How to Drive Innovation in Every Corner of Your Company
When new team members first join our company, I like to remind them that the Software-as-a-Service industry, otherwise known as SaaS, is as much an innovation in billing as it is in software. Why do I tell them this? It’s a reminder that the door to innovation is open to everyone in any department, not just our Product and Engineering teams. Anyone can use the tools of research and development and innovation, and everyone should challenge themselves to do so. To foster and sustain a company-wide culture of innovation, it’s on business leaders to make this message a continuing priority.
Promote R&D for All
In an ideal scenario, instituting a culture of innovation is like starting up a flywheel: Any spin of the wheel adds to the stored energy that can drive future work. At Braze, for instance, our Growth team strives to help the company become increasingly data-driven by acting more like our most sophisticated customers when it comes to analytics, automation, and use of the Braze platform. The goal is to stretch beyond “dogfooding” (testing product internally to replicate customer experiences). In the words of Spencer Burke, the leader of the Braze Growth team, “Be the dog! Don’t just eat their food.”
In one example of this philosophy in action, we started an initiative called Braze@Braze in 2017. This dogfooding effort had humble beginnings as we started using Braze to send product announcements and new user onboarding messages to our own customers. Our early success in those simple use cases quickly snowballed and before long we decided to put Braze@Braze in the hands of our own Customer Success team and watched as they upleveled the sophistication of our customer engagement strategies utilizing Canvas, our then-recently launched customer journey visualization tool.
In early 2018, the now dedicated Braze@Braze team wanted to keep aiming higher, so we looked at what our most sophisticated customers were doing with Braze and noticed a theme emerging in their technology ecosystem with Snowflake deployed as their data warehouse, and Looker sitting on top to provide business intelligence and visualization tools. The Growth team forged ahead, taking Braze@Braze to the next level by implementing Currents (the Braze data-export pipe) to stream data into Snowflake, and then building out new Looker blocks to analyze our event data. In addition to open sourcing those Looker blocks and helping our customers who use similar technologies, that exploration also provided valuable feedback to our Product team on how to improve the reporting built into our own dashboard. Experimentation that started outside of Product and Engineering had come full circle and started informing the roadmap directly.
Flash forward to today, and both Looker and Snowflake are partner solutions that enable our teams and those of our customers to more easily draw insights from data—driving tangible improvements and greater value for our customers.
When you connect different departments and leverage complementary skill sets through interdisciplinary collaboration, innovation and advancement flows more easily. Siloed workflows stifle the diverse perspectives and differentiated problem-solving capabilities at the heart of successful R&D initiatives. In fact, as we see in academia, the intersection of disciplines is where you are likely to find the most low-hanging fruit for process and product improvement. One example is the field of bioinformatics, which combines biology and computer science to bring new tools to fields like vaccine development. From the onset of the global pandemic, we’ve seen a surge of new developments driven by bioinformatics collaboration around the world, including the open-access COVID-19 Data Portal which has enabled scientists in many disciplines around the world to accelerate research on the virus, expediting the development of effective solutions through shared information and data-analysis capabilities.
At Braze, our most sophisticated customers provide another example of interdisciplinary collaboration, combining marketing, product, and data science in today’s modern growth team. Harmonizing skilled workers from multiple departments breaks down entrenched siloed thinking and creates multi-dimensional innovation that can have far-reaching impact.
Allocate Space & Budget
Top-down directives cannot guarantee a culture of innovation, but they can kill it. As a leader, set measurable goals, then get out of the way. The transparent objectives and key results (OKR) process at Braze directly communicates both our goals and how we will measure success. This allows everyone to be charged with creative problem-solving as they work to achieve these shared company objectives. It’s why our company values include “Take your seat at the table,” which underscores individual initiative, and “Embrace curiosity,” which encourages resourceful ingenuity.
Anyone at the company can make a case for innovation, and when they do, it would be a foolhardy leader who did not find resources to develop solutions that benefit the business or improve customer experience. Our budgeting process enables investment in R&D to leverage data science plus investment in new tools and skill sets in multiple places across the company, while the Growth team is specifically tasked with always-on experimentation that often catalyzes other cross-team innovation efforts.
That said, if employees are not given the time to be creative and collaborate outside of their daily responsibilities, then allocating funding is moot. It is crucial to create space for innovation in the work week, otherwise people prioritize assignments with firm deadlines and operate with tunnel vision.
Provide the Right Tools
At the end of the day, ideas can only carry so far. The employees with these ideas need the right tools at their disposal to test, evaluate, and proceed. To encourage and support employee innovation, business leaders should ensure access to the following tools:
- Data: Clean, usable data is vital, with a pipeline that makes it securely available to any group with a valid use for it. When internal data sets and research outputs are maintained and kept current (in our case, by a centralized data science team), employees everywhere will be able to move faster on new initiatives.
- Infrastructure: An agile DevOps infrastructure is also key. If Product and Engineering are the only teams with access to great software and powerful open-source tools, then innovative product solutions will be limited to those teams. Arm the broader group with the same capabilities, and make sure it is easy for everyone to get new technology up and running. Challenge yourself to ensure that your employees can work to the extent of their creative process, and not be limited by their access to tools or resources.
Celebrate and Amplify the Wins
Sharing stories of successful internal innovation sets an example for others to follow. As important as the innovation itself is the inspiration it can provide to others. Consistently spreading the word to wider audiences provides a creative catalyst, motivating the next wave of innovators. The end goal is an imagine-create-evolve loop; if you can keep that running smoothly, innovation will continue to build on itself.
Finally, don’t get in your own way. Be honest in what you don’t know and allow those around you to flourish in their own areas of passion and affinity. No one is an expert in everything, and unique perspectives are crucial to generate new ideas, which is exactly why tapping into your entire workforce and getting them involved in the innovation process is necessary for long-term growth and success. Pair a diverse group of perspectives with the means to actualize their creative thinking process, and you might just revolutionize your business. After all, who knows where the next SaaS stroke of genius will come from?