Strategy vs. Innovation
Last week, I attended the Women in Strategy Summit here in NYC along with several colleagues. Overall, I was very pleased with the sessions, which featured impressive speakers from a wealth of industries — and the conference struck a great balance between the ‘women’ part of the title vs. the ‘strategy’ part of the title, with interesting tidbits on everything from how a young, vibrant content strategist at Facebook knows she’s burning out at work, to how a VP at Soundcloud recently sought to shift its strategic mindset from that of a startup to that of a more established company.
As icing on the cake, I had the chance to spend time with and learn from awesome women I already knew, as well as make some great new connections with other women from my company in attendance.
While I learned a lot from all the different sessions, I want to write about my favorite session of the conference, by a very inspiring woman, Wendy Mayer, who heads up Strategy for Pfizer’s Innovative Health group and previously led Innovation for the entire Pfizer enterprise. Right off the bat, I was intrigued by her story, given that her career has taken a similar shape to mine thus far — albeit much longer, and much more impressive — but, like me, she started her career off with a quantitative focus and spent years doing what she called ‘heavy analytics’, before moving into strategy and then innovation roles.
The title of her talk was ‘Creating Balance — How to strategize for today and innovate for tomorrow’, and she walked through the best articulation I’ve seen of Strategy teams vs. Innovation teams and their often opposing objectives. She dove into the typical requirements for success and metrics by which these teams measure themselves — which are indeed somewhat contradictory to one another:
As someone whose role is ‘Innovation Strategy’, naturally, I am right at the intersection of both of these forces and their goals — and, based on my general observations, I think we need to make a conscious effort to make Strategy teams more Innovative in their way of working. I, certainly, am guilty of sometimes focusing too much on pinning down ‘THE’ answer to the case and opining on what exactly it should look like for longer than I probably should.
So, does Strategy becoming more innovative mean these teams need to become blockchain experts and embed the concept of machine learning into their business plans? Not at all. It’s not about technical capabilities and buzzwords; it’s about adopting the innovation mindset: the willingness to take risks, to fail fast and learn from it, to find assumptions within the broader strategic thesis that can be tested in small increments.
It doesn’t necessarily mean working in a prescriptive scrum methodology — it’s about being more agile in our work; and I truly mean ‘agile’ in its raw definition of the word (ablility to move quickly and easily), not a strict set of sprints and user stories and deliverables.
A very basic example of a way I’m trying to do this on a day-to-day basis is by delivering lower-fi not-fully-baked ‘product’ (i.e., a deck, framework, or whatever other deliverable I’m trying to pull together) faster. Rather than spending time opining on one specific component and making it perfect and pretty, and going through multiple iterations with folks across many levels, I think we should be making an effort to put together the whole story and a ‘best guess’ at what the contents are, in order to iterate and get meaningful big picture feedback faster. I think of it as “if I had to present a version of this TODAY, what would I show?”. We need more hand-drawn slides, more whiteboarding, more in-person working sessions, and less Powerpoint re-formatting and re-aligning and re-wording.
So, that’s what I learned and some baby steps I’ve been taking to try and make my strategic work more innovation-like in nature. I am at a very interesting intersection in my role — and am very energized by the concept of continually finding ways to better embed an innovation mindset into strategy work.