The Power of “Yes, and …” And Other Lessons in Fostering Customer-Centric Innovation
May 5, 2022
May 5, 2022

What do an industry-leading life sciences company, a high-performing financial institution, and a cutting-edge clothing rental brand have in common? More than you might think. Despite their obvious differences, Cencora (formerly AmerisourceBergen), Bryn Mawr Trust, and Urban Outfitters’ Nuuly share quite a bit of common ground, including the belief that customers—internal and external alike—belong in the driver’s seat.

Last Friday, leaders from each of these organizations, including Leslie Donato, Jennifer Dempsey Fox, and Kim Gallagher, came together to discuss the opportunities and challenges they encounter when conceptualizing, building, and advocating for a more customer-centric company and culture. Hosted by The POWER of Professional Women and moderated by Navigate, the virtual panel served as the first event in a two-part series on accelerating innovation. 

The perspectives shared during this 90-minute session were as refreshingly diverse and dynamic as the women themselves. Here are just a few of their most memorable insights.

Get disciplined about definitions

Innovation may not always be a linear process, but if you’re committed to catalyzing change, you’ve got to start somewhere. That first move, according to Leslie Donato, EVP and Chief Strategy Officer at Cencora, should be to define your customer and the issue they’re having. As she noted, the impetus for change can stem from multiple sources: a customer need or problem, a shift in the market, or the realization that a particular process or project isn’t producing the desired results. Regardless of the source, the key lies in fully understanding what you’re up against.

Leslie and her colleagues at Cencora are “fairly disciplined relatively early in the process when it comes to defining what the problem is.” They even conduct an in-depth narrative exercise designed to capture key details about their target customer and how the organization can support them.

Our takeaway? Do your homework. Articulating a clear definition of the challenge at hand and how it affects the customer will help your organization accelerate innovation to deliver the most value.

Disrupt yourself—or risk being left behind the innovation curve

Director of Marketing & Customer Success at Nuuly, Kim Gallagher, had sage advice for leaders who may hesitate to make a bold decision or take a calculated risk: Fight to overcome your fears and focus that energy on creating new (or fixing old) ways of working.

Take Nuuly, for example. For umbrella brand URBN, adding a subscription-based clothing rental service to its roster of reputable retail labels made perfect sense. On the flip side, there was some concern that newcomer Nuuly could eat into the business of its sister brands, including Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, essentially cannibalizing sales. What’s more, the retail fashion rental industry was in its infancy at the time of Nuuly’s inception, which meant there wasn’t a bank of market-tested data to reference for guidance.

In spite of these realities, leadership greenlit the rental venture and the rest of Nuuly’s well-received and ever-evolving brand is history.

“We really pushed the message that if we believe renting is a model of consuming clothes that will become popular, we should disrupt ourselves before someone else does,” recounted Kim. Not only has Nuuly’s disruption-positive outlook led to early and continued success, it spawned a new peer-to-peer resale platform called Nuuly Thrift, which allows people to buy and sell secondhand clothes, completing the product life cycle.

Don’t fall for “shiny objects”

For Jennifer Dempsey Fox and others at Bryn Mawr Trust, quantifying the size and scope of a given challenge is half the battle. Solving customer problems is at the core of a customer-centric business philosophy; however, the hard truth is that not every problem is worth solving.

First, you need to look at whether the potential solution or innovation can be adopted broadly across your organization and customer base. As Jennifer shared, “If it’s too nuanced or specific, you might only end up solving a one-off problem; it might not be solving a big enough issue that makes a difference for enough stakeholders. Our team has a phrase to describe some of these ideas: shiny objects.”

Shiny objects look and feel like fun, innovative challenges to tackle. But when you really dig into the data, they don’t wind up being the game changers you’d hoped for your business. Shiny objects are common in the pursuit of innovation, but recognizing them for what they are will help you funnel your time and energy into initiatives that stand to make the biggest impact.

Practice two magic words: “yes, and …”

If your organization is going to reap all the benefits innovation has to offer, it’s important to engender a business climate that drives, supports, and promotes new ideas—missteps and all. One of the reasons innovation sometimes fails to catch on as expected is because employees don’t feel empowered to experiment and, most importantly, make the mistakes that come along with experimentation.

When employees bring their ideas for solutions to the table, try to find ways to make them work, even if they’re flawed. Rather than stymie creativity with a “no,” try “yes, and …” instead. Not only will this encourage new and better ways of working to take root, it will help your organization keep its innovation edge razor sharp and its customer front and center.