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Roundtable: How to Adapt to Innovate

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As businesses navigate an evolving normal yet innovation is more important than ever, technology leaders debate the trait every boardroom strives for today: adaptability.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”, or in this case, best at wanting to adapt to innovate.

The quote most famously attributed to Charles Darwin is ironically a misquote. It belongs in fact to Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. It also belongs to the world of industry: it first appeared in Lessons from Europe for American Business, 1963. The professor was well-known for his respect forDarwin’s findings and its applications to management style. Today, we wonder about its application to digital innovation.

In 2020, the world of work has changed immeasurably: yes, the future is always unpredicted, but this year it is also unpredictable.

Navigating such unpredictability — and by extension continuing to exist and innovate — requires adaptability now more than ever. And for the technology leader balancing a dispersed workforce, budget constraints, emerging technologies and tense markets, it is a trait worth working hard for. How hard? Four technology leaders from across Europe came together for a virtual debate to understand the components behind adaptability, why it is a virtue that all companies should pursue and how these leaders plan on instilling adaptability into their businesses to answer that question and more.

 

Adapt to innovate

“Adaptability certainly has its core components,” said Joanna Drake, CIO of The Hut Group (THG).

Drake should know. The Hut Group is a British e-commerce company that operates over 100 international websites selling fast-moving consumer goods direct to consumers through its proprietary e-commerce platform. They rapidly acquire businesses and onboard the brand onto their site, and is seen as one of the fastest growing businesses in Britain. At the time of their recent IPO, the company was valued at $5.8 billion (£4.5 billion), and its success, says Drake, is down to its reflexive muscles.

“Key [to adaptability] are several things. First, communication. You need to be able to communicate the vision of the business to your teams and also the many changing ways across the year to get to that vision. Your communication channels need to be open and robust, too, so there are no gaps.

“Next: culture. It’s important that your people accept change quickly, change direction accordingly and understand how it impacts the business. People almost need to expect change. Technology and platforms can help automate where possible; partners and vendors are vital to support your entire business as they offer the services you don’t know you need yet; processes and ways of working are also key—quick decision making can make the difference.”

As an opener to a roundtable discussion it’s quite a full list to pick apart, but the sub-text from Drake is clear: adaptability is a multi-disciplinary skill. She also inspired her fellow panellist, Philip Clayson, to consider the relationship between accountability and agility. Can a many layered, bureaucratic business model also adapt?

“The formation of a team is vital, you’re right,” she answered, “if you want your business to make decisions in hours rather than weeks.”

One lesson of Drake’s Clayson found interesting was her ‘Get Sh*t Done’ method. Clayson is the former CIO of SSE Energy and Countrywide, and Talk Talk’s former Technology Director, so has expert experience at leading high profile IT teams to deliver large projects time and again. There is always an opportunity to learn new techniques, however, and he asked Drake for further clarification.

On Friday’s, according to THG’s technology premier, the team takes two hours to come together and build a new product, one they wouldn’t have been able to if they had not had that time. It makes for more creative teamwork, she believes, and also means that they get over 50 new things for the platform’s business per year. “It’s very inspiring,” agreed Clayson. And has a catchy title.

The roundtable’s third panellist Amitabh Apte also liked the idea, but his organization is quite different to THG.

Apte is Mars’ Digital Technology Director for its Pet Nutrition arm in Europe and Russia. Mars is far older than the relatively newcomer THG as it was founded in 1911 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s also still a family run business, which orchestrates an important hand over the fabric of its culture.

“We’ve been on a transformation journey over the last three to four years,” Apte told the roundtable. “And two things became vitally important: education and community.”

Mars’ transformation includes over 130,000 of its global Associates on its journey, a massive number of people to bring together into one cohesive brand. The trick to keeping them together (whilst allowing for change) according to Apte was a clever balance of external and internal digital innovation.

“Allow external experts to ignite the passion for change but then immediately encourage your teams to continue it internally. You need both to innovate.”

 

The road to disruptive change

Drawing a straight line between adaptability and digital innovation is hard, however. What makes Drake’s strategies for a reflexive workforce and Apte’s internal drive for change a roadmap to great new products, amazing services and satisfied customers?

“What I’m seeing is the business of today growing beyond the parameters of what we still think of as a business,” said Prakash Vyas, Senior Director, Global Sales Acceleration, OutSystems, the roundtable’s fourth technology leader. Listening to the rest of the group compare and contrast their relative values as CIOs, Vyas considered his own unique perspective in the debate.

“Communication is bound with those people critical to the business having a voice, but also having common understanding with strategic partners. What I’m also seeing is that a wider network of your business’ stakeholders — customers, clients, partners — are enabling and so sharing in your success.”

OutSystems allows for your software to be built quickly on its low-code platforms so that your customers can deploy critical applications that evolve with the business. That means Vyas has good experience not just understanding the relationship between speed, intelligence and adaptability, but also where technology and tools fit into the mix. The CIOs were just as clued up.

“Tools are the easy part [in building an adaptable company],” said Clayson. “People and culture are harder to curate and that’s why you need more iterations to get things to change.”

Drake agreed: “You can only overcome problems with the right people. In a way then, this all comes down to relationships. Relationships with everyone you work with in and outside the business. Choose the right people; seek out meaningful relationships where it’s not just about the transactions.”

One term that couldn’t be ignored during the debate was agility. It’s a favorite among a certain cohort of the technology industry and it found new energy at the outset of COVID-19 for its simple to understand, results-driven approach. Considering the praise for adaptability, however, are we seeing the swan song of the agile business?

“Adaptability isn’t the new agility,” said Clayson, “they’re actually different things. Where agile helps software developers, for example, to make things quicker and helps certain teams with productivity, adaptability is a business-wide trait, a cultural phenomenon that encourages change to pivot forward.”

And is there a direct link between adaptability and digital innovation? Vyas believes so.

He asked the roundtable to consider certain stale sectors. Yes they hold a certain demographic captive, ones who will always need their product or services, but those with the vision to change, to tweak their offering relative to the way of the world each year can dominate. He cites Uber as the poster child for this type of digital innovation(adaptation).

But any conversation on digital innovation requires consensus on its definition.

“Digital innovation isn’t just big ideas, lightning bolt moments,” Drake reminded the group, “it’s also in the little moments, the small step changes found in a day, in one process. Built up over the year, those little improvements build something powerful.”

The group found consensus with that statement. Adaptability is the trait that lies in the smaller pockets of a business, in the communication between two individuals, as well as in the large process changes that feature as the cornerstone of great companies. That’s why it’s an important trait to discuss for today’s world—any improvement is worth the work today. And with its multidisciplinary nature, it also encourages company-wide collaboration as well as creativity in thinking that comes from bringing diverse schools of thought together.

And for a trait that underpins our natural world (and that was brought into the world of business over 40 years ago), it is surely one well worth investing in for these unpredictable times.

 

Watch the full roundtable here.

 

Moderator: Peter Stojanovic, Editor, HotTopics.ht.

Participants: Joanna Drake, CIO, The Hut Group; Philip Clayson, CIO, formerly SSE Energy; Amitabh Apte, CIO, Mars Pet Nutrition Business; Prakash Vyas, Senior Director, Global Sales Acceleration, OutSystems.

This roundtable is brought to you in partnership with OutSystems.

 

 

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