Interview with Rick Waldron | The Garage Group

Interview with Rick Waldron

Rick is an “Enterprise Innovation & New Business Creation Architect,” passionate about recapturing and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit that originally launched companies toward the success they have achieved. His expertise has been forged through building teams and capabilities at some of the world’s premier technology and consumer brands and Fortune 100 innovators (Nike, Intel). We sat down with Rick to pick his brain on where things are headed in the Corporate Innovation & Growth space, and to get his advice for Bigco leaders as they pave the way for their organizations to stay relevant in an increasingly turbulent world.

As you reflect on where things are heading, what are some of the themes you’re seeing with the changes that companies are making to keep up?

One of the changes companies are making is that they are thinking more holistically about innovation. People have started thinking about how to make a broader mindset shift and really get the entrepreneurial mindset and methods more proliferated into the organization, and they’re focused on bigger, higher impact, game-changing efforts.

When people first started doing innovation, they were focused on the tools and processes and skills portion of it; the mindset of Design Thinking, User-Centered Design, and Lean Innovation.

Once you get that going, and you yield some good results, you start to wonder how do I continue to proliferate it in the organization and allow it to have more impact in areas that are beyond the low-hanging fruit areas? These are things that might be longer term, farther away from their core business or spreading….the things that can be game-changing.

What do you see as the benefit of the core and adjacent areas, or the just day-to-day business units, adopting some of these practices and approaches?

When you move into cost-cutting, restructuring efficiencies, you’re making your company as efficient and high-yielding as possible. But you do squeeze out that creativity and closeness to the customer. When adopting a lean innovation mindset and methodology, companies are going back to the roots of creativity, speed, closeness to the customer and the customer problem which really are those entrepreneurial roots of what made them great in the first place. So, by bringing these things back into the core business and revitalizing them, you put a new energy back into the organization, people get more engaged in the work they’re doing, and they yield better, faster cheaper results.

When leaders have a vision for innovation and start to build this new foundation for a new way of working, where do they stumble? Where do you typically see leaders fall down?  

The challenge for a leader is that in driving work in a new way, there are a number of different areas one needs to focus on and many leaders stumble by not focusing on thinking about and driving innovation in a holistic way:

What typically happens is that leaders focus on up one, maybe two, of these elements, they fail to create a  not a comprehensive solution, and there is a limited impact on the innovation.

What advice would you give to a leader who is currently stumbling?

The leader should ask themselves some questions…what is really your definition of success and what are you trying to accomplish? What is your innovation strategy?  Strategy is about making choices and marshaling resources, so there are always trade-offs. But have you thought through what the ramifications are? Has your team helped you define and articulate that?

These things seem like basic blocking and tackling but, the senior leaders of any enterprise are super busy just managing the day-to-day operations and delivering value on that vector. Have you, as a leader, carved out enough of your time and mindshare to go through that exercise of getting sharp on where you’re heading, communicating that, and then, tasking people to deliver on it? That is what people call being an ambidextrous leader.

There are fellow travelers out there, your fellow business leaders, your CEOs who have tried and stumbled and learned a lot in doing that. Are you tapping into that? There are experts in this field, and are you tapping into them?

In your eyes, what does it look like for an entire organization to operate like a startup?

First of all, I think there are certain places in an organization where it doesn’t make sense. The question to ask is, “What are the areas in which we have more uncertainty or do we need to do more exploration where customer needs and responses, product-market fit and operational levers are not as predictable as that of our core business?”  Those are the areas where startup practices fit best.,

What sort of ways are people out there measuring what success looks for them when they attempt to really change how their organization operates more like a startup?

In the initial stages, you should be focusing on the inputs. Is your team asking and answering the right set of questions around who are the customers, what are the jobs they’re trying to get done, what frictions or problems do they have, whether they’re conscious or unconscious in achieving these jobs, and are these large and important jobs? Are you really engaging customers in a way that you’re revealing market-validated answers to key assumptions? Are you talking to the customers? Are you then offering them things and seeing how they respond in an as real-to-life setting as possible such that you’re getting the market-validated truth? Are you translating your marketing insights (really, your customer insights) into tangible products and services that are actually going to solve those customer problem insights and challenges, and not towards addressing your own needs and your own interests?

You can measure all of these types of inputs. If you begin to create those behaviors, then you’ll be yielding positive outcomes. Then you can move on to evaluating whether you have the right number of bets in your pipeline and whether you have a robust pipeline.  You can also evaluate your spending. Are you beginning to increase your efficiency so your dollars per work output is going up?

Finally, as your pipeline matures, you can measure results…., Are you actually launching things into the market? And are your new product and services gaining customers? And finally, are they generating ever-greater accretive revenue?

What advice do you have for leaders who know that their organization needs to be making these sort of changes, but need to get the other leaders in their organization on board?

There are three levels of tangible results that a leader who wants this change can deliver with huge impact:

  1. One, what are the near-term shiny objects that they can bring to the table? For example, showing a team in action and showing that they are working in an entrepreneurial way is getting some customer insights that this organization has not had access to, or that they are working at a speed that the organization has not seen for a long time or working at a costs-to-results ratio that the organization is not used to. One or more of those is super-helpful in creating positive noise (i.e., good PR) and interest.
  2. Two, are you going after big, game-changing things? Are you innovation processes being directed towards big bets? Are you setting forth a size of the prize that keeps people interested?
  3. And three, you need to show them in the mid-term that valuable things are actually coming out of your pipeline. They might not be the big bets, but they are actually yielding customer engagement, excitement, and money. It doesn’t have to be huge, initially, but it has to be real.

What are the benefits of pressure testing strategy?

Often times, strategy comes from a strategy team that’s been doing a lot of research and maybe tapping into big strategy consulting firms to help. But, that work usually only tells a direction to go, not a specific point on a map or how to get there. And, it’s not generally market-validated. It’s as if Lewis and Clark were starting on their journey and someone says, “I want you to go to California.” It doesn’t tell them anything about which rivers to navigate, all the little pitfalls they’re going to find, and how to get over one portage to another, to another river.

That is a gap that can be filled through what I would call  “applied strategy work,” the act of turning high-level objectives into actionable steps forward, and then refining exactly where on the West coast to  land, going back to the Lewis and Clark analogy. And this is where a lean innovation approach can come into play — a team can use the entrepreneurial mindset and methods to begin to translate that high-level intention into market-validated, de-risked action steps.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organization, a book about “teal” organizations —  new organizational structures in which independent, empowered teams drive to insight and action within the strategic and operational umbrella of the enterprise, but through their own direction and initiative.   

Another book that I just finished up and would recommend is Peter Hinssen’s The Day After Tomorrow a good read for the corporate leader to help them think holistically about the challenge of innovation in an established enterprise.  

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