Why Executives Should Align Around Iterative Innovation When Transforming Customer Service

By Dr. Natalie Petouhoff
We’ve all worked at companies where management says, “We’re going to transform how we do business.” The announcement sounds great, but when we have the experience that things don’t really change, let alone transform, we begin to lose trust that the transformation is really a priority. Why does this scenario play out at big companies, and how can you create better outcomes? In this article — the second in our five-part series on executive alignment — you’ll learn about the connection between executive alignment and iterative innovation. We’ll explain why you need both to ensure a successful customer service transformation.

Why the Idea of “Not Knowing” Is Fundamental

To transform how you do business, you have to transform how you approach projects. The old, sequential waterfall approach to project management needs to be replaced by an agile approach. The key is allowing for iterations that reveal opportunities as projects unfold. That means adopting an end vision that often evolves as the project progresses. For this reason, transformation initiatives can be very unsettling in corporate cultures that have historically had very clear ideas about project milestones and deliverables.

The traditional approach to project management only works if all the requirements are known from the beginning, which isn’t possible when you’re aiming for something that hasn’t been done before. It’s better to adopt an iterative approach to project management that involves refining the product through multiple iterations until requirements are met and a desirable, truly innovative result is achieved.

Innovating means daring to be different and actively working to discover new possibilities. Iterative innovation is the result of executives granting teams more flexibility to explore and experiment with new directions, learn from and make changes based on findings, and then strengthen the resulting experiences. The whole company can then achieve real transformation and become much more competitive.

The Importance of Trust

The world of business changes so fast that projecting 3, 6, 9, or 12 months down the road can be difficult — and that has a big impact on any service transformation initiative. The conversation among team members has to be based on mutual trust from the beginning. Leaders must stress the importance of exploring unknown areas of thought, and trusting that a solution will be found in those explorations even though it’s beyond what we can see today.

Why trust the unknown? Because it’s only once we get into the project that we discover what it’s going to take to reach the vision. In fact, executives may even have to lead the team in a direction that is very different from what was originally envisioned. That’s when it’s crucial that everyone — both leaders and employees — be open to choosing the path together and aligning around a new shared vision.

A New Skill Set for Leading Change

Not knowing the actual outcome of a project will make some people uncomfortable and even create chaos at times. So the executive leader has to acquire and evolve the skills necessary to manage that chaos. The CEO must be able to keep the team and the project focused on a path, continually moving forward, regardless of changes or obstacles. From being in the “not knowing” stage, through each and every iteration, and all the way to the completion of the project, executive alignment must be maintained. With everyone aligned, the leadership team guides the project effectively and delivers the transformation.

Smart CEOs realize they “don’t know what they don’t know” and are willing to learn along the way — and that’s the key to leading in a fluid environment. A willingness to learn fosters open communication with peers and direct reports. Transformation can’t happen without allowing people to ask uncomfortable questions and call out issues when they see them. The best CEOs are open to unpleasant feedback and will make adjustments accordingly without taking it personally. Open and honest discussion within teams is often a new way of being for many people and is contrary to most corporate cultures. But honesty is necessary for customer service transformation projects to realize their full potential.

Occasionally, it may be necessary to hire an organizational change management consultant to support the CEO. Someone from the outside can often help identify the areas that are blind spots for the leadership team. These are places where the old culture needs to be broken up to make room for a new structure that will support the transformation. Just keep in mind that the consultant is only playing a supportive role; the CEO and the leadership team are still the ones responsible for driving the transformation.  

Why Iterative Innovation Is Key to Service Transformation

Successful companies encourage employees to practice a mindset of iterative thinking. Workers should be given the space to examine — and question — the status quo. That’s the best way to avoid situations where people stay heads down, implementing for a year or more, before they look up to see if a project still makes sense. Industry leaders succeed by using agile project management that leads to iterative innovation — and encouraging the same approach throughout the company.

Nobody wants to hear another announcement about an innovation initiative only to watch it disintegrate. Ambitious initiatives thrive once a company moves beyond incrementalism and iterates instead. When the cost of a failed project is around $655,000 or more, it’s time to embrace a new method. The pursuit of iterative innovation is a far better way to ensure the success of a customer service transformation and maintain competitiveness in the long run.

This article is part two in our series on executive alignment. In part one, we discussed executive alignment and its central role in a realistic transformation project. Future posts in the series will go in depth into organizational change management that delivers service transformation success. Watch this space for more about the people part of executive alignment and learn how you can design a new mindset for an open and transparent culture.



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