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The hunt for big ideas

Three very different companies revealed some surprising ways they tap their teams’ potential at the Fast Company Innovation Festival

The hunt for big ideas

What do two hot startups—one the maker of a beloved piece of chat software, the other a trending fitness company—have in common with a 160-year-old firm known mostly for accounting?

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Leaders from Slack, Peloton, and PwC convened at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on October 25 to participate in a panel entitled “From Good to WOW: How to Drive a Culture of True Innovation Within Your Company.” There, the panelists discussed an urgent question that is increasingly resonating for all businesses: Where do great ideas come from—and how can they get the support to grow?

At surging upstart companies like Slack and Peloton, innovation is baked into their corporate culture. But at an established firm like PwC—whose 250,000 employees are spread out nearly equally among consulting, accounting, and tax divisions, “move fast and fail often” might sound like the last thing anyone wants to hear.

Yet, over the course of a 40-minute chat in Manhattan, these three companies proved to be more alike than different. And following a recent push to promulgate a new philosophy of innovation within PwC, each of these companies is increasingly open to accepting big ideas from all ranks supporting a culture of experimentation.

Participating in the panel were Tom Puthiyamadam, PwC’s “digital services & BXT leader” (a title whose full meaning will become clear below); Amy Stoldt, Peloton’s VP of human resources; Ali Rayl, Slack’s VP of customer experience; and a moderator from Fast Company. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Slack and Petoton combined have a little more than 1,000 employees; PwC has nearly a quarter million. So one of these things is not like the other. And I think that’s one of the fun stories of this panel—the challenge Tom is facing to create a culture within PwC that is emulating the newer cultures of these firms. Amy, what was the “aha” moment that led to Peloton?

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Amy Stoldt: One of our co-founders and his wife were big SoulCycle fans, but the classes were expensive and time-consuming. They thought, There’s gotta be a way to recreate this in a home environment. He had the idea, he surrounded himself with some really smart people, and they brought the bike to fruition.

So that’s an example of an idea coming from the top. Ali, you oversee the customer-experience team. When someone from your team has an idea how to fix a problem, but it might involve a different department, what happens next?

Ali Rayl: When a customer writes in with a problem we can’t readily solve, everybody on the team is empowered to talk to anybody at the company who can help them.

So if someone on the front lines discovers a problem and has an idea to fix it, they don’t have to run it up the flagpole or wait a month to get a meeting with some other department?

AR: There is no flagpole. There are channels for dropping in suggestions, and that can be tied to “It’s this customer, this use case.” We can see all the roadmaps, and all the things we’re planning, so we can tie it to “This looks like one tiny thing you could add to this thing you’re already planning next month.” It’s amazing how often customer needs dovetail with something we’re already planning.

Tom, tell us of your journey. You’ve been at PwC a long time, but about five years ago you started to want to make a change.

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Tom Puthiyamadam: I’ve been at the firm 21 years, but about four or five years ago I [started wondering], where do creative ideas come from? I believe they should come from everywhere, that if you can tap into that creativity in every individual, we’ll be able to do something special.

There are so many entry-level associates that come into the firm, and they come to me 18 months, two years later, and say, “I had all this creative energy, and for some reason it was squeezed right out of me by the machine of PwC.” I said, “We gotta bring that back, but bring it back at all levels.” So, that was our starting point.

So, you come up with an idea, eventually it comes to be called BXT, which stands for Business, Experience, Technology. It’s sort of a philosophy that would be more native in Silicon Valley, that you want to begin to infuse through PwC. How do you begin to get this new thinking to spread?

TP: We decided to do a kind of “anti-training.” We said, “What if we compress something like a 14-week startup incubator into 14 hours?” And “Let’s bake in things that people would associate that are kinda like pop culture-ish. So let’s teach people around emerging technologies, but modeled after Cards Against Humanity.” Or: “Let’s not put people through lectures, but give people an escape room feel where they’re being put through challenges, and you have to find a way out.”

The last thing we did was to test whether people can actually land a message. You have a great idea, you thought boldly about it, you unlocked your creativity—now, can you actually land it with an executive? We said, “Why don’t we bring in four 11-year-olds, and have these super-experienced people pitch their idea to an 11-year-old?” We told the 11-year-olds: “If you like what they’re saying, raise this card with a happy face. If you’re falling asleep, you raise a card that has three Zs on it.”

So that began to condition everyone to say, “Bold ideas are great, but ultimately, can you land your message with an audience that has the attention span of a 11-year-old?” Which is the attention span of an average senior-level executive. So, that was our belief, and it kind of worked.

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Amy, at Peloton, you’ve said, “I’ve never had a job where so many people asked for my opinion.”

AS: Our CEO doesn’t sit in an office, he sits in the middle of our 11th floor, and is happy to have you come up to the desk and talk about the idea, and I’ve never been in an environment like that, a work environment where people really ask what I think regardless of the topic.

Tom, when building the BXT initiative, where did you get ideas?

TP: I had to invite people who were crazier than me into the equation. People that were gonna push me. They were a data scientist who’s done some wild things, a guy from a theater background, and a crazy ad-design guy. These individuals, we were able to concoct this thing and give it life.

I’ll tell you, we didn’t treat it like a program. If you want to do this, treat it like a movement. We didn’t go top-down, we went right to the middle, and said, “What if we can influence the middle?” Because they actually communicate up and down. And then we’re gonna really focus on the junior levels in the firm, because as soon as that energy takes over, there’s no senior leader who wants to get in the way of so many people. It almost becomes a little bit like a revolution in some ways. But it’s taken off.

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A question to all of you: What else can you do, besides targeting the middle like Tom, to drive change in an organization?

AR: For the past five months I’ve been inviting people to say, “This is the one thing that we want to make better this month. There’s this one area that we want to focus on.” Then someone says, “Here’s my idea to fix it, here’s how I’m going to [do it], and here are the people I need.” I then say, “I value you. I trust you. I’m giving you the executive sponsorship to try to change this.”

The thing I introduced just this month is, I’m actually not holding you accountable to do the thing, because it’s legitimately very difficult to do things at a company. Instead, as long as people come back and say, “I didn’t finish it, but I learned this part was hard, and we totally underestimated that.” Then I’m like, “Awesome. You just won. What are you going to do next month?”

Tom, as part of the BXT initiative, you’ve deployed a “digital fitness app” internally at PwC, which teaches about emerging digital technologies and, as important, the mindset and behaviors people need to work differently. Is that educational app for the whole company, or just the one-third that do digital consulting?

TP: It’s for everyone. We’ve started using it with clients, too, to help transform how they work.

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Why does an accountant need to understand blockchain or AI? I ask because I think it relates to this idea of where ideas come from.

TP: I was truly surprised—and I think everyone will be too—some of the most innovative ideas we received came from our accounting side of the business. These guys are coming up with fantastic ideas, and the reality is that technology like AI is reshaping the future of accounting. Blockchain will change the way accounting will happen. So, if you’re not familiar with these new things, you don’t know how to apply it, then how effective can you be at your job going forward?

Our most junior staff, they know these tools, they know these technologies, they just want to be given the permission. So, I think everyone in this room—we’re all leaders of small teams and big teams. How are you providing them the permission to go play, to go do something different? I think that is the biggest challenge we all have. Can we free our teams up to go do the crazy thing, the wild thing? Because more often than not, it’s a great idea, and it works.


This article was created for and commissioned by PwC.

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