This article originally appeared on The Drum.
In recent years, key opinion leaders in the conference circuit and the media have obsessed over the dual topic of innovation and disruption. Though both topics have been consistently covered, their endurance in our collective attention is evidence that no analyses have cracked their success code.
Disruptive brands are held as the darlings of innovation – stealing market share, winning customer loyalty, driving shareholder value, and enjoying the accolades of the press. But what is it that makes these brands truly groundbreaking? And what do they have in common with established brands that maintain relevance?
From disruptive new entrants to innovative established companies, it is clear that the brands that are breaking through are led by simplifiers. These leaders – from chief marketing officers to chief executives and beyond – prioritize simplicity. Here I explore their approaches to return valuable lessons for all leaders seeking to unlock innovation.
Humble, not arrogant
Simplifiers appreciate their consumers’ intelligence, and while they maintain simple communications, they do not pander to their audience. They ensure that the brands they lead speak in a human voice in order to promote the personalized experiences customers value.
McLaren Automotive is a luxury brand that has the confidence to be humble. Welcoming auto show stands make the super cars accessible, while communication and marketing support a brand that is elite, not elitist.
Meanwhile, leadership at the Nature Conservancy has the challenging work of communicating heady environmental issues to a broad audience. Leadership achieves a top NGO status by curbing any impulse to impress with the scale of their impact and instead focuses on their audience’s understanding.
Committed to process, but welcoming of creative freedom
Simplifiers establish clarity, but do not micro-manage. While they provide a clear framework and organize their teams so that everyone has a vision of the collective goal and their role in its achievement, they encourage creativity within this structure.
Zappos is a powerful example of a company whose leadership habitually empowers employee creativity, yet scales through defined processes. By maintaining a hiring process that selects employees whose personal beliefs align with the company values, Zappos trusts customer loyalty representatives to deliver a superior brand experience, affording them freedom in how they effectuate it.
A typical innovation among simplifiers is to create smaller teams, enabling members to focus on a simple goal. For example, Spotify’s focused team structure allows employees to work autonomously and to own components of the user experience.
Focused on being useful, not extraneous
Simplifiers get to the hearts and minds of customers by ensuring their brands are useful. They innovate beyond the standard practices in their category to deliver what people value – whether it is saving time, removing unnecessary friction or offering personalization.
The most challenging aspect of this exercise is the elimination required to innovate on what is truly valuable. While some companies frustrate customers with a lack of transparency, others yet make unnecessary aspects of their process visible. Unless this visibility is part of an honest attempt to be transparent and useful, it will likely overwhelm customers.
For example, customers are frequently overwhelmed by lengthy terms and conditions that conceal hidden fees. Jet.com has transformed these moments to expose the hidden levers in e-commerce, disclosing additional costs (such as costs of returns) and allowing customers to opt-out. The experience is both personal and useful — the price that a customer pays is a function of the adjustments they make to the service.
Fact-based, but not pedantic
Simplifiers are experts at interpreting inputs from diverse sources, and then translating these inputs into meaningful innovations. While many managers believe that advantage comes from engineering complexity and the pedantic recitation of facts, great simplifiers use facts to find focus and always test their assumptions in the real world.
Motorola Solutions relies on the observation of and feedback from customers in its user-centric approach to innovation. Many of its users are first responders. By observing the product in the hands of its users, leaders at Motorola Solutions are able to guide product innovation to drive substantial improvements and meet their purpose of “help[ing] people be their best in the moments that matter.”
Great simplifiers put metrics in place to specifically test if the brand experiences and innovations they manage are simple, and they use the facts to determine where to commit resources.
Story-builders, not storytellers
Simplifiers are story-builders, not storytellers. They understand that customers and employees no longer respond to traditional broadcast methods. Instead, they articulate a compelling shared purpose for their organization and strive to deliver brand experiences and innovations that are consistent with that purpose.
The Bloomberg Terminal’s proprietary software that provides access to financial market data, lives up to the company’s promise to provide the most timely and relevant information for financial and business professionals. Since it’s inception, the product designers that support it have continued to innovate around its information delivery by incorporating user inputs into timely improvements. As a consequence, Bloomberg has fostered a fiercely loyal community of users who advocate on behalf of the brand and tell its story well.
While becoming a simplifier is not easy, the payoffs of innovation are many. Simplifiers manage the paradoxes of simplicity gracefully. They are confident without being arrogant; steadfast on brand purpose yet creative on execution; they know the market well and balance their knowledge with a restless curiosity; they are thoughtful but have a bias for action and they communicate clearly yet leave room for others to bring their vision to life.
Most of all, simplifiers ensure that simplicity is always a goal, a benchmark and a means to arrive at success, leaving us with an actionable lesson — if you want to innovate, simplify is the new disrupt.