5 Business Leaders Share Their Best Advice for Organizational Change

5 Business Leaders Share Their Best Advice for Organizational Change

Put your company on a self-improvement regimen
Shoshana Berger
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People are always looking for ways to improve themselves. But what about companies? Companies are just collections of people, so it makes sense that they’d build up all kinds of bad habits over time. Shouldn’t our organizations be on a self-improvement regimen, continuously trying to fix what’s broken?

The answer is yes, of course. And when companies don’t fix themselves, we feel it in our products and services. The company has designed something—often a digital thing—that fails to give us what we need, and we walk away cursing the air, wondering if the leaders of the company have ever used the service themselves.

But making things that work for humans isn’t easy. We change every five minutes. How can organizations be confident that what works today will work tomorrow? It’s a lot easier to just slap on a Band-Aid and hope it won’t rip off with the first sudden move.

There are vastly different perspectives out there about how to make change happen and stick, and we’re curious about them all, so this fall, we invited five friends who’ve led major transformation projects at their companies to IDEO’s London studio and for an open conversation.

From left: Business leaders Luis Cilimingras, Beatriz Lara Bartolomé, Paul Clarke, Anne Pascual, and Mike Bracken visit IDEO to discuss how leaders can make change happen.

Here are the top 5 takeaways from our Make Change event:

1. Be a curious leader

“The problem I see in a lot of organizations is they have a lot of great tools but the top leaders don’t use them. If you’re not prepared to do what you’re asking everyone else to do, then why should you expect them to? If you want to understand what’s broken in your company, try entering your own expenses.”

Mike Bracken (Public Digital), the guy who led digital transformation for the UK government (GDS), a model that’s been replicated in Canada, Argentina, Peru, Australia and the U.S. (and he has a letter from Obama to prove it).

If Mike had one piece of advice for making change happen, it would be this: “Go and sit next to a user when they’re using your service or product. I make sure to do six hours of that every month.”

2. Question accepted behaviors

“If you’re in a self-contained moment as an organization, I’d highly recommend that you build an innovation team that sits on the side and role models something really weird and strange, questioning the accepted behaviors. Having a constant dialogue and exchange with other perspectives is what makes companies competitive. But not a team that sits in the ivory tower. Our innovation team has reinvented itself three times in three years according to what the business needs."

Anne Pascual, VP of Design at Zalando, Europe’s leading online fashion platform, which delivers to 24 million customers and grew its revenue to around €4.5 billion last year.

Anne's advice? “Think big. We tend to be obsessed with the details, but there’s much bigger opportunities out there.”

3. Don't build an innovation lab

“Innovation is far too important to be outsourced. I’m not a believer in gluing an innovation lab onto the side of your organization. If your culture is not innovative, that’s not going to sustain. You’ve got to fix your culture first if you want to be in this for the long term. It’s got to be everyone’s job when they wake up in the morning. And you then have to create the air cover as a leader for that to happen, which is all about creating a no-blame culture. You can’t innovate as fast as we do without sometimes screwing up. We do it regularly, and when we do, we try to learn from it, but we know it just goes with the territory of being a disruptor.”

—Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer at Ocado. After a deal with Kruger in May, Ocado’s market cap blew past Marks & Spencer's—a sign of the tectonic shift happening in retail.

Paul's advice would be this: “Tell the truth about what's broken.”

4. Be a DJ

“A good leader is like a DJ—they play the music that makes people move, but they should accept that people will move in different ways and what’s important is that you move to the same rhythm and move forward.”

Beatriz Lara Bartolomé, former Chief Innovation Officer of BBVA, and EMEA Advisor Director of Globant, a digitally-native technology services company.

To make change happen, Beatriz would advise you to “ask your teams what they think should be improved.”

5. Launch beacon projects

“Launching a product to market in a short period of time is the best organizational change program—you’re going to learn the most about how the company behaves. We call these projects that have a change agenda 'beacons.' Select them for their ability to help you build a new muscle. If you’re not building a new muscle with every project, you’re wasting an opportunity to learn.”

Luis Cilimingras, IDEO partner and managing director of our London studio. He leads digital transformation and change projects, including starting an innovation studio called La Victoria Lab that creates new products, services, and experiences for Peru’s emerging middle class.

Luis's best advice: “Keep seeking out inspiration. It’s your job to be inspired.”

Take a behind-the-scenes look at the event.

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Shoshana Berger
Shoshana tells stories about IDEO's work with the world's most forward-thinking organizations.
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