Innovations for Internal Business Operations
Innovation for internal company operations doesn’t sound like a hot topic. Innovation is usually considered in the contexts of product strategy, marketing or UX design. However, the induction of a degree of innovation into how a company is ran and structured can result in significant benefits to its output and business value.
What is innovation though? It can be defined as creative exploitation of ideas originated from available means in order to deliver value-added outcomes. Innovation is a change of perspective – an act of borrowing mechanisms which work well in one space and applying them in another, often in quite unexpected ways. Innovation is the will to experiment and fail quickly. “Eureka” moments are extremely rare, but you don’t have to sit under a tree and wait for the apple to fall. They are attainable with a simple grind: persist, iterate, change perspective and be brave to experiment.
Let’s consider a few examples of how innovative thinking can benefit an organization from its foundation.
The DNA of a company is the DNA of its founder. Mission statement, branding, strategy and processes are merely documented expressions of that vision. Let’s move beyond the obvious though: how often is the founder consistent, persistent enough and successful in imprinting their DNA in the company’s foundation? How many companies have you seen where the founder’s approach is the mirror image of the genius, sweat and productivity of its employees?
In the modern technology field, the founder is almost always driven by desire to innovate. If they can communicate that passion and translate it to company’s culture, then all aspects of the organization can be configured in unconventional ways. Application of innovative thinking to the most “mundane” or opaque departments can drastically change their traditional image and role in the organization. The usual suspects: HR, legal, finance, IT can receive a boost of energy if they’re made transparent, collaborative and agile. That solidifies company’s foundation, speeds up all operations and makes employees more productive and engaged.
Let’s consider innovation through the introduction of a culture full of energy, open communication and agile collaboration.
Imagine a founder who defines his core value as imperfection. They see it as a powerful weapon: imperfection breeds uniqueness, unpredictability and dynamism. It generates dialogue, is incomplete and intriguing. Imperfections are not meant to be perceived as a deficit in an otherwise perfect whole. Perfection is not the goal because it’s too immaculate: no cracks in the surface make it too smooth, bland and boring. Imperfection denotes the essence of life. It is uniqueness and the promise of further improvement and energy. Imperfection is an acknowledgement of failure and a strong desire to evolve and improve.
Such an abstract concept requires rare mastery to exploit in a business environment. How do you balance it with a need to portray an organization as a stable and solid business partner? How do you imprint such an ambiguous value in company’s culture?
Unless the structures breathe in the same rhythm as the founder, the task may be insurmountable. The example always trickles down from top to the bottom. Innovation is distributed: leadership teams should adopt founder’s values and carry them downwards to their teams. Departments can creatively take advantage of some the aspects of imperfection: implement processes which are unique and adaptable, train the employees to be dynamic and accepting of failure in a productive way. In services companies in particular, careful application of the concept may translate into interesting and unconventional sales strategies. In creative activities, acceptance of imperfection as an inherent foundation of the creative process can lead to original and thought provoking solutions.
Communication as a carrier of company culture and the glue of all activities is so obvious that it’s very often overlooked. People like to fall back to well-known yet inefficient communication behaviors: mile-long email threads with dozens of people copied and absolutely no sense of conversation progression is a good example. Another could be “death by meeting”. It is difficult to teach the optimal communication behaviors in virtual reality because they are so subtly different from their real-world counterparts. We slip into known patterns without a second thought and misunderstandings ensue. On top of that, the ability to successfully divide behaviors appropriate in workplace from those found in casual environments is a rare soft skill. And finally the cultural and social differences between people in different geographies is a significant and delicate problem.
Communication challenges are multi-layered and innovative thinking is required to realize them fully and build a culture which consciously focuses on overcoming them. Realizing why email is different from a face-to-face conversation, making an effort to minimize the amount and length of meetings, understanding the cultural and social idiosyncrasies, using time zone differences to your advantage, embracing the self-discipline of writing or speaking succinctly, on time, when needed, to the right person — it takes a concerted effort to get there. I believe companies should not burden their employees with extensive training in this regard, but should rather build environments where modern communication behaviors are promoted by the leadership team and naturally enabled by the available tools. Natural communication should occur naturally. It should come from almost a spontaneous need to get things done quickly and move on, rather than a 20-page process document.
Slack is a great example of such a mindset. The platform is built purposefully to enable communication that is brief, to the point, transparent, collaborative, inclusive and last but not least — fun. It uses modern technologies and user experience patterns originally developed on mobile platforms, which delivers an casual-feeling environment encouraging productivity, transparency, collaboration and engagement.
Agile methodology in software development is successful in making the process of building a “foundationless house” more comfortable and faster. Agile encourages experimentation, reduces the cost of failure and gives a huge boost to communication transparency and collaboration. As a result, it is attainable to build software with a goal-oriented mindset, in an environment of perpetually changing external conditions.
What if we apply the agile principles to internal company structures? How about running human resource activities as projects, in two-week sprints? Can you imagine legal department conducting daily stand-up meetings? What if finances are ran on a kanban board, with clearly defined and automatically tracked milestones? What if all these departments collaborate with each other using one simple communication tool, which enables simple progress tracking and allows to seamlessly control internal P&L? What if the founder participates in sprint reviews and uses them to pivot the company towards new business initiatives?
Company operations are usually considered static, siloed and impervious to market changes. How about flipping it upside down? After all, an organization needs to respond as a whole to new market trends, ever-changing employee expectations, legal challenges, as well as strategy adjustments. How often companies are sluggish to adapt and fail because of their internal ballast? In modern technology sector, it is crucial to pivot before a new trend penetrates the market. Such pivots are essentially trend setters: iPod, iPhone, Snapchat becoming a “camera” company (and Facebook immediately jumping on that bandwagon) etc. If legal, finance, operations, IT etc. can adjust as dynamically as the founder’s vision changes, a company can morph like a chameleon and internal aspects are no longer a factor in its potential success or failure.
An unconventional look at internal business operations can bring measurable improvements to how the whole business acts and responds to change. The examples suggested above are certainly a few among many. It all begins with a conscious effort to imprint and celebrate founder’s vision and uniqueness in every single aspect of the business. Enabling a culture of dynamic collaboration is the second step. And they’re both a part of an all-encompassing, conscious effort to maintain careful and open communication across the whole organization. It can result in an environment which encourages competitiveness and joy among the whole team, results in significant efficiency improvements and allows the company to appropriately respond to the perpetually changing market conditions.