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Innovation and its role in becoming Future Fit


Mike: Great. Thanks so much for coming in, man.

Dave: Thank you.

Mike: Great to see you. Haven’t seen you for a while. It’s always good to catch up.

Dave: Likewise.

Mike: I haven’t given you too much context as to why you’re coming in because I want you to be spontaneous and speak off-the-cuff. But as you know, we are talking a lot to a lot of people at the moment about the idea of future-fit leadership and how leaders really need to take up the mantle for the change that’s going on in their organizations or their businesses. Just to give you a bit of context in that, there are some key things that research is showing that the great leaders of the world, of fully mature, digital companies are doing, and there’s a pattern, okay? And there’s a lot of things involved. Like some of it’s around communication, it’s about setting visions with purpose, and it’s a lot of those things. But something I specifically want to talk to you about today is innovation and innovation in the workplace. I mean, I was with a company, I won’t name who they were, very recently, last week, and they were talking about, you know, to bring innovation into their organization, they’ve just brought some new people in, and that’s gonna solve the problem.

Dave: Just, like, fresh energy.

Mike: Yeah, well, yeah, you need that. You need that, but I think there’s a lot in there around systems and everything. So I just wanted to get your idea on that, and what you’ve seen in your experience that, I mean, the good companies that are innovating well are doing.

Dave: Yeah. Well, I love the concept of future fitness, and it’s almost antithetical to just bringing in new people into it because fitness, I mean, if you think about, like, the physical act of getting fit, you don’t just decide to run a marathon, you know, like, from couch potato to, “I’m going to now be able to run the Comrades.” You’ve gotta build your way up to it, and then once you’ve developed that capability it’s about maintaining and nurturing your practices. And I think that the word “disruption” has gone from being something that we don’t want in business to something that everyone associates with a positive acting business. And so totally, bringing in a whole bunch of new people into your business will be disruptive in probably the most painful sense. In the sense that, like, being a couch potato and then trying to run a marathon is going to be disruptive to your Achilles tendons, your knees, probably your mental health at the same time. So I just think on these things, I think that innovation isn’t a decision. It’s very much a capability, so businesses develop a reputation for being innovative, rather than having done innovation.

Mike: So how do they start to do that? Because, as with starting a marathon, you’ve gotta learn those first few steps, and often, the first of something is getting into that routine, getting out of bed at 5:00 A.M. in the morning when the rest of the world is asleep and starting. Just by taking that first step. You know, a marathon, they say, starts with the first kilometre that you can run. So what are you seeing as some good things that organizations could be doing to start that process?

Dave: Well, of course, you need to start with a vision of where you’re going to, and I think that as a basis, if you look at behavioural science, it’s something that I’ve gotten really interested in lately, just as a dabbler, and it’s something I definitely want to grow my capability in, but one of the foundational principles of behavioural science is that big leaps almost always fail. So, say for example, like, let’s keep up with the marathon metaphor, you wanna grow this capability to run a big marathon. Just saying, “Oh, I’m gonna get out there and I’m gonna run every day,” when you’ve done nothing is not gonna get you where you need to be. You need to start with little baby steps. “First of all, I’m gonna get off the couch, I’m gonna walk around the block, and I’m gonna develop consistency over this.” So I think that if you look in business terms, first of all, you’ve gotta have a sense of where you’re going, and then you’ve got to break down that outcome, where we wanna be. So, “We want to grow revenues by X%, we wanna increase customer satisfaction, we want to solve this problem.” So it’s not just innovation for innovation’s sake, it’s for some practical benefit. So you start with the vision, you start with the outcome. Now, deciding to commit to the outcome is one thing, but to get to any outcome, you need to break that down. It’s the same as, like, “I wanna run a marathon.” Deciding to run the Comrades isn’t heroic in its own right. What is heroic is then breaking that down and going, “Well, what are the behaviours, what are the capabilities, the competencies, the resources, the skills, the plans that we need in place to get there?” And you’ve got to put it in one by one. So it’s like, “All right, cool. Resources. Do we have budget for it? Do we have people for it? And what are the practices that we need to start building into it?” And it’s not something that you can just do, like, “Great, we’re gonna do team-building,” or, “Cool, we’re gonna go play with Lego and that’s gonna help our mindset.” It’s like, rather, building in the practice of play, nurturing in those things in the long term.

Mike: Definitely. I mean, I think the idea of just understanding that there’s a behavioural change that needs to take place.

Dave: Totally.

Mike: I mean, that’s very much at the heart of what we’ve seen. One of the biggest challenges… I’ve talked to a lot of CIOs and CTOs who are trying to put new software in place, that have been tasked, in a lot of cases, with digital transformation within the organization. And one of their biggest challenges that they’re finding is the structure, so the structure of the organization itself. So the commitment might be there from a training, mentorship, behavioural, “we’re gonna try and do things differently,” but what they’re finding is that the structure of the organization is completely stopping them with that step. Because what they’re telling me is, when you innovate, it’s not always successful, right? You’re gonna mess up, and you’re gonna fail. And a big part of their problem that they’re seeing is that then they get torn in front of the CFO, who goes, “You told me that initiative was gonna do this thing.” Because the structure dictates that everything historically that the IT division has done has been put in place to save money, to reduce risk, all those things that a hierarchical structure says. So you start bringing in innovation, you’ve got this guy stuck in a hierarchy who appoints a CFO, trying to innovate in whatever way he can, and it just doesn’t allow it. So however much he wants to change, however much the desire is there, there has to be bigger thinking and bigger systems changes that need to take place. And I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve come across?

Dave: Oh, all the time. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Ogilvy South Africa for the last eight years, and they’ve gone through two major transformations in the time that I’ve been there. And they’ve both been around digital, so I’ve gotten involved right at the heart of it. And in every case, the agency needs to move at two speeds, and, I think, there’s an amazing corollary that I’ve seen between what’s happened there, as well as… and they’re a relatively decent-sized organization, over 1,000 staff, there’s high stakes, and all the time they need to deliver consistently, and they’re only growing through these transitions, where a lot of other agencies have stalled. And the one thing that I think is remarkable there is that they’ll operate at these three speeds. And the one is, all right, so the one is at technology. So, let me break it down. At Ogilvy they’re attacking the culture thing before the systems because culture is, like, kind of the soft stuff. It’s much more easy to play with, and it’s much more malleable than the hard structure of systems. So at Ogilvy, we came up with a little acronym called PARTS. It was, to change culture you need to work with people, artifacts, rituals, tools, and stories. So that was really good. So people was… all right, not just hiring people. That can count, but first of all, like, who are the people that are best placed to drive change? We’re talking about, like, the gatekeepers, the people who are high performers, who are the influencers and connectors. All right, so the people, and then we have to obviously invest in those people. So how do you invest in people? Skills, you have to bring them on with you with the vision, you need to involve them in this. That’s the people thing. Then the artifact. You’re like, all right, cool, culture needs to be visible. Art and artifacts, for me, are like, this is what’s left of any cultural change that’s… what’s the evidence of the shift in the office, in the physical environment? All the ways that we can nudge people. Silly, obvious, common stuff like, yes, posters, what’s on the screen, but other things like, you know, what software are we using? You know, are people, like, running around with the latest phones? Are we playing around with VR headsets? What’s in the office that people can play with that’s a physical manifestation of it? Rituals are, what are the things that we practice on a regular basis? So, that would be, you know… at the agency one of the things that was implemented was a simple thing called “How-To Friday,” where you go and you learn something technical as a team, specifically this core group of highly connected people in the agency who are really influential. What do you learn? Like, one thing every week. How to, you know, program a robot, like, crazy stuff, sometimes really practical stuff, like, do programmatic media buying more effectively. Then tools, don’t expect people to change. Cultures are very often defined by the tools that we use, so what software we buy, and are we enabling the things? What skills are we equipping people with? Then you start adjusting and looking at processes, so things like Agile might be reintroduced, there they’ve changed, like, the product management system. And then lastly, and crucially, and this is the thing that I think I learned the most at Ogilvy, and I’ve seen it play out again and again in other organizations, is stories, and in particular, they invested heavily in celebrating examples of success in innovation. So they would create a case study about it and they would tell it. Once you’ve got the story, once you’ve celebrated the case study of success, people naturally want to innovate. So that’s the people, artifacts, rituals, tools, and stories.

Mike: I like that.

Dave: You know, and you just build that up, and it’s like little… it starts off really small, with like 10 people and with a bunch of artifacts, and you get this ritual going, and you nurture it and you equip those people with the tools, and you tell stories about them, and then the next wave you’ve got 30 people, and then it’s 50 people, and then it’s 100 people. And those don’t stop. You go until you’ve become an innovative organization, rather than an organization that was innovative three quarters ago and now it’s cutting itself.

Mike: Well, I must say, I mean, the way you describe it sounds like, “Oh, we just did this, and there was a nice flow…”

Dave: Oh, no, it’s flipping painful, like training for a marathon, yeah. And people complain, and egos get bruised, and you’ve gotta be flipping determined. And that’s one of the things that I’ve seen, I mean, I think that change leadership is not a game. I mean, you have to be prepared to be making a lot of people uncomfortable. And that’s why I love the metaphor, once again, and sorry, man, I just think you’ve really got this thing correct with future fitness. I think that the best future fitness leaders are coaches, you know? Like in the sense that, like, my best coach kicked my ass all over the place.

[crosstalk 00:11:05]

Dave: My fitness guy now does kick my ass, but I’m thinking about my first soccer coach, like at the age of six, Fred Miller. I still remember, I was the goalkeeper, and this guy was screaming at me with spit flying out and he was like, “Guard the corner,” and I was like, “Ah, people will die if I don’t guard the corner.” And it was like every little action mattered to this dude. Geez, I mean, I felt like at six years old I was prepared to die to protect this corner.

Mike: I thought you were gonna say you were like 15 at that point, instead of six years old.

Dave: I was six and I think I won player of the year, but anyway, Fred was my guy. But look, we all need different kinds of leadership, and I think it’s asking people what they need.

Mike: It’s that passion. It’s what Fred had, like, he believed in what he was pushing out.

Dave: Oh, dude, no doubt.

Mike: Drove it home, and I think that’s what… there seems to be, in a lot of cases what I’ve seen with innovation, is leaders taking a back step. And it’s like… it’s not even a rugby play, it’s a hospital pass to the CTO, the CIO, or the middle management…

Dave: Not going to work, man.

Mike: And they’re going, “Sh,” and then they’re expecting all these stories, it just kills me.

Dave: So another example. I look at, Pete Case at Ogilvy South Africa and he’s one of the most awarded, accomplished dudes. He is so hands-on, and just grappling with it. I look at Jeff Bezos, he’s the richest man in history, and Amazon continues to push boundaries because this dude is out there hustling on everything, pushing. I mean, any change leader you find that change happens when people really passionately care about it. One of the quotes that I remember from back in the day is Walt Disney saying that he loves Mickey Mouse, something like one of his own children. I’m probably paraphrasing this incorrectly, but I remember reading this quote about how much he loved Mickey Mouse. I was like, “This guy cared.” And that is the difference because you’re not gonna get people to do something out of their comfort zone if they don’t sense that you are pushing it, that you’ve got heart, and care, and love, and there’s something that’s much bigger that’s at stake than this annoying project management system that everyone needs to learn.

Mike: I think that’s at the heart of it, is just that belief. That if they’ve got that belief, they’re willing to drive it forward, irrespective of whether you need to change structures, what behaviours you need to change, all of those things. At the heart of this, it does require proper leadership change, and they need to do that.

Dave: Totally, totally.

Mike: Dave. Awesome.

Dave: Yeah, man.

Mike: That was brilliant. Yeah, I love it. It’s nice when you’re surprised like that.

Dave: Yeah.

Mike: Cool. Cheers.

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