Becoming an Innovative, Agile Company: Q&A with the Guest Editors of Monitor’s Innovation Issue
by Vol. 48 No. 1 2021
Guest editors Deb Reuben and Denis Stypulkoski sat down with Rita Garwood for a fireside chat to launch Monitor’s very first innovation issue. This summary Q&A reviews key ideas for business leaders seeking to enhance agility, embrace disruption and avoid stagnation.
What does innovation mean to you? What makes a company truly innovative?
Deborah Reuben: Innovation is all about new processes, new products, new approaches, new methods, new ways of doing things that really improve the human experience in some way and also have a benefit to your business. We don’t want to innovate just for the sake of innovation. It has to be driven by some major purpose. To me, it’s about stretching beyond [the] status quo and being willing to do something new. And sometimes that’s even a leap forward rather than just an incremental improvement.
Denis Stypulkoski: For a company to truly be innovative, it has to figure out how to continuously harness new ideas. It has to build a culture that captures ideas — from employees, from business partners and business associates — evaluates those ideas and then tests, tries and fails through those ideas, because we never know where that next transformational innovation will come from. But it all starts with a constant flow of ideas. To me, innovation is about creating that continuous process as a company so that you can potentially be a disruptor.
How does a company begin the process of helping teams adopt a mindset and culture of innovation and agility?
Reuben: Expose leaders and their teams to new ideas and new possibilities that are outside of the norm. What’s the latest thing going on with artificial intelligence? What is internet of things? What’s virtual reality and why should we care about this? If you’re just staying within the four walls of your business and you never venture out, you’re missing out on so many of those possibilities.
When you understand where technology is going and intentionally keep up on trends, you can imagine new scenarios, new customer behaviors and new opportunities for products and processes. That’s how you shake a team out of status quo thinking. Think big, start small and learn fast.
Stypulkoski: Adopt the product mindset. That as a company, we are producing a collection of digital products for our customers to consume. Therefore, I need a product management approach to gather, harness and evaluate ideas, and then prioritize and begin to develop and deliver those ideas so that I’ve got this innovation pipeline flowing.
When we have digital product management, product owners, product developers and product engineers are all part of a singular team that thinks collectively about where the world is, where the future is going and how to chart the course for their business. And that’s the mindset shift. That’s the difference between the traditional approach and the innovative approach.
Reuben: The product mindset can take you a long way. In the past, we built our businesses with these silos of expertise. And now, as we’re thinking about how technology fits in, it’s not about throwing these issues over the wall to the IT folks in the back room. IT is interwoven into everything that we do now. Anybody who’s struggling with that is probably still trying to separate IT and business.
Bringing that bigger picture view into it and helping all aspects of the organization to get on board with this new way of thinking will go a long way in your innovation initiatives. When you can get rid of the friction that pops up when you’ve got different silos, expectations and agendas bumping against each other, it helps people speak the same language and move together in the same direction.
What does it mean to be an agile business?
Reuben: Business agility is about building a capability within your organization that allows you to be responsive to change. Agility is the name of the game if you want to survive and even thrive in fast changing conditions, and the pace of change is only accelerating. Building a capability so that you can be agile will allow you to pivot, flex and respond in a continually changing business environment.
Stypulkoski: To be an agile business, it comes back to the mindset of product management, which is, I’ve got a suite of products that I’m delivering. I’m constantly evolving capabilities. I commit to creating small capabilities to enhance those products. And I commit to continuous delivery of capabilities to evolve those products. We don’t generate large contracts and project documents that are six months to deliver. Everything is done in small bites.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve heard a lot about disruption. What can companies do to position themselves for inevitable disruption?
Reuben: You have to be willing to disrupt yourself, be curious and experiment. Staying aware of what’s going on is also really important — watching the signals and the signs of impending disruption and making sure that you’re in a state of readiness. Building that foundation for agility is vital so that in the future you can avoid or quickly respond to disruption.
If you really want to be disruptive — and disrupt yourself — you have to get honest about where your business model might be vulnerable, and then really dig in and figure out what you could do about that if you just took the limits off your thinking.
The first step is always, “Let’s look holistically at the current state from many different lenses. What’s going on now and where do you really want to be?”
Stypulkoski: When I think about disruption and innovation, another word that comes to mind is stagnation. And I think about an industry and I think about stagnation on the one side, and I think about brilliant innovation on the other side. And then you think about disruptions that occur in the industry that make those who have stagnated become obsolete or extinct. And those disruptions generate brilliant innovations or transformational ideas. But that positive impact can displace market competitors and leaders if they cannot respond rapidly to innovations that come in from outside the industry, or that come at us from inside the industry.
Companies that have been in business for many years might be in that position of stagnation, and starting fresh is not something that they can do. What’s the most important first step these companies can take to stay relevant and get on a path toward innovation in 2021?
Reuben: Avoiding stagnation starts with each one of us individually. There’s a lot that we can do as professionals and to take the limits off of our teams — to encourage bold thinking and exploration. Crank up your curiosity around what’s possible because it’s in these times of great crisis that some of the greatest innovations are created. You can come up with some really amazing ideas in the midst of tight constraints.
Stypulkoski: The most important thing is to go back to the principles of agility and product management. This is not a big swing project. This is a thoughtful envisioning of the collection of digital products that the company sees itself bringing to market, an assessment of the capabilities that exist, and a thoughtful roadmap and plan for evolving from current state to future state through whichever approach makes sense for that business. And it’s through this continuous collection of little steps that you scale the mountain, because otherwise you look at it and go, “How do I get over it?” And you can’t if you think of it as one big step.
What final thought do you want readers to take away from this?
Reuben: I hear from people all the time, “I don’t have time for that. I don’t have time to do that.” And you’re never going to have time. You just have to make time. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to step back and think about: Where do you want to go? What’s possible now? And just start laying down some ideas.
Stypulkoski: Success as an innovative, agile company begins with collective leadership at the senior levels of the organization. And that leadership team needs to embrace their entrepreneurial roots. They need to reimagine their business for the next generation. They need to put in place the constructs to capture ideas that become potential innovations. It’s a cultural transformation.
When employees in the organization begin to see their ideas come to life, it generates more ideas, more enthusiasm and more progress. If a leadership team is looking to hire talent to help carry themselves into their new future, singularly, hire curious leaders. Because you need to be a culture of continuous learning, and that starts with curiosity, and that’s where new ideas come from, and that’s how you spawn innovation. So, I think it all ends with curiosity.
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