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A unique approach to innovation

WillowTree’s creative—and socially impactful—approach to skillbuilding prepares the company for anything a client may throw at them

A unique approach to innovation
WillowTree’s commitment to providing time for teams to work on real-world problems

When brands hire WillowTree to build leading-edge digital products, they expect a lot. They want innovative ways to meet the needs of both end users and the business. ” We realized that we have to do the innovation work on our own dime,” says Willow Tree CEO Tobias Dengel. “Then we can pitch clients on what we’ve done and how it can help them.”

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For inspiration on building an intentional, sustainable approach to innovation, Dengel and his colleagues looked to famously creative companies like Google and 3M, which give employees latitude to pursue ideas that pique their interest. But WillowTree’s leadership wanted an emphasis on teamwork and a tight focus on problems that needed solving. “What’s unique about WillowTree is that our team members are all onshore, and when we’re not in a pandemic, we’re working out of offices in Charlottesville, Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; Durham, North Carolina; and New York City,” Dengel says. “This means that our teams can rapidly iterate and seamlessly switch between client work and innovation projects.”

WillowTree’s unique approach to problem solving neatly incorporates those goals while also continuously exceeding their clients’ bold expectations—factors that earned WillowTree a spot on Fast Company‘s list of the Best Workplaces for Innovators.

PICK A PROBLEM, ANY PROBLEM

WillowTree has built in dedicated time for its teams to spend on innovation projects outside of client work. A centralized list keeps a running tally of challenges to be tackled. These might be a business-centric issue, like figuring out how to best leverage Apple’s newly announced iOS 14 operating system for widely-varied industries.

Or, they might be more personal problems. When an employee’s girlfriend was temporarily paralyzed and unable to speak due to Guillain-Barré syndrome, he decided to write software that would leverage the powerful front-facing cameras on new smartphones and tablets by tracking eye movements, then translating those movements into words or phrases. More than two dozen WillowTree team members jumped on the project. “Within a few months the team had designed and built a working prototype for this young woman,” Dengel says. “We got to see how much it helped her. It was so inspiring.”

This free, open-source app is called Vocable AAC and has been downloaded by thousands of users around the world. Dengel says a great deal of interest has come from hospital systems and that the app has been used in recent months to help respirator-bound COVID-19 patients communicate with loved ones and healthcare workers.

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FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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