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by Kathryn Pritzl
Kathryn Pritzl

8 min read

Encouraging An Innovative Workplace Culture

March 27, 2018

Kathryn Pritzl
by Kathryn Pritzl


Plenty of companies claim to be innovative, but walking the walk is a lot tougher than talking the talk. While businesses and industries are born from big ideas, maintaining the passion and entrepreneurial environment of the early days that fueled success can be a challenge.

Breakthrough came from a bold idea. Our founder looked at the way shippers were paying for the fuel that moved goods to market, saw the distortion, and realized there was a better way to provide accuracy and transparency—disrupting a decades old tradition in the transportation industry.

More than ten years after the company began, Breakthrough continues to bring new ideas to transportation energy management. The pursuit of meaningful innovation is part of who we are.

“Maintaining that entrepreneurial spirit was important to the founding leadership of this company,” says Heather Mueller, Vice President of Breakthrough Experience. “It’s an ongoing part of our culture and something we try to live out every day.”

Mueller has been closely involved with establishing and upholding the culture and values of Breakthrough. She explains that all of the core values prepare and encourage employees to be passionate in the pursuit of innovation. One in particular—an employee favorite that rings through the office regularly– is “We’ll figure it out.”

“This value lays the groundwork for an innovative mindset on matters both large and small,” Mueller says. “It could be tactical, such as solving a client problem in our day-to-day work. Or, it could be something huge, such as coming up with a new service offering that creates value in the marketplace.”

Continuous Improvement

Heather Mueller, Vice President of Breakthrough Experience

From the earliest days of Breakthrough, we decided to constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to bring innovative ideas to life. Our internal goal is to offer something new and advantageous to clients every 14 months.

“The 14-month metric ensures we’re continuously providing value to our clients,” says Mueller. “It also helps us stay on the cutting edge as we track new market segments with a comprehensive approach to transportation energy management and supply chain data.”

The amount of time it takes an idea to come to fruition varies. It could be a matter of months, or it could be several years in the making. The important thing is to always have the future of Breakthrough® and the industry on your mind.

When setting annual goals, steps are taken to protect what we call our “DNA.” Because innovation has propelled this company since its ideation, protecting the roots of who we are is a vital component.

“As companies grow, they can become laser-focused on managing revenue, margins and growth—they lose their commitment to innovation,” Mueller explains. “We want to make sure we don’t swing too far in any direction so we can always be flexible and receptive to new ideas.”

To cement our own commitment, we created a role, ensuring the pursuit of innovation is a daily occurrence in our offices. Peter Romenesko became Breakthrough's Vice President of Innovation in 2017.

Where Does Innovation Come From?

Encouraging An Innovative Workplace Culture

While overseeing the development of new solutions may be an explicit component of Romenesko’s job description, Mueller emphasizes the importance of free-flowing ideas among all players if you want to make innovation a part of your corporate culture.

“What’s great about how innovation comes to life at Breakthrough is that we truly believe innovative ideas can come from anywhere,” she says.

Opportunities for groundbreaking new projects can be identified by any team member, from any department, at any time. While those ideas may come during planned brainstorming sessions and meetings to solve specific problems, Mueller says some of the best concepts come from more informal settings where expertise, personality, and passion interplay with each other.

“Many of our employees are engaging with the community, spending time together outside of work, and staying late after company events to socialize,” Muller says. “Ideas come up then because we’re living out our core values. Everyone here is smart, passionate, and edgy and when we come together to exchange opinions, troubleshoot together, and discuss what we’re passionate about, great things come of it.”

Mueller adds it is equally effective to incorporate an external point of view and look for innovative ideas from outside the organization.

“We have people who are in MBA classrooms, attending industry events, or simply staying aware of what’s happening in the world,” Mueller says. “They bring ideas back to Breakthrough and we talk about how to apply it in our business model.”

Mueller tells one story of how someone from the finance department received a piece of direct mail that stood out to her. She took it to the marketing team and showed them how it brought a compelling story to life. The marketing team used it as inspiration and incorporated the idea in a meaningful way for Breakthrough’s clients.

It seems simple, but that kind of collaboration only happens when you encourage a culture that’s open to the belief that good ideas can come from anywhere.

The annual Mercury Group event is yet another manifestation of Breakthrough’s dedication to fostering this innovative culture. At Mercury Group, thought leaders and experts in transportation gather together each August to discuss challenges and look towards what the future holds for shippers. Mueller calls it “a rich environment for innovation” where ideas of all sizes get bounced around among industry professionals.

“Even though people attending Mercury Group have similar functional responsibilities in their organizations, everything plays out differently depending on your market segment and individual network intricacies,” says Mueller. “Being able to discuss comparable challenges with people who have unique perspectives creates a lot of opportunity to develop new solutions.”

Evaluation and Categorization of Innovation

Encouraging An Innovative Workplace Culture 

Breakthrough has a unique way of looking at different types of innovation that can also support your organization in planning for upcoming projects. We find it’s helpful to ask these questions when evaluating an idea:

  1. Does the technology needed to address the problem exist, and do we have access to it?
  2. Who will benefit from the solution and will anyone participate in a pilot program before the solution is ready for wider market adoption?
  3. When it’s ready for a larger market, will others find value in the solution?
  4. How will this innovation impact our clients’ partners and suppliers?

As with any innovation, you need to identify the early adopters and determine if the idea will spread to the early and late majorities. Asking what acceptance of an idea will look like and considering how to help manage change is key.

“V.P. of Innovation Peter Romenesko has a special process for evaluating innovation and figuring out how we prioritize and invest in specific projects,” Mueller explains.” Our model is made up of three levels.

The Breakthrough Innovation Model

Level 1 innovations are typically enhancements and improvements to existing services. For example, we try to update our exclusive Breakthrough Advisor publication annually. One year, our data science team worked to add a new data capability to the publication to make the exchange of information more comprehensive. Today, you can still see their heat maps that offer a more visual representation of the fuel market.

Level 2 innovations are those that add significant value for our clients. These innovations often involve taking core competencies we’ve already developed and turning them into something new and useful.

The Fuel Recovery program for shippers in Mexico is an ideal example. When Mexico deregulated its fuel market, Breakthrough® saw an opportunity to bring accuracy and fairness to a new market so that our clients could create a more comprehensive strategy.

“We put together a prototype system in a few months, and within a year we had several clients implementing the service,” says Mueller. “It was an application of our core system in a different geography, but we did have to build a separate system to account for all the nuances in the Mexican fuel market.”

Mueller explains that Level 1 innovations are happening regularly inside Breakthrough. Level 2 innovations represent the kinds of concepts we strive to bring to life every 14 months, and Level 3 takes things a step further.

“A Level 3 innovation approaches the point of potentially warranting its own new business opportunity,” she says. “These are the cutting-edge and potentially disruptive ideas that could revolutionize an industry.”

The Celebration of Innovation

Encouraging An Innovative Workplace Culture

No matter what level an innovation may fall into, at Breakthrough, we believe it’s important to recognize the time and effort that team members put into making it a reality.

Even small innovations are worth celebrating. After implementing the new heat maps in the Breakthrough Advisor publication, we threw a company-wide party.

“There were red, yellow, and green margaritas, and everyone in the company got a heat map of fuel prices from the day they started at the company,” says Mueller. “That’s just one of the ways we make sure we applaud innovations big and small.”

We’d love to celebrate the implementation of innovation with you and your team.

If you’re interested in how Breakthrough’s solutions could benefit you as a shipper, you can start by learning more about our groundbreaking Fuel Recovery program. Discover how it will help you stop overpaying for fuel and start managing energy with accuracy.

Then, if you’re ready, consider contacting us for a customized fuel savings analysis and see what transparency in your transportation budget could look like.

You can learn even more about our views on responding to innovation in our article about the importance of being a change navigator.

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