A conversation with Leah Hacker, Producer of IWDR and Head of Research at Accomplice, on one of our favorite topics: innovation and company culture. We go through the audio that was left on the cutting room floor and discuss how a company innovates and how does an organizations culture influence innovation. Welcome to IWDR: The Mixtape Edition.
Welcome to It’s Worth Doing Right: the first mixtape episode. I’m your host, Olivia Hayes, product strategist and resident creative pragmatist. Even though our aired show is only about 20 minutes long, we typically record an hour of conversation with our guests. That leaves a lot of great insight on the cutting room floor, so we’ve decided to compile our favorite splices and share them with you.
Today, I’ll be having a conversation with someone who’s typically behind the scenes of our podcast: Leah Hacker, producer of this show, and head of research at Accomplice. This year at SXSW, Leah and I presented a talk called Exposed UX: What Your UX Exposes About Your Culture. After years of working with clients, Leah and I noticed that internal disconnect within an organization always shows up in the end user experience. Always, without exception. But often times, companies are unaware that their internal culture is manifested in their end product experience. Generally, companies believe their internal culture is entirely separate from other aspects of the organization. We can assure you that’s not the case. One particularly salient aspect of culture is how it influences the process of product innovation. And after reviewing the audio from the season, we found that our guests all had perspectives on this topic as well.
Olivia Hayes: Okay. So first question, does culture influence innovation?
Leah Hacker: Yes, absolutely. The shortest answer: absolutely. When we look at empirical evidence, research will tell us that culture actively encourages, or actively impedes, innovation within an organization. That boils down to people and how well they work together. How well leadership is communicating and driving the organization. And all of those kinds of interaction qualities that we see within a culture are going to influence the overall innovation of an organization. But we also know that culture has direct influence to how the organization relates to its users as well.
Olivia: Right. As we pointed out in our SXSW talk, culture pretty much influences everything in an organization. Even the parts and pieces that you don’t realize, or don’t think that it influences. So we talked about how culture influences user experience, which directly impacts your users. There’s a pretty direct correlation there.
Leah: When we talk about user experience, typically it’s in the context of that product being in the presence of the user. We never really take that through-line and extend it into the organization. But when we really stopped to think about it, the culture of an organization, the structure and those internal disconnects that we see within, absolutely influence that through-line of user experience, all the way from inside the organization to how your brand engages with the consumers and your target market.
Olivia: The mindset and the mentality that you have as an organization around the whole idea of innovation is extremely cultural.
Leah: When we start to think about it, it influences what the business chooses to focus on, and even broader than that, how a company responds to failure. Any time a company is looking to innovate and evolve, or pivot, there’s bound to be some missteps. It’s just the nature of growth. But how you have structured a culture within an organization can really support that growth – or it can stunt the process altogether.
Olivia: Right, and a lot of the folks that we talked to this season are strategic decision makers, so they had a lot of influence over the culture of their internal organizations and they had some thoughts on this topic actually.
(voice of Sarah Jones Simmer) I think that’s the value of the customer service operation that we’ve built, or customer engagement operation, is that these people are on the front lines, on your social media channels, on email, in-app. Through all the ways that we’re engaging directly with our users, as well as what we’re able to see on the big data side and how we can analyze that and think about how our algorithm can be improved over time. And that’s exciting to think about. I think that’s where the magic happens in terms of product and feature development, as well as a vision for what the future is. It’s understanding where our users are now and where they would be willing to go with us, and helping to create that change.
(voice of Tim Lyons) The misstep that organizations make is to focus on the programs that they’re running, that they believe are important to them, as channels of communication – and thus dark data collection. What you should be looking at is your entire environment. Your potential customer base, as well as your active customer base. And whether you’re resourced to interact in a two-way mechanism in those situations is largely irrelevant.
(voice of Luke Chatelain) It’s okay to pivot and iterate away from the things that maybe you spent a month or two or three months on, and you got to a point that was very well thought through and it ended up not quite being the thing you wanted – or not quite solving the problem for users when you tested it with them.
Olivia: What is innovation, and is there a standard process for it? So like all internal processes, there are definitely some benchmarks and some best practices. But every organization goes through the process of creating the process of innovating, in it. And it has so much to do with their internal culture and personalities that there can’t really be a standardization of it.
Leah: I totally agree. Everybody wants to know what the process for innovation is. And the short answer is there is none. There is no standard process. There are best practices, there are recommendations and tools that we can leverage. But the process is unique to the organization. Nonetheless, it is very much a process.
Olivia: I do think sometimes organizations have a tendency to confuse their end goal with innovating. So once they hit their end goal, they will be innovative, right? However, that end goal is not the thing that makes them innovative. The new product, the new release off the market? That’s not the thing that makes them innovative. It’s the process behind the thing that they create. It’s the exercise that they went through to be able to create that end thing out into the marketplace. And I think that’s a really important distinction that most organizations struggle with.
Leah: Absolutely. Innovation has become this buzzword that we hear a lot, and rarely do people sort of understand it as a practice or a process. They see it more as some place they’re trying to get to, or some peak they’re trying to achieve within the organization.
Olivia: This season, we interviewed a few folks who actually have some experience in implementing a process for innovation within organizations that didn’t have one before they came along. So let’s hear from them.
(voice of Whurley) Innovation isn’t an end goal for a company. It’s a continual process. It’s like being kind: like, “oh, I was kind once, I’m done.” Or that person did one kind thing – they were great! Innovation is like being a rockstar or a movie star. You get judged based on the success of your last product, your album, your movie, or show. And if you’re on a crappy series or you turned out a crappy album, guess what? Somebody else takes that spot. And so I think that’s the thing. Even if you look at the culture, even if you look at everything, the problem is that companies in my experience are still approaching innovation as this goal – we have this goal to be innovative. And once they do that, they’re already taking a foot on the wrong path. Because they’re already looking at it as this like, we do these steps and then click, we’re innovative! Double gun, two thumbs up, you know? And it’s not that. It’s constantly evaluating and reevaluating what you’re producing. Constantly looking at yourself.
(voice of Luke Chatelain) I think that you have to find what works best for you. You also have to find… how palatable is risk? I mean that’s the reality of this situation, right? When we talk about innovation and we talk about trying new things, it’s “what’s your appetite for risk?” Are you super risk-averse? And if so, then your “innovation” is going to be slower, and it’s going to be more deliberate, and probably not be on the cusp. But if you’re willing to take bigger risks, if you’re willing to try things and invest resources and things, have confidence some of them will fail. Then you can move faster. And I think every organization is different in that perspective.
Olivia: How do companies uncover new opportunities to innovate? And Leah, I think, being the head of research and dealing with so much data, you have a pretty distinct perspective on this.
Leah: I do. The answer to this question actually lies in the gaps that we have in our data. So we have lots of different methodologies that we can use. Everything from user research and user testing, sentiment analysis, behavior testing, all the way to predictive analytics and data science and quantitative methodology. And whenever an organization begins to look at what their opportunities to innovate are, the key is taking the disparate pieces of data and layering that: putting together one story across the holistic view of the organization. And the gaps that you find whenever you do that, whether gaps within the marketplace or gaps within your own organization, have a tendency to lend themselves toward informing new ways to innovate or create.
Olivia: Yeah, and I think, you know, one thing we pointed out in our SXSW talk is that that’s the reason that organizations hire a company like Accomplice – because you can go in and see and identify those gaps more easily. That’s why they’re called blind spots. Because internally, you missed them. It’s really helpful to have a third party with an objective perspective to help you uncover those gaps.
Leah: When we do that, we’re head-down pushing toward an end goal. We eat, sleep and breathe this dream of a company that we’re building, or that we’re looking to pivot or grow or evolve. Distance is necessary to enable seeing things holistically. And from a broader perspective to understand how your organization is positioned within the marketplace, partnering with an objective third party really allows organizations to be able to gain that distance needed to take some perspective on where they are now, and where they’re headed.
Olivia: And you know, a lot of our guests this season came from different avenues on this. So we got a very holistic overall perspective from them this season on this topic.
(voice of Christina Janzer) This is where the research team comes in, as we help paint a picture of people, challenges, and opportunities in order to help inform the decisions that we make. I think about research as a tool, but I also think it’s important not to use in isolation, and not to expect that it can solve every single problem. Maybe that’s a really obvious thing to say, but I think it’s important.
(voice of Jason Hreha) Today, you have all these companies that are paying very close attention to exactly what their users are doing. They’re doing tons of qualitative research throughout, out in the field. They’re talking to people, they’re serving people.
(voice of Jason Hreha) A lot of companies spend too much time looking at the numbers, and not enough time talking to people. And then there are other companies that are the exact opposite: where they spend all their time talking to people, being really qualitative, but they don’t really have a rigorous data analysis program. I think that it’s important to marry both.
(voice of Tim Lyons) The way that people want to vocalize now has changed markedly. Some people are comfortable in the Twitter space. Some people are comfortable writing, long form letters. Some people want to have a discussion, much like we are today. What is required is organizations having a method or a tool that allows you to take all of those things, and start to extract true themes from them – rather than shy away from all of that rich insight because you don’t know how to deal with it.
Olivia: Okay. So final question: how does an organization intentionally build a culture for innovation? And I love this question because there are as many ways to do this as there are, you know, different kinds of organizations. This is a really great question to tackle.
Leah: The key is the intentionality. Anytime an organization decides to build a culture for innovation, whether consciously or subconsciously, they’ve made a decision to be intentional. To be very strategic about the type of people that they’re hiring, the skillsets that they’re looking for, the goals that they’re pushing toward the markets they are wanting to disrupt. It is a decision to be intentional in the face of a marketplace that may be evolving, or rapidly changing.
We have a lot of data that shows diverse teams have better product and innovation outcomes. And I think that as humans, we’re predisposed to want to be around people who are like us. So having a team that does have diverse perspectives and diverse experiences is, exactly as you’re saying, an intentional endeavor. You have to be really strategic and intentional about it. Otherwise, we just fall back on our natural human instincts.
When we start to think about disruption in a marketplace, and differentiation, and we think about things like innovation, or building a culture that supports innovation? What we’re really saying is that we’re building a culture that is flexible to other thoughts and opinions. To diversity of thought and experience, or open-minded to the possibilities. We are resilient against failure. We are good at problem-solving. Building an innovative culture is about leveraging a lot of very functional and operational characteristics that maybe we don’t talk about as often, but require a very intentional mindset to build.
Olivia: Yeah. And we were lucky enough to season to have guests join us who had very intentionally created a culture to be able to be as innovative as possible. So we were able to get some of their thoughts and their experiences on how to do that.
(voice of Kate Heddleston) So the tech industry is looking at numbers of women and people of color waning, and wanting to add more women and people of color to fix the problem. But the problem is really that we have a pretty toxic environment around the quality and the tech industry, and I think that’s the problem that we need to solve. There’s a lot more that you need to learn if you want to manage all kinds of people. So one of the things that startups can do, for any role that they want in their company, is to recognize a skillset that they don’t have and hire for it. Put that person in a position where they can actually shape the startup. And instead, what startups do is they hire people who are very much the status quo, and then wonder why they built an engineering team that looks like everyone else’s.
(voice of Luke Chatelain) I think the hardest part for some traditional companies is thinking that you’re going to sit a bunch of people in a room, and they’re just going to turn out number one hits every day. The reality of the situation is when you’re working with unproven technology, you’re going to have things that don’t work – or just don’t quite end up the way that you hoped.
Olivia: What we can take away from all these perspectives on culture and innovation is that there is no “right way” for your organization to innovate – only the way that works best with your values, your business model, and your risk tolerance. But you should be proactive about trying to figure out what works for your internal teams, because the company that doesn’t innovate loses its credibility along with its competitive edge.
Thanks for joining us for the conversations we’ve had this season. If you’d like to read our SXSW talk in its complete form, or if you’re interested in having us come to your organization to present it, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back for season three of the podcast shortly, so make sure you’re subscribed to get those updates directly in your feed. And remember, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.