“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When this opening line was published over 160 years ago, Dickens had no idea how well it would apply for companies that are facing the oncoming tsunami of digital disruption. For some, it's the best of times: their companies are moving forward, growing fast, and capturing market value at incredible rates. Unfortunately, others might define this as ‘the worst of times’ as they struggle to achieve true digital transformation despite a plethora of well documented processes, expert step-by-step books, and external consultant guidance. Why does this happen? Put simply, the underlying organizational culture needs to incentivize innovation. Yet, for many companies, this isn’t the case. Promoting pro-innovation cultural values around risk, talent management, and new product development will help deliver a ‘best of times’ scenario. To help you identify where your company falls on the spectrum from not-innovative to effective innovator, this article compares and contrasts the characteristics of Stagnate Inc. and Progress Co., two fictional companies with different cultural values and practices around risk, talent, and product development.
Stagnate Inc, has a 90 year track record of making very informed capital investments. This has paid off relatively well in the past by providing steady returns for its shareholders. To mitigate risk, large capital investments are built-out and defined over a period of years, accompanied with detailed product requirements, an endless supply of PowerPoint slides, and a complicated Excel spreadsheet that hardly anyone can understand. Of course, in its past Stagnate Inc. has had some products fail to deliver their promised value. When this has happened, other leaders within the organization feed on the champion of this failed initiative, internally grabbing for their budget, talent, and responsibilities. The result: executives and managers have learned to play it safe, as reaching too far can result career suicide.
Progress Co. makes development decisions quicker, by investing incrementally as the product is built out overtime. Decisions on funding are usually less intense with smaller up-front investments to test product concepts. If successful, full scale capital allocations are pursued, once results have been well documented and observed over time. For Progress, you see fewer PowerPoints, Excel Sheets, and requirements docs, but more real-world digital tools that are being used in production. Of course, Progress isn’t perfect either, and they have many concepts that fail. However, nearly everyone at Progress views this as okay and acceptable. Their mindset is summarized as “the risk was bold, but informed… it just didn’t pan out, and it’s time to move on.” At Progress Co, executives and managers want to pursue bold initiatives, to prove they can add innovative value to the company.
At Stagnate, the most important metric to determine upward mobility potential is time at the company and role, as it is believed tenure denotes dedication to the company, its customers, and its mission. As a result, many mid-level or senior-level leaders stem from the core operations of Stagnate - leading areas of the company they have less experience or training in. Additionally, at Stagnate, everyone knows each other deeply, as they have worked together for years. As a result, ‘rocking the boat’ when it comes to new product concepts is risky. Disrupting the operations or P&L of other leaders within the same company can result in a ‘excommunicato’ label, regardless of how it would benefit the overall company, its customers, or shareholders. Lastly, with a dearth of external talent coming in, creative ideas are hard to find, as the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality is highly prevalent.
At Progress Co, it seems like there is always someone new joining, and sometimes leaving, the team. When it comes to metrics for promotion — it's more about team fit than anything else, while a track record of delivery also helps. Failure on new initiatives, aren’t penalized and are instead viewed as a metric of value potential — someone willing to push the boundaries. At Progress, you might not know everyone, or fully understand their role, but you trust them to be pursuing what they believe to be in the best interest of the company. They might come up with some wacky ideas, but most people at least listen to their concepts and provide critical feedback to help them develop. This can be sort of messy at times, and seem somewhat inefficient, but then…lighting strikes and an amazing concept is born.
Stagnate Inc. promotes an agile mindset on paper, but waterfall tendencies run deep. They run sprints and hold grooming sessions, however, they also have a very detailed, multi-year, roadmap that was defined in slides 150-180 of the 500 slidedeck that was created before a single line of code was written. When push comes to shove - the roadmap wins everytime. This hybrid waterfall/agile approach frustrates developers, product owners, and operations alike, as they know they aren’t being empowered to build the best product. Not to mention the constant ‘we’re behind’ pressure. Overtime, additional scrum teams are stood-up to tackle scope that wasn’t foreseen. Costs increase… timelines are pushed out. If Stagnate is lucky, a version of the digital product eventually hits production. Likely, this is significantly scoped down in features, capabilities, and customer adoption targets, yet still riddled with buggy tech glitches and friction-full user experiences.
Progress Co. understands that they don’t know — and can’t predict — everything. Further, they know speedto-market is key to growth. To get things started, Progress implements quick proof-of-concepts and/or pilots to assess product concepts. As the product progresses and a scaled implementation is planned, Progress Co. looks for key partnerships to aid in its production launch, often leveraging partners such as AWS to mitigate complex integrations. Progress Co. always maintains a truly agile devops approach, releasing features regularly, always guided by direct user feedback. Overtime, Progress gets their product to market fast with great and ever-increasing functionality.
Companies such as Progress Co. view digital transformation as a gateway to the ‘best of times’: an opportunity to propel themselves in front of competitors and deliver next-level customer experiences.
To succeed, they promote a culture that reinforces these characteristics:
- Digital risk is evaluated differently than other capital investments, promoting speed while concurrently mitigating risk through incremental funding decisions
- Risk tolerance is high, and failure is viewed as a minor setback on the path to long-term value creation. It’s not penalized.
- Realizes talent can come from external or internal sources, and evaluates this talent on metrics such as team fit and execution capability.
- Builds deliver great products in minimal time by embracing a user-centered design mentality, partnering with key enabling technical companies, and staying true to agile principles.
About the Author
If you have read this far, you now know Porter is no Charles Dickens. Instead of honing his literature skills, he has devoted his professional career to effective corporate innovation, working for organizations such as The Walt Disney Company and the US Army. Currently, Porter helps Mobi clients solve some of their most complex problems using Mobi’s technology, enabling them to become the real-world example of Progress Co. in their industry.