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Utility 'Shark Tank' leads to success

A machine learning tool that saves engineers hundreds of hours a year is just one of the projects to come out of City West Water’s (CWW) ‘Shark Tank’ innovation initiative. 

Based on the long-running TV show, where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a panel of investors, the aim of CWW’s Shark Tank was to give employees a chance to solve problems in creative ways.

“Our people have fabulous ideas, [but] we found they were perhaps fearing putting these ideas forward,” said CWW Acting Customer First Program Leader Emily Thomas, who developed the program.

“We really needed an initiative that supported people to share their ideas and then gave them the resources and time to drive them forward.”

To kick off the event, employees pitched ideas to a panel of ‘sharks’, made up of CWW senior leaders. These leaders then joined the successful projects to help turn them into reality. 

This included the machine learning tool that combs through hundreds of hours of CCTV footage searching for cracks, tree roots and voids in the utility’s sewer system – a job engineers would usually have to do manually.

“Two of our winning participants developed the tool in a matter of weeks, and involved other people from across the business,” Thomas said.

“I don’t know the magic formula behind it … but we now have this tool that is saving us all this time and could potentially be used for other applications.”

A vital aspect of Shark Tank was getting involvement from others across the business to help ensure the innovations were solving genuine problems.

Thomas said the team used a design thinking process to do this, which she compared to playing a game of Scrabble and mixing up the letters until a word pops out.

“Design thinking is all about breaking down the crux of your problem by reframing it in multiple ways,” she said.

“You really try to understand your target audience. This means you are really solving their problem, instead of what we often find, which is that you’re trying to fix a problem that wasn’t there in the first place.”

Roadblocks to innovation

Thomas said the Shark Tank concept was a great way to start building a culture of innovation at CWW, rather than simply asking employees for ideas. This is because the concept helped solve three common barriers to innovation: a fear of failure; tunnel vision; and sticking with something when it makes more sense to quit and move onto a new idea. 

By creating a support network across the organisation through Shark Tank, the utility developed a space where employees felt comfortable sharing ideas – even if they didn’t work.

“We were able to assuage everyone’s fears about having a go and just trialling something,” Thomas said.

“We also found that to create new ideas you need to have new perspectives. So if you are faced with a business problem, it’s critical that you ask someone totally different.

“We found this to be incredibly fantastic with the Shark Tank because it brought together so many different people.”