Eve Henrikson is the general manager for Uber Eats EMEA and a NED at Lloyds Bank Corporate Markets. She shares her thoughts on why technology isn’t always an aid to innovation, and what organisations can do to foster a culture of agility that gives them a competitive edge.
What do innovation and agility mean to you?
Innovation and agility really are two sides of the same coin, and you need both to ensure competitive advantage. We all know that change is inevitable and without the ability to adapt and innovate, there is a significant risk of getting left behind. Large businesses might be more protected by size and scale but it is dangerous not to embrace and drive change yourself. If you don’t do it, someone else will.
For me, innovation can lie both in the purposeful exploration of new business models, customer propositions, or technologies, but often it is the day-to-day improvements, quick reactions to changing needs, and agility in your processes and business model that can equally drive ongoing innovation in your business.
“Innovation and agility really are two sides of the same coin, and you need both to ensure competitive advantage.”
I am a big believer in not purely focusing on innovation separate from your BAU but making it an integral part of everyone’s work, embedding agility into your ways of working, and enabling faster learning and decision-making.
What drives agility and innovation within organisations?
A lot of people think agility and innovation are primarily driven by technology. But I don’t think it’s as black and white: whilst technology is obviously a significant enabler, creating the environment and culture that allows your teams to be agile and innovative is equally important.
But what do I mean by that? An environment that supports agility and innovation has both embedded in its processes. It allows time for innovation and incentivises new ideas, it is a place where learning is celebrated. Some businesses have dedicated time for innovation or hackathons. Some adopt continuous improvement or agile methodologies which helps instil a culture of fast learning. Even if we learn that our hypothesis is wrong, as long as we learn quickly and can pivot in a different direction it is a positive.
“An environment that supports agility and innovation has both embedded in its processes.”
However, I don’t want to underplay the importance of technology. It can be a real enabler but equally an obstacle. You often see this in large established organisations that have been around for a long time. Older tech infrastructure and applications can become a real blocker. Investing in scalable technology and continuously doing has to be an underlying success factor.
What role do those at the top of an organisation play in creating the right environment to be agile and innovative?
The executive team and the board can support innovation and agility in multiple ways:
- Make innovation and agility a part of the ongoing plan, with goals, objectives, and incentives that will foster a culture of innovation.
- Set up the right governance to support this culture. Lead by example.
- If needed, put in place the technology (investments) that will enable this to happen.
Boards should be aiming to create an environment that gives people throughout the organisation time to step back and think not just about the short-term improvement already underway, but also about how trends and customer needs are evolving, and how things could be done differently in the future to respond to these changes. This requires a very different mindset, and you’ll have to consciously create the triggers and rewards that allow and encourage employees to think this way. It also means encouraging everyone to challenge what they do and how they do it on a daily basis. If there are ways to do something more efficiently, even if it affects how I do my job, am I incentivised to lean into that?
Crucially, ask yourself “Is there anything in our processes and success metrics that limits our people’s freedom to come up with new ideas and learn?” For example, how do you treat learnings from “failures” internally? Is it seen as a negative or is it part of your “test and learn” modus operandi — where you fully accept that learning what will drive you forward often also necessitates learning what won’t? It’s like adopting a scientific approach, in which all experiments contribute to a better understanding of the field, whether their initial hypotheses are found to be right or wrong.
Finally, I mentioned this already, keep in mind that technology can speed you up but also slow you down. The success of many tech organisations couldn’t have happened without the work they put into creating a technology infrastructure that lets them work at the pace they need. Many organisations are still being slowed down by bottlenecks that have their source in technology set up decades ago. And if you only focus on creating agile and innovative ways of working without resolving your underlying tech issues, you’re not going to be able to reach the velocity you need. Both go hand-in-hand.
What’s one book you’d recommend on the topic?
The Innovator’s Dilemma, by the late Clayton Christensen.
It’s a classic read that describes how challenging the status quo, purposeful innovation, and agility are key to retaining your competitive edge. It also explores ways to structure your approach and organisation to support — with pros and cons. Great read.