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Customer-centric innovation and digital transformation

While there is no set template to encourage innovation and creativity in the workplace, there are several guiding principles for fostering a culture that is open to innovation and creativity.

Customer-centric innovation and digital transformation
[Flamingo Images/Adobe Stock]

Over the past 25 years, I have had the privilege and honor of leading and advising at the intersection of disruptive technology, digital transformation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I have done so both at new businesses within large, global Fortune 100 companies, and also with smaller, more entrepreneurial venture-backed Silicon Valley startups. Throughout these experiences, I have developed unique insights and foresights on how companies can adopt new disruptive technologies to transform their businesses to achieve improved operational efficiencies, deliver exceptional customer experiences, and most importantly, create new business models to drive growth.

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Over the years, I have learned that there is really no one-size-fits-all scenario as to why a company would want to adopt new technologies. Different companies start at a different point of maturity in their digital transformation journey. Some have had no experience whatsoever with new technologies, others may have experimented with small pilot projects to prove certain business cases, and still others, usually the most sophisticated, have been able to fully adopt new technologies to truly transform the way they do business and create new business models and new revenue streams that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Successful innovation and digital transformation are indeed a journey and are unique to each company’s sets of challenges and opportunities. While there is no set template to encourage innovation and creativity in the workplace, I have found the following guiding principles to be helpful in fostering a culture that is more open to innovation and creativity.

• Make innovation fun. Create a safe and fun environment where people with different experiences and perspectives can come together, have fun, and come up with transformative ideas. For example, every quarter, you could have a Shark Tank-style meeting where people go into different groups to ideate and come back to present an innovative idea they’ve brainstormed. This is a fun team-building activity that gives teams the ability to think outside the box, present, and compete in an innovative way.

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• Make innovation a part of your everyday life. Sometimes, I think companies mistakenly think that innovation is this big magical thing that is separate from their everyday operations. Experience has taught me that this can be furthest from the truth. Time and again, I have witnessed how people come up with all kinds of creative and innovative ideas when they are trying to solve everyday problems, or when there is a crisis.

• Bring together people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. To truly foster innovation and creativity, bring together people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, viewpoints, and experiences. For example, mix people who come not only from business backgrounds but also from engineering technical backgrounds and from creative advertising backgrounds. Mix people who come from startups and from new businesses within large companies, including different industries, like hardware, software, and services. When you can mix people from different disciplines, you’ll be able to form and leverage what I call the “value networks,” in which the interconnectedness and interdependencies among the various members of the network can advance and deliver benefits to the network as a whole rather than just to the individual member. This is when you realize the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts

In addition to creating an environment that fosters innovation and creativity, I have found there are also factors that differentiate companies that succeed with their digital transformations. Here are additional guiding principles that may be helpful for your company’s digital transformation journey:

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• Foster customer-centric transformation. Companies that succeed with transformations usually start by truly understanding the unmet customers’ needs. Then they work backward on building the solutions they can uniquely deliver to solve those unmet customers’ needs. Unfortunately, some companies miss this simple concept, and many start innovating or creating new technologies without truly understanding customers’ needs. The first practical advice I could give to anyone is to go out into the market and speak with your customers about the unmet needs in their industries. Only when you can truly understand the unmet customers’ needs can you truly create meaningful innovation.

• Make transformation a part of your company’s culture. Digital transformation is not only a technological transformation. More importantly, it is a cultural transformation that requires a company to transform its mindset, its muscle, its processes, and the way it fundamentally does business. Digital transformation requires the breaking down of siloes to enable cross-functional teams across the company to leverage the same sets of data to serve customers better and innovate new business models.

• Fundamentally transform the way you do business. Finally, transformation requires a company to create the culture that enables people to experiment, fail fast and learn, and be agile.

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Digital transformation is a journey. It is not a one and done type of endeavor. In order to succeed, companies must build the right mindset, culture, and muscles to be able to realize the full benefits of digital transformation—not only for the businesses, but also for their customers, and most importantly, for their society.


Sonita Lontoh is an award-winning Fortune 100 executive and public company independent board director. 

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