Defense contractor: IT must embrace radical transparency and culture change

A senior executive from the Fortune 500 company, L3 Technologies, explains how to use data to change corporate culture and innovate. Be inspired by her practical advice!
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Although innovation and being responsive to customers is the lifeblood of every technology organization, maintaining the spark of innovation inside a large company is hard.

To gain insight into how to drive change and innovation at a large company, I spoke with a senior executive at L3 Technologies, which is the eighth largest defense contractor in the United States. The company is doing something, to which facts attest:

  • Number 276 of the Fortune 500, with revenue over $11 billion and 38,000 employees
  • Stock price increasing since 1998
  • Top 50 employer on the Women Engineer list
  • Recognized as a top supporter of historically black college and university (HBCU) engineering programs
  • Shortlisted for HR Distinction award

Heidi Wood is L3 Technologies' Senior Vice President for Strategy and Technology. She describes her role this way:

"My team pushes for growth, both organic as well as inorganic growth. I have the privilege of being the agent that pushes for L3 to grow going into the future. Technology is always changing, and we always want to be on the cutting edge, and so we need to peer over into the abyss of what's possible and what is conceivable into what might be inconceivable now."


Her comments are interesting, so we created a video for CXOTalk, which features conversations on innovation and transformation with business and technology leaders.

Watch our entire conversation above and read the edited comments that follow.

What is your philosophy of innovation and transformation?

Heidi Wood: The one thing that's permanent in life is change. Once you have a company culture that embraces it, challenges it, and says we can never rest on our laurels, we can never stick with status quo -- we always have to be improving, challenge ourselves to be better, and also thinking about what's the new thing that's going to obsolete. Whatever our customers are relying on or that we think we're good at, we have to be ahead of everybody.

You have to embrace innovation. You have to make that part of your corporate culture. You have to encourage risk-taking because that's a necessary, and frequently not enough spoken about, an element of innovation, which is the willingness to take risks, the willingness to be bold, put yourself out there, and be courageous.

One of the things that I talk about from a strategy is, I tell people, "I want you to be unreasonable. Don't give me anything reasonable. I'm totally bored with that. I want to see your daring, courageous, bold things that have never been heard of before." Crazy: that's what we want to hear because if you're really on the edge, then it won't look right in the near term but, three, five years from now, people will say, "Wow. That was prescient. Who imagined that this would be the case?"

How do you drive that approach based on data inside a large organization?

Heidi Wood: I'm a big proponent of radical transparency. To reach radical transparency, you need to see data. To get the entire group of people to move along with you, you need to move towards being a data-driven enterprise.

Again, what we're talking about at L3 is being data-driven, being radically transparent, brave, [and] courageous. Again, when you do it collectively, then people can better see.

The way I like to describe it is, we took all of the different systems that we have, and we piped them together into a fused system. It helps us come back to better decisions. Together, we can move with speed because all of us are seeing it at the same time and it's based on fact, not anecdotes.

One of the things I like to write on the board is, you take that Greek symbol for the sum. I put the sum and then, in parentheses, anecdotes, and then not equal data. In other words, sometimes when you say, "How is something working?" they say, "Fine."

"How is this other thing?"

"Oh, good."

I'm sitting there thinking, I don't want an English word for the answer. I want the data.

Where do data and corporate culture intersect?

Heidi Wood: One of the things that I didn't like when I joined, and it's common in corporate culture but I wanted to change within L3 is, somebody would ask a perfectly reasonable question, and another person will say, "Well, we don't know the answer. We'll get back to you."

Well, now the conversation is dead. But, what you want is an active, "Well, let's see what the data says," because it exists, right? That's the thing that drove me crazy. Somebody has got the data. How come it all isn't in a giant warehouse so that we can peal things back to the infinite level that we want to? Sort of like an onion. You peel back the layers and peel back the layers to get down to the answer to say, "The reason why this isn't working or is working so well, is because of this."

People must get used to having so much data being available. Again, it's human nature to want to shade. You want to show your better parts. But, you kind of get to a stage where everybody gets comfortable with, look, this is the truth; this is where we're really, really at. It enables more collective contributions because people can see the areas that are ailing and say "Well, I've got some guys that can help with this thing that you're working on because now we can see that that area needs work.

Sunlight, if you go from dark to sunlight, there's that moment where you go, "Oh, it's blinding." But then, as soon as your eyes adjust, everybody is going to say, "I'd rather be in the sunlight than in the dark cave," right?

One of the exciting things about IT is changing the culture with what we're doing with radical transparency. You have an angle where IT is helping change the culture of a company.

Disclosure: This video is part of a series in which SAP invited me to SAP Select, as a paid engagement, to conduct interviews with senior executives on topics related to Intelligent Enterprise. 

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