Adapt or be left behind.
As Director of Corporate Innovation for the Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit NewBoCo, Mandy Webber works to make sure less and less companies get left behind by helping them think with an innovative mindset.
It’s like teaching an old dog a new trick.
“I’m building an innovation program to help companies in Iowa figure out what is innovation and how they infuse those principles in their business,” Webber says. “How to stay relevant and not look at innovation as a separate thing or one goal for the year.
“Innovation needs to drive the company strategy and all employees, at all levels, need to understand what that means for them on a daily basis in terms of how they’re working.”
Webber spoke with Clay & Milk about the processes NewBoCo has developed to help corporations develop an innovative culture, why companies should and provided examples of innovative and non-innovative companies.
How does the process start of you meeting with a company?
MW: One of the products I have is an innovation assessment to get the pulse of the organization currently. Once we have that we can work with the company to determine a strategic roadmap that innovation is driving.
The whole point is with this roadmap you can then pick what is most resonating with the company at that moment.
What comes from the assessment is these are the areas or the gaps that we’re seeing in what leadership wants to be doing and what employees are doing. The assessment not only helps us learn the pulse of the organization currently, but the areas of opportunities. So the roadmap is driven by the discoveries we had in the assessment to help you figure out where is the best use of your time and energy to focus on what’s most relevant to your company and industry.
How do you go about this with a company that is set in its ways?
MW: That’s where each company is different. What I was describing is the ideal framework for how we would like to work with companies, but we know that most of our entry points are going to be customized to start the work.
A local company that we’ve done some work with to test the experimentation, iteration and startup principles, we’ve done three-day innovation experiences with them. We simulate a startup weekend event where they pitch ideas, then we work through customer discovery methodologies to get them familiar with moving quickly, pivoting and teaching them these principles.
So in the end, they promote those ideas internally to like a shark tank type judging panel. A lot of times the goal is to learn how to think like that and how you would start on an idea like that. Other times they see an idea that is really good and they give it some weight within the organization. From there if something like that follows up, we would love to put those ideas in a 90-day accelerator where the organization dedicates a team to that idea, similar to the Iowa Startup Accelerator program.
But if a company has been successful doing it their way, why change?
MW: Because if they aren’t thinking about it, there are people thinking of ways to disrupt every industry right now. If you want to wait and be in the passenger seat for a company where you have a core product and you want to wait for someone to disrupt that market, then scramble to figure out how to stay relevant in your industry, that’s an option.
It’s not an ideal option if you are a leader if you are seriously focused on the bottom line. You need to figure out different ways to stay relevant while providing value to your customers.
You can’t just have innovation be one bullet you check off in March and think you don’t have to revisit it throughout the year.
What’s the toughest part about getting companies to think differently?
MW: The biggest hurdle I’m trying to face is companies actually meeting to prioritize this. They are stuck in the mentality of they are making money and that they’ve always done it this way, so they’re fine. I’m sure most local grocers thought that until Amazon bought Whole Foods.
Things are changing at a rapid pace, and there are people to think about new ways to acquire business and hit new audiences. It’s not a matter of if it will impact my business and industry, it’s a matter of when. Companies don’t necessarily see us as a bridge to help them think like that. They see innovation as fluffy.
What type of companies do you work with?
MW: All over the grid honestly. We’ve gotten a couple of engagements with larger organizations and we are working with one in Iowa City, but we are also talking with people who have smaller organizations. I don’t want to limit people on the size because there are ways we can help any organization.
And people are approaching us with different challenges in different industries. People are approaching us from different sized companies and different challenges, so we are getting a lot from Eastern Iowa companies but we haven’t really worked with companies outside of the corridor. And ideally I’d like that to change but right now we are focused on helping companies in the corridor.
Which companies do you use as a model for innovation?
MW: If you look at how Amazon started, they are a great example of experimentation and iteration. They started by selling books online.
And now look at them. People see core innovation as a negative and they shouldn’t. If you’re working on core innovation that is providing value to your customers and improving productivity and efficiency within your company, that is a win.