Building a culture of innovation starts with people, not technology

Building a culture of innovation is less about your technology and more about your talent. Focus your mind on growth and success will follow.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer
Person using technology on a screen
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The problem most businesses face today when it comes to growth is they are using conventional thinking. Focusing solely on technology or the latest breakthrough innovations, calling this 'digital transformation', and expecting it to somehow shift the trajectory of the business to greater success is not sufficient to drive sustainable business growth. 

A technology-centered approach doesn't work because you can no longer differentiate your business by commodities, goods, and services. To make an impact and drive positive results, you must shift your focus to the experience. And not just for customers or business partners, but also your employees.

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Everyone, whether it's your customers or your employees, wants an engaging experience. They want to be a part of what's happening now and what's coming next. And as Salesforce Growth and Innovation Evangelist and best-selling author Tiffani Bova says: "The fastest way to get your customers to love your brand is get your employees to love their job."

This call to action lays the groundwork for business leaders to build a culture of innovation in which the company, and the entire ecosystem, understands that better employee experience (EX) equals customer experience (CX). In my recent travels, I had the good fortune to discuss the why and how behind cultural innovation with Ingram Micro's EVP and Chief Digital Officer Sanjib Sahoo, who is in the midst of digitally transforming yet another industry at scale. Here is what he shared:

Changing to a digital mindset  

In order to successfully transform organizations successfully, we must continue to perform. Businesses must shift their strategic thinking toward how best to use digital transformation to serve EX and CX, keeping three things in mind:

  1. A culture of innovation thrives on the human spirit
  2. Striving for perfection at the beginning will lead to failure
  3. Communication is vital to creating a synergistic culture

The heart of any successful digital transformation is not technology. Tools and systems come and go. The heart of digital transformation is people -- employees and customers.

We hear a lot about artificial intelligence (AI) and the replacement of employees with technology. However, this hype needs to be kept in check. Yes, our jobs might change as a result of innovation. But humans and machines need to work together to create a continuous spirit of innovation and to keep business moving forward. Technology isn't going to replace people because transformation doesn't happen to your people. Transformation happens with your people.

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Speaking of people, don't encourage the pursuit of perfection. When they're engaged in the innovative spirit, some people will want to try for the perfect new product, service or refinement. This focus on perfection will stall growth and innovation. The best approach is to embrace the idea of being "imperfectly perfect". We must think big, but act small, to embrace iteration. Remember, Apple did not invent the phone. They made a better phone and changed the experience forever.

The key is taking iterative steps toward perfection, pivoting and moving to the next when a step doesn't pan out, so that we are not inhibited by defeat or derailed by the desire to get something done 100% right.

Another consideration for building a culture of innovation: making sure you are communicating with empathy. We must understand who we are and what we wanted to achieve when we started a company or a development project. One of the biggest missteps organizations make is putting innovation first and adoption second. You need to engage influencers in your organization to believe in the new goals of transformation and carry that message through the ecosystem to gain support. 

Focus on the business model

As Constellation Research Founder and Chairman Ray Wang says, businesses move to the cloud and think they've digitized. They take their focus off their business model, and away from monetization. Historically, the measurement of business success was heavily weighted on transactions, revenues. Today it's about valuation, subscriptions, bundling digital goods, and services to add value.  

Which ideas to execute on, to increase value, requires balancing the art of possible with the art of feasible. Digital technology opens up so many possibilities, but you have to run your business, and filter ideas through whether they enhance CX. As mentioned earlier, while businesses are transforming, they need to be simultaneously performing on behalf of customers. 

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Digital transformation is a never-ending journey. It transcends technology. In fact, many of the most innovative companies do not always use the most innovative technologies. What they do build from and on is people -- team members -- who embrace the spirit of digitization and know it's about experience first. Automation will follow. 

This article was co-authored by Sanjib Sahoo, executive vice president and global chief digital officer at Ingram Micro. 

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