Business experts often look to the cheetah for lessons on speed and agility when talking about innovation. With its streamlined head, slender build and particular muscle structure, the cheetah has evolved to accelerate from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds.
The cheetah also has the unique ability to stop and turn – even when running at high speed.
It’s the perfect analogy for Harvard Business Review authors of ‘Start Stopping Faster’ (Rigby, Elk, Berez, HBR, 22 September 2020). It illustrates that it’s not enough for organisations to pursue new ideas faster; they need to develop new capabilities so that they can be more adept at halting and adapting to unexpected twists and turns.
They make a valid point. In times where pandemic, politics and social change have contributed to a climate of uncertainty unlike anything we have seen in our generation, organisations that can regulate their speed effectively will be in a stronger position to respond to whatever turns the road ahead takes.
Yet the cheetah for all its speed and agility is hugely vulnerable: it only ever hunts in the same environment for the same prey. Take away the habitat it knows, and it will struggle to survive.
The leopard, on the other hand, enjoys a much wider distribution by learning to adapt to different environments. It lives both close to human populations catching rats in India as well as on the African plains hunting gazelle. Its markings evolve to blend in better with their new habitat. Zoologists have documented the leopard’s extraordinary cunning and powers of observation. A leopard will watch until it has a far greater understanding of its prey and the terrain in its surroundings before swiftly acting.
The leopard has another distinct and strategic advantage over the cheetah. As a tree-climber, the leopard has a three-dimensional view of the terrain enabling it to see approaching prey from a greater distance. This gives it a competitive advantage over the cheetah. It then takes care to pass on valuable “cultural knowledge” to its cubs – further de-risking their ability to survive.
There are parallels and lessons to be learnt in the business world from these adaptable creatures.
Can a business change its spots?
As markets and trading conditions change without much warning, finding new ways of responding quickly to unlock value will become imperative. More importantly, the change will be also be driven by consumers. As customer behaviour shifts and comes to expect even more from technology, it is more critical than ever for organisations to re-think how to serve them better – and quickly. In recent times we’ve seen whole sectors re-inventing the ways they’ve done business in the Covid crisis; pubs are delivering takeaways, gin distilleries are manufacturing hand sanitiser, gyms have moved exercise classes online. Those businesses that were creative, nimble and ambitious took full advantage of the situation and adapted their business successfully.
That sounds simple enough. The reality though is that large organisations that rely on technology to drive value creation are often less flexible when it comes to adapting an existing roadmap to suit a new environment. Their speed and success are heavily focused on one environment or market they know well, and they can lack the thinking and cross-sector expertise that could quickly help them change track or innovate without hurting business outcomes. One solution is to partner with a technology firm that has the depth of experience helping organisations in a broad range of sectors build digital products that enable them to achieve their goals – even in challenging times or when the stakes are high.
As businesses takes stock of the impact that the recent disruption will continue to have on their futures, it is time to prioritise digital product innovation as a key to unlocking business value.
Too big to be
Ten questions business leaders need to ask to understand how prepared they are to innovate and adapt quickly.
1. Does your organisation have the ability to formulate ideas, develop them into plans and then execute those plans quickly, without lengthy reviews or complex decision paths?
Be responsive: Bias to action comes naturally to the strongest innovators but can also be implemented alongside corporate controls to maintain operational stability. The skillset for innovation can be very broad, but by consolidating expertise in cross-functional teams, the overall agility of the organisation need not suffer.
2. Is your team able to change plans, acquire new skills and commit to learning through doing?
Be flexible: A culture of flexibility recognises that the experience gained on the journey is at least as valuable as the end result and views all innovation as an iterative process of refinement and expansion. It is impossible to know where the next challenge will come from, but with increased flexibility comes a corresponding probability that it can be tackled successfully.
3. Do you give your teams the freedom to make mistakes without fear of repercussion?
Be trusting: Teams that are afraid to fail or don’t feel comfortable raising a hand when things go wrong are unlikely to want to push out of their comfort zone and innovate. Steve Jackson, Co-founder at Xoomworks, also says “There’s a powerful reason that freedom is one of our core values, and I believe it is critical to our success. When we partner with a tech-driven company, our team know they have the freedom to challenge the client, to experiment and fail whilst staying 100% accountable. That is what helps us help our clients leap forward and make progress together. It’s a value that drives trust, openness and a culture of innovation.”
4. Do you watch and learn from other industries or invest time in planning different scenarios for different possible outcomes?
Be observant: Find your relevance to the situation. Look at what is happening and identify how your products or services could be relevant to the emerging situation. Understand your customers’ new needs and decide how you could help fulfil them. Disruption and unfamiliarity present new problems to solve. Organisations that innovate find ways to highlight their relevance to the prevailing challenge and satisfy new demands.
5. Is your organisation overly risk-averse, slowing down the decision-making process?
Be swift and decisive: This can often be the downfall of larger organisations. Today’s consumer has access to information about you and your competition. A rapid digital product launch and clear messaging that connects with the customer at the time they most need it will position your organisation ahead of the competition. Once you have articulated how relevant you are to the changing market, communicate it quickly via the right channels to your existing and potential customers.
6. Does your organisation have the ambition and optimism needed to guide them through challenging times?
Be focused on what ‘might be’ possible: Opportunities may come and go quickly, but by focusing on what is possible in your market, you may be able to adapt or develop an existing product to meet the challenges. Seize the window of opportunity to create a new or improved product the market now needs.
7. Is your organisation prepared to bypass traditional structures and hierarchies to accelerate innovation?
Be ready to dismiss obstacles: Bring together a multi-disciplinary team to brainstorm solutions and develop ideas into working models. Create an agile ‘island’ within your organisation if necessary, to prove its worth. Larger, traditional organisations may take too long to develop agility across the board, so create it where you can.
8. Does the organisation understand exactly where the value of its capability lies?
Be you and do what you do best: Organisations that understand what it is that they know how to do really well will be able to focus their efforts. With focus, it becomes easier to adapt an offering or a product to a new customer group or situation. How could your product be used in a new way, or by a different demographic? In times of uncertainty, do what you do best, in new ways for new customers.
9. Are you able to think long-term and plan for sustainable business while exploring immediate challenges and opportunities?
Be like the tree-climbing leopard and have a three-dimensional vision: Innovation doesn’t mean short-termism. While immediate challenges and opportunities stimulate new thinking and ideas having a long-term mindset is critical. New initiatives may well have a long lifespan or open up lasting new possibilities. As teams invest energy and act to embrace the now, leaders need to think ahead and plan for sustainable business using different potential scenarios.
10. Is your organisation true to its purpose and mission?
Recognise what is unchanged: Your organisation’s purpose is what has driven your business forward, and this probably won’t have changed. Strong brands have a strong sense of purpose. As long as you align innovation to your purpose and mission and stay connected to your existing customers, you’ll be able to take them on the journey with you – regardless of where the road takes you.
Imprinting culture into a client organisation in a new environment: a case study.
The Financial Times newspaper wanted to create a digital product development hub outside of London to further invest in core FT platforms. FT CPO John Kundert explains, “We wanted to retain a presence in the UK for our Product and Technology team while also creating a new hub to own product development and infrastructure support.” The FT made the decision to work in partnership with Xoomworks who combine technical capability and alignment, and the ability to source local talent, with the Xoomworks One Team Approach™. OneTeam is its well-established engagement methodology that encapsulates Xoomworks’ values and ethos. “Xoomworks One Team has been built into the DNA of our Sofia team and is having a wide-reaching impact on the culture and ways of working within the FT. It built trust that has proved to be extremely valuable and de-risked many of the challenges.” The benefits of working with a partner like Xoomworks go beyond cultural impact. Savings of over £4m per annum are expected from the project. The FT plans to invest them in further growth and expansion in their new environment.
The most adept innovators recognise there is a sweet spot to be found at the intersection of novel ideas, existing capability and appetite for risk.
Organisations that are geared to innovation, focused on continual optimisation, and operate with agility, have always been able to adapt and find new growth opportunities. The recent changes precipitated by the Covid crisis have made these attributes essential to the survival of many businesses and should be central to your strategy. The leopard may hunt alone; however, there is safety in numbers too. Product innovation strategy can also be influenced by partnerships, where the cross-sector experience and capabilities of trusted partners can be leveraged to extend further and move comfortably into new territory – and thrive.
About Xoomworks We partner with digitally-ambitious organisations to launch innovative, digital products quickly. Find out how the Xoomworks OneTeam Approach™ is having a wide-reaching impact on our clients’ culture and way of working, with phenomenal results.
Ready to work with a digital product partner that will give you the speed and agility to adapt and thrive? Get in touch with us.