Even as a Salesforce employee just back from my 5th Dreamforce, I still find it mind-blowing on so many levels. I return every year exhausted, but also exhilarated. Perhaps I’ve been drinking too much Salesforce Champagne (I’ve sworn off the kool-aide reference), but after seven years in this company I’m still amazed at the rate of growth, and more importantly, the rate of innovation that we not only generate, but that we actively promote and also inspire in others.

Dreamforce is now the biggest conference of its type in the world, bringing together a melting pot of people, companies and ideas, overlaying a psychedelic swirl of San Francisco that is akin to stepping inside the looking glass…even if it only lasts a couple of days. 

While this happens only once a year, it’s fundamental to the culture of who Salesforce is, and I believe, inherent in the impact it has on others as a force for good in driving innovation in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, innovation and the act of a company becoming innovative is hard. Saying that, there are some elements of human behaviour that are critical to enabling a company to even step on the road to begin their innovation journey. Changing behaviour is a great start to getting on that road. Here’s how. 

1. Challenging orthodoxies

Most companies get stuck, holding onto orthodoxies, or ways of doing things, that inhibit them from thinking about their business differently. Being open to, and sharing in the ideas and thoughts a group of people from across a broad range of industries and disciplines is critical and necessary in starting any innovation journey. By being in situations that enable you to have the ‘lightbulb’ moment that getting you thinking about the possibility. 

Through the course of the week I had the opportunity to speak with and also listen to many people. Customers from all over the world. Salesforce partners that both deliver solutions that extend the capability of the product and those who implement it. Thought leaders such as Dr. Vivienne Ming who spoke on the importance of diversity and the cost impact that a lack of diversity has on innovation. Buddhist Monks that think about how to be a better person and live a better life. Salesforce employees from all around the globe, working with our customers to push the boundaries. 

The value of people sharing and collaborating across geographies, industries and problems, opens us up to all challenging our orthodoxies and exposing us to a rich tapestry of possibility. 

2. Being curious

Gary Hamel and Nancy Tennant’s quote “To be an innovator, you don’t need a crystal ball: you need a wide-angle lens” is by far one of my favourite perspectives on how we should all think about innovation.

We typically group innovators in a class of their own, as a special breed. And yet innovation is democratic. We can all be innovators if we build the muscle on how to think differently, and practice – just like training for a marathon. So how to do that?  It’s about taking notice of what’s happening around you, seeing things from a different perspective and joining the dots to come up with a different outcome. 

This year a lot of focus at Dreamforce was about artificial intelligence, big data and how this may impact the nature of work in the future. What does marketing, sales, service look like when we can predict behaviour more accurately and automate process to free workers to focus on those things that require human reasoning?

Spoiler alert: AI is real, and it’s already here. Siri, Alexa, Quid, Amazon, Einstein – all are about using the information available to answer a question – whether that be identifying the closest coffee shop, predicting other products we might be interested in based on buying patterns, or auto classifying a high priority case so that it can be assigned for resolution quickly, AI is here to stay. 

What’s fascinating about talking to a diverse group of people is the wise and varied applications of how and where this type of capability might work for them. Obviously this isn’t Dreamforce specific – the point is about stepping outside of your usual group of suspects to gain exposure to what’s going on outside of your world. 

I’ve written about the importance of leveraging a broad range of ideas when solving business challenges, and Dreamforce provides that at scale. People come to Dreamforce open to the possibility of the new, the interesting, the amazing. 

3. Being clear about your purpose

Tiffani Bova, our Global, Customer Growth, and Innovation Evangelist kicked off the first session at the UK & Ireland Innovation tour at Dreamforce. She challenged the audience to think about their purpose, using Nike as an example of the point, asking “who are they as a company?”. On the surface most would assume that they are a shoe company, and for a long time that’s what they were. Ask today and they would define themselves as a fitness company, providing a broad remit in which they can operate – but with focus. Tiffani posited that they are in fact an IT company, with a fitness focus. As they evolve their products to adapt and take advantage of technology trends, they are not afraid to challenge who they are, and what they need to do to continue to innovate. 

Many companies don’t examine their purpose, and to their detriment. Kodak, Nokia, Blockbuster…there are endless lists of companies that have died a death because they didn’t challenge their purpose and pivot to accommodate societal changes impacting their remit at that point in time.  

4. Not waiting for someone to ask

The best inventors are ones that can tap into our need, before we even knew we had it. Henry Ford’s famous quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” taps into this sentiment perfectly. Orthodoxies aren’t the sole domain of business. We all hold orthodoxies, predicated on our place in society, education, what we know, what we’re exposed to, what we’re comfortable with.  From the electric light, the automobile to the ipod, these weren’t even needs we knew we had – but now imagine living a life without them.

Being bold enough to push forward with an idea and implement it, without having an airtight need, or explicit set of user requirements can be challenging for business. Time is money, right? What we do know is, without being bold you will invent nothing! 

Innovation doesn’t need to break the bank. Iterate fast, iterate often is a good mantra to live by, and allows you to get new ideas out to your users to see how they land. 

There is more to innovation than changing behaviour, granted. But, without changing your mindset, by not challenging your thinking and not being prepared to ‘have a go’, your standing still. And no company today can afford to be doing that. 

Innovation and the Customer Experience

One of the outputs from the UK & Ireland Innovation tour at Dreamforce, was an e-book on Innovation and the Customer Experience, and how you need to stay ahead of technological trends to succeed. It's well worth a read if innovation is something you're interested in - and in today's age, who isn't?