This article is the second in a series of three. Feel free to read them together, separately, or skip to the TL;DR summary at the end of each.
Innovation at scale
Digital disruption is real, and enterprises need to innovate to survive. Sure, but as most of us have quickly realized, innovating at scale in a line of business where your revenue is almost entirely based on your ability to run existing core services is a tough job.
On the one hand, building a digital department as a separate unit with a fail-fast culture may be a safe approach from a cost perspective, but from a value-perspective, it doesn’t have enough impact. As Microsoft realized almost twenty years ago when they decided on their Cloud strategy, impactful innovation happens at eye level. It needs to be in people’s hands in weeks rather than years.
On the other hand, transforming your entire organization into tribes blissfully kan-banning their way through hyper-automation and connected retail projects runs a high risk of just confusing everyone. No matter the excitement level of your Digital VP, there is truly no sadder sight than a group of blank-faced execs leaving their hard-earned experience in the dust, throwing buzzwords around, and trying to avoid standing out as the too black-hat legacy one of the bunch.
To be honest, tribes confuse me too. Historically, tribes are insulated at vast distances, rarely interacting. How can that be a recipe for innovating a business? But I digress, back on point.
The point is that business innovation is not new. Digital has added opportunities that can be highly disruptive and hard to grasp, but at its core, it is no different from Heinz putting ketchup in a glass-bottle more than a hundred years ago. Instead of his competitors’ gooey brown substance in a dark pot, he used a glass bottle, so the red color beneath became visible. He put a label on the neck to hide the brown surface it had before vacuum sealing and delivered a beautiful red sauce that changed the game. Great product, game-changing experience.
When Sony launched the WH-1000XM3’s, which combined smart controls, audiophile sound, and discreet looks, it didn’t matter that nobody could pronounce the name. It was the first headphones to be both good quality AND smart, and it brought them right to the forefront of that market. Great product, game-changing experience.
Have a business selling beverages from vans in New York? Don’t waste money on an app so people can find your vans. Why would they? Make a deal with a running app, consolidate their data with your route-planning, and put your vans where people are. Great product, game-changing experience.
And not just on the external ground-shaking level. Early in my career, an intranet search engine had somehow garnered the ire of top management. The search page took two seconds to start loading and would break if you pushed the button twice, which everybody did — a lot.
No amount of costly developers could remove those two seconds delay, but a smart front-end developer put a small box on the page that would pop up the moment you pushed the button. It just said “searching…”. After that, the search engine was “fixed” without having changed at all. Again, all about the experience.
What Heinz, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, and everyone else who has ever excelled at this has amply demonstrated, is that the product can be outstanding, but the company providing the more compelling experience will win. Digital gives us great opportunities for reinventing that experience, but if you’re not lucky enough to have one of those true digital visionaries at the helm, make do with what you have.
The best card you have for building digital innovation at scale is the hard-earned experience of your existing organization. So instead of confusing them or hiding from them, make them active participants, and your innovation will reach new levels.
The first part of building an innovative culture is to create awareness of the outside-in experience. I’m amazed at how few organizations ask employees to spend one day every year in their customers’ shoes. Not just externally, but internally as well. Have IT employees spend a day in HR, have HR spend a day in sales, have salespeople spend a day with a customer. Have them mix it up and come back to share their findings with their colleagues.
Even without digital being a factor, you’ll see innovative ideas pop-up across the board, priorities reshuffling towards better use of people’s time, and better cohesion across units.
As one sales-exec once told me after she realized we spent six weeks clearing a new customer before sending them any brand materials or products: “This is just silly.”
Taking the outside-in view is that uncomfortable but necessary step outside your comfort zone, where you face your own idiosyncrasies. It’s when you stop focusing on improving what you do, and start focusing on what needs to be done.
The second part of building innovation at scale is to create digital competence, not just in an isolated team, but as part of the corporate culture. Everybody doesn’t have to be an expert. Present what is possible. Present what others are doing. Present what we are doing. Show all the cool things happening out there. Inspire people. You may create unrealistic expectations here and there. Still, the foundation of the ideas coming in will be sounder and more impactful than anything six ex-digital bureau people with a whiteboard and lounge chairs can imagine. No matter how much time you give them.
Not that those guys don’t have a place in the process. They do. They are the ones that do the inspiration and will have to do the filtering and transform the ideas into realistic product proposals. They are the ones providing input for the technology roadmap and the overall innovation plan that looks years into the future for what capabilities needs to be built up to succeed long-term.
The point is that digital innovation at scale requires everyone. Not just digital people. Everyone. If you succeed in that, the impact will be on a completely different level.
TL;DR Innovation requires the ability to take the outside-in perspective. Promote that perspective by forcing people out of their comfort zones, and leverage it to increase the impact of your innovation.