broad, Hannah Kennish, Jamie Delaney and Jeriel Bacani pulled a variety of faces, from an eye roll to a rueful laugh. ‘We’d spoken about improving the process for a while and ways in which we could take action’ Hannah said, ‘but we needed to take the time out to call a halt and see how we could set things up differently.  We knew a complete re-design of the process would require support from multiple teams involved and significant development resource. When the Idea Factory was announced, it was the perfect opportunity for us to get this proposal in front of decision makers within the company.’

Frustrated by a system that they all had painful first-hand experience in and that was time- consuming and manual, the team submitted an idea to set up an online portal where operators could upload scans of key documents, see how the due diligence and onboarding process was progressing and download any documentation that they needed. They could show how much faster the process would be, how many elements could be automated and the onboarding be made less laborious both for the internal team and the customer – all without compromising the compliance standards which Microgaming takes so seriously.

The idea instantly won the support of the Selection Committee, and the team gained two Sponsors to help them flesh out the idea and gain the resources they needed. ‘What really came out of the process,’ commented Kim, ‘was how many others this idea benefited. Previously we’d seen this as helping speed things up for us and for operators and customers, but suddenly it was clear that the Finance team would benefit, that the Account Management and Sales teams were crying out for this, and even the IT guys could now connect up several systems in a way that made them happier.’

As the team showed me the mock-ups, prototypes and beta system, I could see how their idea had flourished into a broader process that connected other departments to their initial problem. They spoke enthusiastically about the process itself – the opportunity to present to the Executive team, to gain specific coaching, and most importantly, their satisfaction in seeing their solution resolve a problem that they’d struggled with for so long.

Personal Development - the people value of innovation

For Jeriel, the young Compliance Officer on the team, the Idea Factory made a more personal difference as well. The team, Sponsors and Selection Committee had all been impressed by the presentation and infographics she’d developed. She’d also been part of another team suggesting an internal charity scratch card which could be used to build internal awareness of new games, raise money for the company’s ‘Play it Forward’ CSR scheme and just have some fun.

Jeriel was mocking up scratch cards and developing her design and user experience (UX) skills as she went. As a new graduate with a degree in political science and working in the Compliance department, Jeriel knew she wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to showcase or use her talent for design. Many companies say they want ‘generalists’, but as anyone who’s worked in an organisation will know, the reality is that specialists can be quite territorial about defending their area of expertise – whether that’s development, design, copywriting or finance. Roles tend to be rigid, and those who try to work beyond their original remit raise more objections than appreciation. 

Impressed with what Jeriel could do, the Marketing team asked her to help out with company presentations for the big industry gaming event – ICE Totally Gaming. Now, Jeriel is joining the team permanently to work as a PR co-ordinator, in a role where she’ll be combining her skills in operations, copywriting and design.

‘What’s so amazing,’ commented Jeriel, ‘is that within a couple of months of joining, I was presenting to the Board; working on projects completely outside my official ‘department’ and co-creating ideas with people I would never have worked with normally. I can’t think of many places where I’d have been offered the chance to design critical marketing assets. Microgaming is a really special place to work.’

Outside in – democratising design

One of the core areas of innovation in Microgaming is game design – the slots products and hundreds of games that it launches on casino sites around the world. If there is one area where people are likely to be precious – territorial even – it is this. Yet, one of the winning ideas was a slot game suggested by Anna McChesney, PR Manager, and Rob Mercer, who works in the Enterprise Solutions team. They were, in some ways, an unlikely pair – two people whose jobs would never normally have brought them together – and neither of whom laid claim to expertise in game mechanics or design. Despite that, they combined forces last June to pitch for a new slot game based around emojis.

‘It was great how one of our game development teams embraced the idea,’ explains Anna. ‘Our Sponsor from Business Intelligence, along with his team, helped suggest and predict the features that were most likely to be successful in the game based on the typical emoji user. We presented this to the Decision Panel and that’s what really sold the idea.’

The game is set to go live in the summer. ‘I’ve seen some game assets appear in our asset management system, I just can’t wait to start the marketing work on the slot!’

Few of the original ideas, apart from Rob and Anna’s, were product focused. The fact that this one won has proved encouraging to others, gathering more concepts in the next round and sending a clear message that crowd-sourced innovation is welcomed in all areas.

Start simple – then grow

While it might have been tempting to take a break after the intensity of running the first Idea Factory, Lydia Barbara was determined to push forward with a second round – this time including offices in Malta and Singapore.

‘The most important thing about the Idea Factory,’ said Lydia, ‘was to get something up and running quickly. I wanted people to see that ideas could and would be implemented as real action. But of course, Microgaming is a global organisation, and I also wanted to include teams and offices in South Africa, Malta and elsewhere. I wasn’t trying to create the sole monopoly on innovation though! Derivco, the software development house in South Africa were thinking about a Dragon’s Den-style innovation project themselves. When they heard about what we’d been doing, they decided that rather than reinventing the process themselves, they could just roll out the Idea Factory. So our next Idea Factory – the third – will be truly pan-company.’

It is clear that the Idea Factory will need to evolve its processes as it goes global. I spoke to Loraine Schoevers, the Director of Prima Networks, powered by Microgaming, who was on the Selection Committee for the latest round and is now sponsoring an idea regarding a new game, remotely from the office in Malta. She found connecting with the rest of the Selection Committee, who were based in the Isle of Man at Microgaming’s HQ, more of a struggle than she’d have liked, as was mentoring remotely. Nonetheless, she, as well as all the others I spoke to, were determined to make the Idea Factory work globally – and in doing so help forge closer connections outside of day-to-day working relationships.

Ideas are called for submission for the first truly global Microgaming Idea Factory on 3 July 2017 and the team will be experimenting with how to make remote pitching work for those with ideas and the Selection Committee. Already the project has helped emphasise the importance of other communication innovations the company has been making, such as reducing email and swapping to shared instant message tools. They’re also planning new, permanently connected video screens in the offices, a newly-designed intranet and improved video connections.

Beyond Ideas – benefits that last

Again and again those I interviewed spoke of the network that their participation in the Idea Factory had helped to build. Yet rather than focusing on the opportunities to meet senior management, most talked about working with people from different areas of the business – and building further on those relationships for deeper collaboration.

It was interesting that those entering the Idea Factory had deliberately chosen to look for people they would not normally have worked with. Kat Cox-Cooper, the Quickfire Product Strategy Manager and a member of the Selection Committee, chose to sponsor ideas that were either from different areas or from people she had only met in passing – building breadth into her network.  ‘It’s a connection that’s lasted,’ she smiled. ‘I now go and have coffee regularly with those I sponsored in the last round. Then there’s the network I’ve built among the others on the Selection Committee – I wasn’t expecting to build such close relationships, but that’s been really valuable.’

Kat Cox-Cooper mentioned the impact on staff morale: ‘Just knowing that there’s a forum for people to be really listened to is important. I think the Idea Factory has helped create a broader shift as well – changing the attitude from no to yes. Yes to exploring and evaluating an idea to find out what lies behind it – even if the idea itself needs work. And of course that makes people feel happier and more valued.’

Challenging the team – where next?

As well as the evolution to support a global Idea Factory to facilitate communication, there were a few queries about frequency. Current plans are to run the Idea Factory twice a year, but the extra workload for those co-ordinating and working on the Selection Committee is fairly heavy. Everyone interviewed admitted that the Idea Factory had involved more work than they had anticipated. Angela van den Berg, as a Partner of the law firm partnered with Microgaming, acknowledged that the time she had put in had been an investment of her own personal time. ‘I don’t mind it, though,’ she stressed. ‘I’ve enjoyed it and I feel it’s the right thing to do – but I will be sponsoring only one idea this next time round, not two!’

A permanent “Deputy” to coordinate the newly-global Idea Factory has been appointed and some of the initial processes will be automated. However, as the Idea Factory beds in, there are a couple of obvious challenges, which I pointed out in some of the interviews.

The first is that – for any company – innovation is supposed to be part of our core purpose. If we hive it off into a separate process, however smooth and well-run that is, we risk taking change and the need to continually improve our processes out of our normal work. Making the Idea Factory something that happens in an employee’s spare time as a voluntary exercise exacerbates the problem.

It’s an argument that Lydia and John have clearly thought about. ‘People are getting extra time to work on their ideas during normal work hours’, Lydia points out. ‘It’s just not being agreed formally. I can see this being something we’ll change, but I think we probably need to feel the pain first – and then adapt. I wanted the Idea Factory to be something even the sceptics could say yes to – promising not to disturb anyone’s daily work was a part of that. Now its value has been proven, it’ll be much easier to carve out space from people’s day-to-day responsibilities.’

To John Coleman, I put it that if the company truly values innovation, then it’s vital that the activities shouldn’t be squeezed around other imperatives, but should be prioritised as part of the work. ‘We do need to give space to this,’ John agreed. ‘I can’t be clearer than giving some anecdotal evidence – I’m devoting more and more of my time to the project because among all the many conflicting demands on me, this is one of the most valuable. When and how we formalise that is something we haven’t done yet.’

The second concern is about how people whose ideas don’t get through the rounds feel. For those who have put huge amounts of work in, the process risks being disappointing – perhaps even discouraging future attempts to innovate. The more competition and rivalry there is – either for prestige or the coveted prize (£1,000 for travel) – the more this might be the case.

I asked to interview those who submitted ideas which got to Round 4 but were eventually declined. All of them were positive about the overall experience – grateful for the support, the opportunity to put their case and be listened to respectfully, and determined either to resubmit an amended version on another occasion or eager to discuss a new idea they planned to submit in a future Idea Factory.

There was one idea in particular, which was finally rejected – not without some heart-searching – at the final round.

Barbara Jones is the Executive Assistant to the Managing Partner of the law firm partnered with Microgaming. As an aside, it’s revealing of an open culture that Microgaming invited, not only its own staff, but also close partners to submit ideas.  Although her own children were grown-up, Barbara had spoken to enough people in the company to know that childcare was a major concern for those coming back to work after having a child. In particular, she thought about the near 50 families who had relocated to the island from South Africa to create Derivco Isle of Man and so didn’t have family support on the island. She wanted to suggest a crèche in or near the office.

‘It was absolutely terrifying,’ Barbara said frankly. ‘I had to present to senior management, build a business case, which I’ve never done. And it was really hard work – I spent my lunchtimes visiting potential buildings, interviewing providers and learning about regulations. But I felt it ought to be done, so I couldn’t wait for someone else to do it.’

In the end, the business decided that directly running a childcare centre was too high a risk for them, but began implementing one of Barbara’s back-up ideas immediately – allowing staff to opt out of some benefits and receive the money to put towards childcare instead. ‘Of course I’m disappointed,’ admitted Barbara, ‘but I’m proud of myself too. And if I had a different idea I’d go through the Idea Factory again – although I’d still be terrified of presenting!’

John Coleman acknowledged the extent of the work people had put in. ‘We spent more time afterwards feeding back to those whose ideas were rejected than with those whose ideas won. We wanted to explain our thinking and decision-making completely openly because we felt that showed the most respect. We also talked about other possible options to deal with the problem they’d identified.’

‘In the end,’ John went on, ‘we are sending a very clear message that innovation is everyone’s responsibility. The Idea Factory is just a vehicle for that, but it’s a useful one. It offers a timetable that provides a sense of purpose and urgency. It offers structured support and help – and then it provides clarity on when new work will flow into the roadmap.

‘Microgaming has always been about innovation in our software and products. I think what the Idea Factory helps emphasise is that we can all be innovative – in finance, in system support, in compliance and that we can all feed in to one another’s areas. I expect that’s been challenging for some people, but the pace of change across the industry will only accelerate. We cannot meet those challenges unless we are all innovators.’

About the Interviewee

Helen Walton is the co-founder and CCO of Gamevy – an i-gaming software company, which has no bosses and a radical approach to how it is run. She has worked in marketing for many years, launching brands for Unilever, Boots, PZ Cussons and others. She has written on many subjects, especially Agile as the writer on the VFQ series, which now forms the BCS Agile Practitioner qualification. She is also the co-founder of Spark the Change.


Spark the Change is a global movement dedicated to a radical approach to empowering people and building happier workplaces. It runs events in London, Toronto, Melbourne, Montreal, Amsterdam and Paris. The Spark Award celebrates organisations who are experimenting with ways of working differently or who epitomise a radical approach to working practices in their culture. Previous winners include GCHQ and Places for People. This year, the Spark Award is sponsored by HotelBeds. For more details of the next event, contact or tweet us @sparkthechange.

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