Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our third season continues to explore how leaders help create a culture that supports innovation, especially with the stressors and new opportunities that businesses face during the pandemic.
Dave Franchino and I had the opportunity to talk with Deanna Ballew, who was recently promoted the role of Chief Innovation Office at Widen Enterprises, a Madison-based marketing technology solutions company. We were particularly interested in talking with her about Widen’s evolution over the years and its approach to innovation.
Deanna shared how Widen’s commitment to learning is key to their innovation. Below are a few highlights:
Take the time
Throughout her 16-year career with Widen, Deanna has identified knowledge gaps in the company and then pursued the knowledge to fill them. From product management to adding UX research to understanding and putting structure around what innovation means for Widen, the first step is making the time and taking the effort to learn new processes, frameworks, and tools. The company took a year to learn about innovation from leading companies and do workshops and sprints to get comfortable with the necessary skills. That sets the stage for later success.
Innovation is a process
There’s a myth that innovation is a “Eureka!” moment, but that’s rarely the case. But creativity requires constantly looking at your processes and identifying when things aren’t working anymore and making the necessary changes. “Process is really about the way you work, and you can innovate around that. And so, there's so many different ways that you can innovate. It's not just about a product or a deliverable. It's also about what you do. And when I think of innovation, it's really about changing human behavior. I mean, you have to solve a problem, but that problem has to then be adopted by humans and it changes us.,” Deanna said.
There’s a difference between invention and innovation
Organizations often conflate invention with innovation. But to Ballew, innovation is about identifying problems and solving them. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a new mousetrap. The hackathons and other activities that Widen was trying to encourage innovation were falling flat, so they looked at creating a shared definition of what innovation is for Widen and set realistic timelines and goals.
Be willing to change
Over time, the needs of your customers will change. Your organization needs to be able to change with them. Widen started out as an engraving company, then print-focused, and now it’s a MarTech company. Where are their customers going next? What adjacent opportunities can they explore in the next 3-5 years? What grounds them enough to keep evolving for 70-plus years are their five core values: be the change, flourish together, challenge today, do what you say you will, and service is our secret sauce.
Innovation and change are often uncomfortable. Teaching conflict and communication skills to your team can help them navigate from storming to performing. As woman tech leader, Deanna sees the importance of having a diverse team that constantly questions how they can better serve customers’ needs. Her advice to women considering a career in tech? “Just do it.” Curiosity is one of the qualities that has helped drive her career. She said it’s an invaluable quality that she encourages her team to indulge.
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