retains IT staff with free time for innovation

Online price comparison website CIO James Lomas explains how the firm retains staff with free time for innovation

Taking the “guilt” out of free time for innovation helps to retain staff at says CIO James Lomas.

The online price comparison service allocates one day month for its product team to come up with new ideas.

Lomas leads a technology team of over 100 “CTMers” (Comparethemarketers), who look after the company’s infrastructure and applications that deal with hundreds of thousands of quotes every day.

Lomas said: "It’s similar to Google, allowing their employees to dedicate 5% of their time to innovation, but we take the guilt out of it. The problem with just telling people they can use their time for innovation is that they probably won’t, unless the time is actually set aside for them. Plus, you always get the same people coming up with ideas, as they are the ones who are actually taking the time to innovate.

“Some felt bad about taking time to themselves, almost like they were letting their colleagues down. We take the guilt off the table and provide a day per month for all of them to have ideas and build stuff without feeling guilty about letting other work slip.”

Lomas said ideas can range from changes to architecture to improving ways of claiming a meerkat: “The day is not just for ideas but to exploit and explore where that idea can go right through to deployment. We don’t just want great ideas; we want customers to be using them.”

For instance, half of all visits to the site are from customers using mobile devices, “so it is all about speed to market with these ideas", said Lomas. 

"It’s about creating an environment where it’s OK to fail. You also need to learn the responsibility behind your decisions too, so it’s not OK to keep on failing. You need to learn from your mistakes.” 

Lomas joined the site in July 2011 as IT director, previously having been the head of IT for Bennetts Insurance (also part of the BGL Group). He has also held senior technology roles at Severn Trent Water and Legal & General.

He said the teams are made up of 8-10 people which he calls a “two-pizza” team, but stressed how time for innovation and creativity still needs structure to ensure the time is used productively.

Lomas said: “We use a Business Model Canvas – this runs you through what makes a good idea and how to sketch out the business model. It enables you to think what a customer needs and why they need it. It enables junior members of the team to feel like they are making a difference.”

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