Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Innovating by Cultivating a Culture of Change

Ben Johnson, SVP, Digital Products
Innovation / Strategy

This blog was co-authored by Ben Johnson, VP Mobile Strategy; Jenn Dillon, Senior Director of Technology Operations; and Josh Wilson, VP of Mobile and Emerging Technology.

The only constant is change. 

It might have been an Ancient Greek philosopher who first spoke those words, but they are just as relevant today as they were back in 500 BCE. And if change is inevitable, we may as well embrace it. In fact, in many cases, you can turn change to your advantage. It’s all in how you prepare for it. 

At Rightpoint, we have intentionally created a culture that thrives on change. Assessing how candidates respond to change is a standard part of our interviewing process. We use an Agile approach to product development in part because it allows us to revisit and revise assumptions and strategies at multiple points in the process. Instead of being defined by numbers, we define our goals based on fulfilling a vision, which gives us flexibility in how we reach the next milestone. 

And we never punish people for failing. We understand that failing is part of the process, and that you can often learn more from mistakes than from successes. There’s no finger pointing at Rightpoint, only an enthusiasm for retrospective discussion to figure out what went wrong so we can harness that knowledge and move forward stronger and smarter than before.

Creating this kind of environment makes your organization more resilient and can give you a substantial competitive advantage when you need to pivot quickly without losing momentum. The key is to be intentional about certain strategic, operational, and cultural aspects of your organization. Defining the Right Kind of Goals

Every project starts with a goal. Before you can jump into solving problems, you need to know what you’re trying to do, where you’re going, and how you’ll know when you get there.

It’s important, however, to set the right kind of goal. Goals that are either too restrictive or proscriptive can put you in creative shackles. If your goal defines not only the outcome, but also the method of reaching that outcome, you could easily overlook a better solution. Instead of designing goals around a particular methodology or technology, you should think about creating experience-based goals that focus on user outcomes. By bringing the user into your thought process, you can more easily and accurately validate your assumptions about the project. 

The best goals inspire people. They aren’t just tactical or functional, they put your work in the context of a bigger story—a mission. To get to this kind of goal, you need to step back and think about how the work you’re doing will actually affect people’s lives. Don’t limit your thinking to what’s immediately in front of you. Think about the chain reaction that happens when you deliver on your goal. How does that contribute to that bigger vision?

These kinds of flexible, inspiring goals provide your team with a North Star by which to navigate the journey. They are a reliable point of reference that keeps everyone headed toward the right destination while simultaneously leaving plenty of room for flexibility in the route you take to get there. 

Writing Appropriate Documentation

Once you have defined your goal, the next step is to create the appropriate level of documentation to guide your team toward achieving that goal. The key word here is “appropriate.”

At Rightpoint, we try to emphasize effective communication over documentation for the sake of documentation. Our main objective is to ensure that everyone on the team understands not only what we’re doing, but also why we’re doing it. In product development as in life, the “why” is much more durable than the “what” or the “how.” You might change what you’re doing and how you’re doing it several times over the course of a project, but you should never waver on why you’re doing it. 

In general, the best documentation states what cannot change, but leaves plenty of room for experimentation, adaptation, and exploring alternative solutions. You need to set some basic boundaries and constraints, but you want to leave room within those parameters for your team to find the best creative solution.

That said, there are certain elements and stages that require more detailed requirements documentation. For instance, if you’re integrating with an API or building something on top of another platform, there isn’t much leeway for change so spending the time to create detailed and thorough documentation is the most effective way to handle it.

Taking an Agile Approach

Another tool in our change culture toolbox is our Agile approach to development. This fail-fast model is naturally designed to respond to change. It allows you to discover things along the way, and provides built-in time and space to address those changes and adapt to them. 

We follow a two-week sprint cadence that includes checkpoints at which we stop, reassess progress, learn from our mistakes, and replan based on all the new facts and input. 

The Agile model is all about effectiveness, not sticking to the original plan no matter what. If you uncover previously unknown information along the way, it only makes sense to shift course to adapt to the new reality. With Agile, you’re not just charging ahead so you can check things off your list. You’re actively reviewing the validity and viability of your plans at regular intervals so you can take full advantage of any new efficiencies. 

Creating a Culture of Change

Lastly, thriving in a world of constant change is impossible if the people on your team aren’t empowered to explore and act on alternative options. This can be challenging. It’s human nature—especially in competitive business environments—to avoid failure at any cost. Most people are scared to fail. But this is because they don’t understand that there’s no such thing as failure, only learning. Outcomes—good or bad—still move you forward.

It’s critical that company leaders emphasize that it’s okay to fail. The best way to do this is to lead by example. Be open and non judgemental about your own mistakes, and don’t punish or otherwise embarrass teammates for theirs. You never know where a “mistake” might lead you. Our teams have transformed mistakes into award-winning customer experiences and design strategies that made CEOs jump out of their seats with enthusiasm. 

Embracing Change to Drive Innovation

To thrive in today’s experience economy, organizations need to be able to adapt to change with flexibility and grace. This applies even if you don’t use Agile. It applies even if you’re not a technology company. It applies even if you’re only considering change from an internal, organizational perspective. No matter who you are or what kind of organization you’re in, if you embrace change, you’ll always come out better on the other side. 

If you’d like to learn more about how to fortify your team by giving them the tools to embrace change, I invite you to check out the Vimeo recording of the webinar that inspired this post. In the webinar, I and my colleagues share several stories about specific projects that were transformed by our ability to pivot, reimagine, and generally adapt on the fly. 

You can also read about some of the other topics in our series on innovation, including an overview of exactly what innovation means, the power of adjacency, and innovation through implicit design

And, as always, if you’d like to learn more about Rightpoint’s digital capabilities and how we can help you drive innovation in your world, we’re always here to talk.