There were a couple speakers at last weeks AASCIF 2015 conference that touched heavily on the concept of innovation and change; a big focus of the overall event. Terry Jones, founder of the original online travel agency Travelocity and founding Chairman of kayak.com, made it an outright part of his presentation. Dom Sagolla, one of the early pioneers with Twitter (Twitter user #9), referenced it in a more subtle fashion, but it was the focal point of his presentation as well.
Both men emphasized culture as being an essential element that allows innovation to thrive.
Jones, who was a humorous and entertaining speaker, spoke about what he called the “Bozone Layer”, the often unimaginative world of middle managers that thrive by protecting the status quo. They specialize in stifling ideas and new projects. He suggested ways to counter that phenomena in large organizations, and offered a variety of suggestions on how leaders can create a culture that encourages innovative ideas. Sagolla, also a very good speaker but a bit less animated than Jones, told the audience a great anecdotal story that highlighted the concept. He spoke about an intern they had at Twitter who had an idea regarding a new type of social media platform. The intern gathered a few co-workers, and worked after hours to develop the new system.
The system they built? Why, that would be Instagram, which sold to Facebook last year for one billion dollars. Interestingly, Twitter did not lay an intellectual property rights claim on the idea. That was not in their particular culture.
I could not help but think of our ultra risk-averse industry, and wondered how many companies in the workers’ comp sector would so willingly let an intern go off and play with a new idea using company resources. I think the answer would be damn near zero, and I cannot help but speculate that the cost of that loss of innovation for our industry is probably greater than any real risk.
Foremost among the points emphasized by both men was the fact that people absolutely must be allowed to fail in order to foster a truly innovative culture. As Jones indicated, a leader must know how to kill a project without killing the people behind it. If your corporate culture is one of continual positive accomplishment where no failure is tolerated, your people will not feel free to pursue that “next great idea”. They have to know that failure is allowed, and in some cases, even encouraged.
The concept of allowing failure resonated with me deeply, and on a very personal level.
I rarely discuss my own company or products in this blog, but you will need to indulge me for a moment so that the greater point can be made. WorkersCompensation.com is largely thought of as a free information source, supported by advertising of various kinds. That is a true perception; but what many do not know is that most of our revenue is generated by subscription services and forms management products. Advertising is not our main revenue source. Among our three biggest money makers is a compliance and legislative research system called WorkCompResearch.com (WCR). It is used by thousands of professionals in need of compliance info and pre-programmed forms across multiple jurisdictions. We have a product called FlashFormSSL (FFSSL), which is a cloud library of 1,000 continually updated jurisdictional forms programmed for auto-completion through various claims management systems. Professionals across the nation simply select the form they need, press a button and their completed form appears; populated directly from their existing claims data. We also have the Virtual Claims Kit (VCK), which has enabled the 24/7 delivery of mandatory forms, posters and brochures through insurance carrier and TPA websites, eliminating the wasteful expense of printing and shipping for these companies.
I am proud to say that we pioneered all three services for the industry. WCR remains the only fully comprehensive compliance and research system exclusively available for workers’ comp. FFSSL was the first cloud library of auto-complete enabled forms, established back in 2007. And VCK, our newest content management service, is the only one of its kind, and is saving companies that use it up to 90% of their previous distribution costs for traditional claims kits. While we created the products, we did not necessarily “invent” them. WCR was an idea born inside our company walls, but FFSSL and VCK were the result of customer requests. They identified the need; we simply filled the bill. These three products are our “successful children”, and are truly making us proud. However, sadly, these three kids had numerous siblings that did not survive. They are surrounded by the carcasses of seemingly good ideas that died a premature and unfortunate death.
Some were probably simply ahead of their time.
Some suffered from execution errors or resource allocation issues.
Some were just frickin’ stupid (I can say that because those were generally mine).
The point is, not everything we have tried over our almost 16 year life span has been successful. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve made misjudgments. We’ve failed; probably more often than we’ve succeeded. But we learned from each experience and lived to fight another day. As I sat and listened to both Jones and Sagolla, I felt immense pride at our history of allowing failed ideas their brief and inglorious chance in the sunlight.
I also felt concern for the future. As our product lines mature and achieve greater penetration, will we (or have we) become complacent? Will we spend more time fiddling and fine tuning what we have than finding the next great thing for our industry? Most of my staff has been with us for 10 years or more. As more people are using our products, as more companies request services and enhancements, I know my associates are feeling the “strain to maintain” while at the same time being pleased with our progress. The natural inclination at this point is to ride the wave, not rock the boat, and not burden the operation with new and unproven ideas.
I don’t think that complacency is in my nature, and it should not be in yours. In workers’ compensation, it is a hugely chronic problem.
As I indicated previously, our industry is extremely risk averse. We are slow to adopt new ideas and services, and when times are good we seem to happy to “ride that wave”, with little to no thought about what happens at the next major turn. We do not, as a rule, encourage risk takers, and are not altogether forgiving when new ideas flounder and fail. That may have served us adequately in our first 100 years, but it will not work for the next century of workers’ comp.
The world in which we work is changing at such an incredible pace, and societal expectations are so incredibly different, that we must learn to embrace innovation to remain relevant and effective. As an industry we need to accept, and even encourage failure, as that will help foster the culture of innovation so desperately needed for our future success.
During one of the sessions I was struck by one real life example of how much the world has changed in just the last few years. Terry Jones made a light hearted plug for his book, “On Innovation”. Without giving it a second thought and while he was still talking, I picked up my iPhone. I opened my Amazon app, found the book, and with “One Click Purchasing”, bought it. The entire transaction took about 15 seconds. I had an email confirmation before the session finished, and thanks to Amazon Prime I knew the book would be waiting for me in two days when I returned home. (It is an easy read that very closely mimics his presentation. I recommend it)
I suppose I could have chosen an e-book version and started reading it while he was still speaking, but hey, I’m not that innovative – yet.
The point is, information today is fast and fluid, and expectations are increasing exponentially with that reality. Those who can create and nurture a culture of innovation will have a much better chance of success than those who doggedly insist on placating their own Bozone levels and the status quo. After all, “We’ve always done it this way” can be easily changed to “We always did it that way; back when we did the thing we used to do before someone else did it a better way”.
Build that culture of innovation. If the status quo becomes your strategy, someone else’s culture will eat you for lunch.
Update: This article originally identified Dom Sagolla as a founder of Twitter. That was incorrect. He did help create the service, as part of the company Odeo before the foundation of Twitter, Inc. The article has been corrected to reflect that.