Why successful businesses innovate often and fail fast
Richard Blanford founded Fordway in 1991 and has built it into one of the UK’s most respected managed cloud and IT infrastructure transformation companies. In this article he draws on his 28 years’ experience to advise organisations on why innovation is vital for continued business success.
Getting the balance right between innovation and the status quo is a constant challenge. SMEs in particular tend to achieve their early growth through innovation, either offering radically new products or reinventing the provision of existing services.
However, what was initially a market-leading idea soon becomes the norm, expected by customers and copied and adapted by competitors. A business may have been built on innovation, but markets evolve, customer needs change and demand can quickly drop away. This can suddenly leave a once profitable organisations in need of a new idea or, in extreme cases, a new business model.
Innovation can be difficult, particularly in a well-established business, but is essential to continued success. There are two important principles for successful innovation – think big and fail fast.
A good idea can be transformative
We tend to think of innovation on a relatively small scale – a new product, a step change in customer service – and this is clearly important. Every business should refresh its offer frequently in line with changing customer needs. However, something on a much larger scale may be needed if the market has changed significantly or the company is struggling.
If the rest of the business is sound, sometimes all a company needs to transform itself is a really good idea. The trick to doing this effectively is to really understand what you are good at and then work out how you can apply it differently to build a profitable and sustainable business stream to take the place of one which may be shrinking. Thinking laterally has enabled organisations in all sectors to transfer their core skills successfully to new markets.
We’ve done it ourselves, where budget cuts following the 2008 recession meant that fewer companies were implementing major infrastructure upgrades or kicking off new projects. We decided to reinvent the company as a cloud service provider, using our existing skills in a different way to generate recurring, rather than project, revenue. It required significant investment in infrastructure and staff training, plus a complete rethink of our core business processes, but was a logical development of our existing business while offering potential for higher margins.
IT also has tremendous potential to transform business. From introducing new applications and ways of working to using business data to provide transformational insights, it can radically change the way you run an organisation. However, many companies are still reluctant to take the plunge, creating a huge gap between the most IT-savvy firms and the IT laggards.
Harvard Business School professor Kristina Steffenson points out that to achieve the benefits from IT, organisations must be willing to engage in radical change, bringing together processes, people, organisational structures and supply chain partners.
Existing suppliers may not be best placed to do this. Instead, consider benchmarking against leading organisations, both in your own sector and elsewhere, studying analyst recommendations and talking to companies who have a track record in delivering IT changes in order to benefit from their experience. We’ve all heard about hospitals learning from Formula One teams – what expertise could be applied in your own sector? A fresh perspective could take your organisation in a new and ultimately productive direction.
Recognise when something is not working
The second principle of successful innovation is to be able to identify when something is not working. Companies such as Amazon are masters of this – frequently described as “experiment often and fail fast”. We need to be brave enough to try new things but smart enough to understand when it’s time to move on.
This does not come easily. Our educational system and most work environments have taught us that good performance means avoiding failure, not making mistakes. Academic Edward D. Hess points out that this can limit our ability to innovate because innovation requires a willingness to fail and to learn from it. However, as Matthew Syed points out in his book Black Box Thinking, failure is actually the best way to learn. Being smart means knowing what you don’t know, prioritising what you need to know, and being very good at finding the best evidence-based answers.
Few business decisions are black and white. Due to time pressures and business need, you often have to make them based on incomplete information. The key is to make the decision but then to check regularly on progress. If it is obvious that a product or service is struggling, or commercial demand is not there, make the decision to stop and focus your efforts on the next idea. It’s also possible that the idea may be good, but the timing is wrong for large scale acceptance – so consider keeping it in reserve should the market change.
Change is vital for a sustainable, long term future, but it is always risky. However, if your business isn’t working, don’t sit back and wait for things to get better. When things get tough, doing nothing is not an option. Understand how you can apply what you are good at differently, change your game and do it quickly, even if this means cannibalising your existing business. By asking the right questions, researching the options and learning from the best, we can gain the confidence to do what is best for our organisation.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.