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How to Adapt and Innovate for 2018... And forever really

"Stand still at your own risk."

The warning from Cheryl Ainoa of Intuit stood starkly on the MainStage screen at the Velocity Conference 2014 in Santa Clara, California. Not an uncommon warning of course - certainly not anything that those in the audience had not heard before. But what followed, advice from a company that has itself survived several significant market disruptions since the 80s was both valuable and actionable.

After displaying a crowd-pleasing slide illustrating the failure of a series of companies to sense and react to disruption (Thompson, Palm, Blackberry), Ainoa gave sage advice on what companies need to do to keep pace with technological disruption. She stressed that technological disruption is using new technology to solve age old problems; so to survive in a market that is constantly innovating, Ainoa recommends companies focus on two primary things:

  1. Develop Customer Empathy
  2. Keep an Eye on the Future

Customer empathy, as Ainoa states, is truly understanding your customers and their lives. Ainoa introduced it by stating that if your technologists don't understand the customer problem, your company will not be able to adapt quickly enough to technological change. She gives a concrete series of steps to gaining customer empathy that I believe everyone agreed with; and, while in this case she spoke to the very particular audience of the Velocity Conference, I believe that "customer empathy" must be grander than she suggests for a company to truly flourish. I work in the marketing department at Akamai, and spend a lot of time thinking about buyer personas, customer advisory boards, and customer perception research; so, for me everything comes down to really understanding the customer. As someone also trying to institute cultural and organization change (a theme at Velocity), I'm starting to think more grandly myself about who my customers really are. And they aren't just the companies that pay us money. They are also my colleagues. To put this back in Ainoa's terms - to succeed in the long term every department in an organization should understand their customers both internal and external:

  • Technologists need to understand their customers - how are they using technology to solve their problems and what is next?
  • The IT department needs to understand their customers, both internal and external. Does your website or application load fast enough for the company's customers to have a satisfying use experience? Do your internal customers - colleagues from other departments - have the resources they need to do their jobs satisfactorily?
  • Marketing needs to understand the buyer and their problems, or the company messaging will be ineffective.
  • Sales obviously needs to understand the customer or they won't be able to sell.
  • The Finance department needs to understand their customers - again internal and external. What do they need to have happen to make their jobs and the purchase process easier?

Companies that survive long term develop empathy throughout the organization. To bring this back to an example of a company near and dear to the hearts of the Devops community at the Velocity Conference, have a look at Toyota and how they revolutionized work on the factory floor.

Ainoa's second imperative, to keep an eye on the future, is not independent of her first imperative. If you know your customers and what they need now; you'll probably know what they need next. And even if you don't quite figure it out first and a competitor beats you to it, an empathetic culture can help you survive, adapt and respond to changes in the market.

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