How "Unsexy" Innovation Wins in the Digital Age

What does innovation look like? What really goes on within an organization on the fast track toward digital transformation? How can enterprises just beginning their journeys learn from those that have been successful in this same pursuit?

The answer isn’t simple. Digital transformation has never been one-size-fits-all, and there is no playbook or set path to follow. This is often what makes the process so daunting for business leaders and why people can be swept up in the most dramatic examples of digital change in the modern business world.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Google’s driverless cars, Amazon’s Alexa — the companies at the bleeding edge of innovation seem to set the bar dizzyingly high for those just beginning to implement change within their teams and organizations.

Yet what many executives often forget is how the very act of wanting to change is the first step in a long and rewarding journey. After all, fostering a mindset that not only welcomes change, but actively pursues it, is a critical element of transformational success (and business success in general).

It was this lesson that permeated June’s FWD summit. For many of the leaders who took the stage to share their own stories of transformation, the process (and even the products) of these campaigns weren’t nearly as dramatic as the headlines led us to expect.

More often than not, those who were most successful in championing innovation within their organizations did so without much pomp and circumstance at all. Instead, they took small but deliberate steps in the right direction.


Yellow Pads to iPads

Take it from Steve Fradkin, President of Wealth Management with Northern Trust, who anchored his perspective on change in an example many business leaders could instantly relate to.

“I have an office. I do not have a ping-pong table, floppy chairs, or a basketball court,” he said during his talk at FWD. “At Northern Trust, there is no free beer, nor are there free snacks, and I do not have multicolored Post-it notes all over the walls. But don’t be fooled or lulled. Innovation and transformation emanate from many quarters.”

Steve shifted focus away from the stereotypical characteristics of innovation and highlighted the less tangible ways in which Northern Trust has stepped confidently into the twenty-first century: “We went from yellow pads to iPads. We went from talking in the arcane lexicon of finance to communicating in the language of our clients, focusing on their aspirations. We went from declaring our value to clients to demonstrating it.”

What can be learned from Steve’s experience? Perhaps that innovation does not happen like a gust of wind, permeating every part of an organization. Instead, it’s often the smallest changes and improvements — inspired by a rather dramatic shift in mindset — that ultimately move the needle.

The same can also be said for persistence in pursuit of a shared mindset of change, especially because digital transformation isn’t a single destination but rather a continuous (and sometimes arduous) journey forward. For Mark Ardito, Divisional VP of Digital Delivery at HCSC, fostering organization-wide persistence comes down to finding opportunities to keep teams excited about change.

As part of a transformation effort three years in the making, Mark’s team of developers were newly operating on a continuous delivery model. In an effort to maintain motivation and celebrate wins in real time, Mark installed a hockey light that developers could activate every time they went into production. Though simple, this strategy achieved something important: to maintain forward momentum in the continuous journey toward change.

“On the course of your transformation, you have to be able to celebrate the milestones,” Mark shared at FWD. “These are things that are really important for an organization. You worked really hard to transform, to get [new] capabilities; celebrate them and celebrate them loud and over and over. Make people notice what you have just done. Remember, you’ve just gone from something idealistic and you need to become pragmatic at it.”


Growing Innovation

It’s this focus on people that Mark and many other FWD speakers lauded as a key element to digital transformation.

Consider the perspective of Julian Sanchez, director of the John Deere Technology Innovation Center, which he shared during his panel discussion with Brunswick President and CTO David Foulkes: “Every decision we make, whether we’re creating a mobile app or painting the tractor a different color or doing anything else to our vehicles or solutions, we do it to help [our customers’] plants grow better.”

With such a simple and clear principle guiding its transformational pursuit, it’s easy to see how the John Deere team has consistently delivered increasingly innovative solutions for their customers. Organizations that understand the importance of creating a winning culture are already light-years ahead of many organizations that put tactics before people — a strategy that overwhelmingly fails to inspire meaningful and lasting change.

But just like transformation, getting the culture equation right doesn’t always happen in one fell swoop. Instead, it’s often smaller-scale deployments of change that foster an organization-wide mindset of innovation.

It was this method that proved effective for James Watters, SVP of Strategy at Pivotal, and Robert Miles, head of technical architecture and development modernization at JPMorgan Chase. During their on-stage discussion at FWD, both James and Robert highlighted how empowering a small digital team to work in an entirely different way than their colleagues ultimately inspired other teams to follow suit.

“I think the thing that was so amazing about [that approach] was that people started to notice,” James noted, adding: “Other teams were then asking, ‘Hey, I like this experience as a business leader. Working with [that] team seems fun. Why are these other teams going so slow?’”

While Robert was quick to highlight how this bimodal approach, if used for too long, can “set up an unhealthy organizational tension” between teams, he acknowledged that the short-term effect was a new curiosity about how things can be done differently.

For organizations just beginning their campaigns, the lesson is clear: transformation does not always appear as we expect. True digital transformation does not require bean bag chairs or free beer or a total dismissal of traditional methods.

Instead, success is often rooted in shifting focus back to the employees who ultimately drive change within an organization — and making small but deliberate steps toward that organization’s digital future.

Missed my FWD talk? Watch it here