Russell Rogers, innovation trailblazer taught us how to thrive in the corporate world by sharing stories, keeping momentum and collaborating

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During my last visit to Silicon Valley, I ran into Russell Rogers whose professional life has focused on leading and driving innovation with a strong emphasis on design thinking and change management. Through his journey, he has ruffled feathers at Humana, Samsung, DuPont, and most recently Blue Shield driving innovation. He also started a couple of startups spun out of the MIT Media Lab. He has graduate degrees and a significant number of certificates in business, technology, innovation, public health, and leadership from Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. He is about to complete another degree at Columbia in NYC, and I was fortunate to meet him during Stanford’s LEAD program. But if you asked him, he isn’t erudite, just curious.

He most recently worked with Blue Shield of California, where he was driving not only technological advancement in the corporate arena but also leading change by testing and implementing new approaches. We’ve had a deep exchange about various challenges including how to thrive in the corporate world and while changing culture and building oneself up to be an innovation trailblazer.

If there is one thing you would advise companies to do while striving for innovation. What would it be?

The first and foremost advice would be to create a narrative as to why you are doing what you are doing. Don’t use corporate jargon. Connect with people. Weave it around your company so that everyone inside and outside understands and is motivated. I have been in Blue Shield for six months and significant technology partnerships are beginning to take shape. But first, we put in place a strategy roadmap and process for why and how we engage in partnerships. This roadmap describes what happens over 2020 and rolls up to a four-year plan. So, if Fast Company wrote an article in 2023, What will their story be about Blue Shield? For that reality to come true then there are things that need to happen now. So, we speak in terms of present forward future back. It’s building the bridge as you walk across it. You can see where the bridge will lead to but is yet to be built.

At Blue Shield, we have amazing digital interaction with our customers that go beyond everyday insurance and medical care. Our story has to be what we would like to be in the near future. This future goal brings a positive attitude to change in the whole team and they want to hit our targets as soon as possible.

Therefore, storytelling is very important for getting your message out into the organization, for selling people different ideas you have. If you want to get a project funded, you need to be able to tell a story. It’s also important to explain the successes that you’ve had, so you can share those throughout the organization and keep your story alive. This helps to build momentum around change efforts. For this reason, always work on the narrative first rather than the end goal alone.

“If you want to get a project funded, you need to be able to tell a story. It’s also important to explain the successes that you’ve had, so you can share those throughout the organization and keep your story alive.”

Innovation is one long, exciting road. What are the key learnings you would like to share on the innovation trail?

Russell explained that there is a range of learnings on his innovation road, let’s highlight three of them,

1.   Getting buy-in is not enough, you need to keep the momentum going

Getting ahead is not enough, but staying on the road with the same intensity is also important. This has been true for me whether it’s Humana, Samsung, or DuPont or my own ventures. It is not just rallying support for initiatives but also maintaining the momentum.

There is an adage that said, “We have to have senior leadership buy-in, so if senior leadership supports an initiative and decides what’s important, everyone will be on board”. Thus, this can only happen when you keep momentum by communicating your innovation plans to each person on the ladder. For instance, if you bring in a new responsibility to the same team, it may start by force but will never stay there consistently because old job descriptions take over.

You could get the buy-in from senior leadership for change management initiatives. But the key question is how do you continue to build momentum? Full engagement across the org that’s how.

“Getting ahead is not enough, but staying on the road with the same intensity is also important. The change is only possible when all employees embrace change as core to their core job.”

 2.   It is less and less about tech, it is about collaboration

People are looking towards innovation, to lead the change in the organization, which makes sense. But it’s less and less about the use of technology and more about mutual collaboration. Today our teams collaborate more with HR, with design professionals, business, and technology developing links in order to connect with everybody in the organization. Therefore, there’s nobody that doesn’t need some sort of connection to help us all innovate efficiently and with maximum effect.

3.   Connecting the dots using a multi-pronged approach

As a larger proportion of companies are looking towards innovation to drive their growth, we find ourselves working more with senior leadership.

However, to get your ideas working you need a multi-pronged approach because even though the higher tier management may be with you, you also need to communicate and coordinate your efforts across multiple departments. You need champions in every department that help you continue the change management efforts.

“You need a multi-pronged approach as the higher tier management may be with you, but you also need to communicate and coordinate your efforts across multiple departments”

That being so, I suggest also having a timeline that’s transparent to others in the organization that shows them that there’s a change management plan in place. It’s not just the Innovation Group that needs to work towards change, the effort needs to come from all quarters. So, to avoid people feeling like it’s a one-hit-wonder where an announcement of an initiative is made and nothing meaningful follows, you need to layout the innovation plan in front of everyone for them to understand and implement it. Transparency builds trust.

There must be various challenges every time you step up to bat. What are the three major challenges you are trying to solve today in the innovative process?

Russell explained that the major challenges today in this role can be grouped into three main categories which include:

1.   Separate real signals from noise

I probably spend three hours a day, just reading and scanning the environment for what’s new. I also interact with a large network of experts that help me understand the overall scenario of the present times. As a result, it is of absolute importance to spend time identifying what’s emergent. Moreover, it is also essential to quickly separate the information we need from the information that is of no use. Otherwise, this is a recipe for time-wasting.

This becomes more of a struggle for corporations as utilizing time for innovation takes the backseat as the results are often not fast or certain. It will be interesting to see what prioritization innovation gets as companies are dealing with cash crunches and major layoffs from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is of absolute importance to spent time identifying what’s emergent. Moreover, it is also essential to quickly separate the information we need from the information that is of no use”

2.   Dry Powder – Figuring out how to Prioritize and maintain funding for innovation projects

Today there is such a backlog of ideas that people want to implement that by the end of the first quarter many have already busted most of the allocated budget. Consequently, if something comes up in the following quarters, there will be missed opportunities due to a lack of funding. As a result, you need to run a very agile budgeting and funding process. The needs are somewhat unique to innovation because we tend to do things more quickly and respond more quickly. So, if you come up with a new idea in the third or fourth quarter, you might often push it to the next year. But innovation windows are small and close quickly. Fund quickly to not lose your opportunity to be the leader.

3.   Talent management

Often organizations have high performing individuals in their innovation groups. They are always willing to bring something extra to the table. Though, the real challenge is to set a career path for these innovators.

They are high performing individuals and may want to make a switch any time a new opportunity is available. Thus, you have to be on your toes while making company retention policy for the core innovation group. Therefore, creating a challenging environment for people working on innovation and managing these high performing individuals is a real challenge.

Plan on many in your group only staying around for a few years and then set them free into the organization to share their collaborative mindset. The innovation group or function can be a great source of talent that drives culture change after a tour of duty in the innovation group.

You have loads of experience with Corporate Innovation. What will be your advice to the people just starting the journey?

You want to be the Trailblazer; you know you want to be the innovator you want to do things differently. But you can’t bring with you any sense of arrogance. Humility and a service mindset will get you much farther. If you come in as though you’re like: I’m entitled, I’m the innovator. Or perhaps you say and act like you will not pay attention to the rules or the existing culture of the organization. If you do all or some of the above and you may never see the innovation results you envisioned.

As a consequence, not only will you be unable to instill your innovation, but you will also face resistance from quarters you didn’t even know existed. For that reason, you need first to acknowledge the culture that already exists.

“You don’t have to embrace the culture you are trying to change just don’t disrespect it”.

My recommendation is to learn the language first. There is a certain way every organization communicates. If you crack that code, resistance decreases. Thus, you don’t need to say “you are doing it wrong let me show you the right way”. You can start off by saying “this is good, let’s try another solution that may also work.” or “I want to partner with you to see if we can try to do some things differently and potentially will find that they’re more effective”. Subsequently, you come to the solution and start building a new culture with them.

I’ve made that mistake personally, as I’ve been an outside innovator coming into a strong culture. I’ve had people say, you haven’t even really spent time getting to know who we are, why we do what we do. You’re just coming in and making changes. This at times has halted all progress (if any ever existed). I realized they were right, I learned it so I slowed down, understood what they did and became a part of their culture before I preached any kind of change, I had to rebuild the broken trust. After all, I was an outsider trying to change the way these people did what they did.

It takes a certain kind of motivation to keep going. What is your passion?

I tend to not be extremely detailed, but I focus on the bigger picture – systems thinking really. Elon Musk might call it First Principles or something of that sort. I love technology and thinking about what’s emerging and the impact that will have on individuals’ teams and organizations, Therefore, I am always looking up ways to improve my current things so constantly innovating.

“Pursuing strong results rather than perfection also gets me going.”

I was just sort of wandering through my career getting some exposure to the practice of innovation when I realized how beautiful this field is and the enormous value I can create in any organization.

Russell also taught me that being a good coach is not enough. It is not enough to get people excited; it is important that they see the end goal and the journey from their own eyes and that they help implement the change and innovations that you’ve inspired.

I thanked Russell Rogers for being patient with all my questions. He is available for advisory services and networking. If you have any questions, just comment below.

UPDATE: “Russell is now leading a COVID-19 Task Force for the Air Force and the Department of Defense working with AFWERX (the innovation arm of the Air Force) on remote work and other innovations.” More to come…

Remember, bringing one small change at a time can move mountains.

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