Since the recession hit, IT leaders have been caught in the dilemma of delivering innovation with shrinking budgets. In a recent exchange with bestselling author Thomas Friedman, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said that to be able to do that, leaders must see themselves “not as designers but as gardeners” - that is, seeding, nurturing and cultivating good ideas coming from the team and ensuring execution.
Bill Beckler, director of innovation at online travel retailer Lastminute.com, aims to do exactly that. This month, for example, his team will be leaving its traditional office location to do product development in the lobby of the Cumberland Hotel in central London – the idea is to show prototypes to travelers and get immediate feedback on risky or raw product concepts.
“By the end of this, we will be able to build a brand new mobile app that we know travelers love because they would have already told us so,” Beckler told Computer Weekly.
“Innovating in travel is hard, because sometimes you need real travelers to tell you whether an idea stinks, whether they love it, or whether they just don't understand it,” he says.
“If we want to build a mobile app that customers love and that makes people say ‘Wow’ then we need to be testing our craziest ideas and iterating them with feedback from the marketplace. You simply cannot do that from within your office.”
Beckler added that if successful, the experience in the lobby of the Cumberland Hotel will be repeated again in other locations.
Messing with people
Beckler stresses the point that innovation cannot be unleashed within an organisation unless people are working in conditions that encourage creativity and pertinent ideas, adding that his job as the innovation chief of a company that pioneered in its industry sector is to “mess with people.”
“I spice things up and create an environment that fosters better ideas and ways of working. This means breaking down barriers and creating cross-functional teams, which are absolutely necessary to get anything new to happen,” Beckler says.
He points out that innovation at Lastminute.com happens partly by preventing the execution of bad ideas. But how can that be done without stifling the creation/innovation process?
“Our goal is to fail fast rather than let bad ideas occupy our development and prototyping backlog,” he says.
“To do that we get as many ideas in front of customers as frequently as possible, without investing hugely in any of them without proof of their value.”
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Innovating on the cheap
But many CIOs simply struggle to innovate due to their inability to think outside the IT boundaries. And Beckler – an IT expert who had a range of jobs at Lastminute.com, ranging from development and marketing to operations to analytics – maintains that having a varied professional background has been key to his current role.
“My ability to bridge disciplines is my secret weapon for discovering big business opportunities,” he says.
Another key point is that producing innovative ideas doesn’t always have to be a costly process.
“In order to compete during a recession, you have to innovate just to survive. The trick for large companies is to learn from start-ups and innovate, without spending an arm and a leg,” Beckler says.
“My job is to shepherd some of our more radical business opportunities through a lean validation cycle, testing our riskiest assumptions and proving our new business models before they cost us too much. The lean message is a difficult one to teach to teams that always strive to deliver perfection, because ‘good enough’ is all we need to test an idea.”
Beckler says that recent innovations at Lastminute.com have been behind-the-scenes improvements that “make a lot of money” and that recently, the team has identified an opportunity around its Top Secret hotel product, which is still being developed, but is also expected to be very profitable.
However, Beckler says the main focus of the team right now is on mobile: “We just relaunched our mobile website for hotel shopping and we've seen a huge increase in sales in that channel. Our next step is a mobile app that travelers will love.”