How would you rescue 33 sailors trapped in a submarine at the bottom of the sea?
Before 1939, if the water was deeper than 20 feet, the sad reality is you wouldn’t.
At least, it had never been done prior to the events of May 23, 1939. On that day the USS Squalus, a submarine making its 19th test dive off the coast of New Hampshire, experienced a catastrophic failure of its main induction valve. The ship flooded, killing 26 men and leaving the remaining 33 survivors trapped roughly 240 feet below the surface.
The US Navy’s Experimental Diving Unit was called into action and opted to deploy an untried rescue diving bell (the McCann Rescue Chamber) as part of a daring operation.
Despite the agonizing slowness of the work due to the deep-water pressure, they were able to attach the experimental bell to the submarine’s escape hatch, creating a water-tight seal, and over the course of four trips back and forth between the bottom and the surface, rescuers were able to reclaim all 33 survivors during an operation that took 39 hours (an average of almost ten hours per trip).
Though most of us will likely never serve on a military submarine, thanks to Covid much of the world has been in a sense “under water” this past year and a half, and innovation has been required to survive. Many businesses have learned that the old ways of doing things won’t cut it; they must deploy new ways of responding to threatening circumstances. As we learned from the Squalus, to overcome the unimaginable, we need to combine innovation and technology, with a healthy dose of human pluck.
For businesses and organizations in a pandemic world, the answer may seem to simply become more digital. But it’s not quite that simple.
“You don’t just take what it is that you’ve done in an analog world and digitize it. You have to rethink it,” said Simon Mulcahy, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Salesforce, the $26 billion cloud-based customer relationship management software company. “The key questions at the heart of it are, ‘What is the customer’s job to be done?’ and, ‘How, leveraging everything that you have in a new world, can you answer that question?’”
Sitting down with Simon, he shared his insights on how technology and innovation cooperate to enable organizations and their customers to overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic.
What do you see are some of the strategic imperatives that organizations need to tackle in this new landscape, and how can a robust innovation program help with that?
Mulcahy: Most organizations were designed in a world that was analog, and digital came along afterwards and was really a bolt-on. In many cases, it was a rather ugly bolt-on to their existing business. The truth is that coming out of COVID, the inverse is now true. It’s the mirror image of that. Now the best companies are digital first with the analog on the side. What you end up with is this real need to evolve a company quite significantly away from an old analog design predicated on a physical interaction. It was mostly born in a world where scarcity was the product; if you could build it, then the customer would come. Or, if you could build it and distribute it at scale, you would win. That was the dynamic of the old world.
Scarcity of the new world is, in many cases, your ability to get the customer’s attention. Today, you’ve got to be hyper-relevant and you can’t be relevant unless you’re digital. That’s one really important component. People talk about innovation, but immediately leap to product innovation. Actually, it’s experience innovation that’s one of the most important things to think about.
In an interview last fall, you said, “You need information faster; you need to be able to service your customers in a way that you’ve never been able to.” Can you elaborate a bit on what that means and the role that information will play?
Mulcahy: It starts with access to technology. It wasn’t that long ago where the organization that had the greatest access to technology was the government because they had the biggest budget. Then after that, it was business. Then, the consumer was lucky if they had any technology at all. Now look at the world; it has completely inverted the other way around. Today you’ve got more technology happening in people’s living rooms than you do in the boardroom or in government offices.
What’s happening is that there’s a constant refresh as new technology becomes available. It gets delivered to the consumer, who wants the very latest. They’re constantly refreshing. Businesses are refreshing their technology, but less so; governments even less so than that. The key thing is to ask how to get yourself into a position where you’re able to constantly absorb new technologies as they become available.
You need the leanest possible technology stack, and you need to constantly iterate on that. That is fundamental. Also, be aware that the needs of all of your customers – B2C and B2B – are evolving alongside technology. That’s an incredible pace of change, and you need to iterate at the same speed. How are you constantly refreshing your understanding of the customer’s job to be done?
What is your advice on how organizations can make sure their innovation efforts have marketability and can see a potential return on investment? How can they avoid just doing experimentation for experimentation’s sake?
Mulcahy: I’m thinking about how Salesforce operates. There are a number of things the organization does that I believe are really important. The first is that it creates real focus. We have a thing called the V2MOM (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles and Measures), which is effectively a way of cascading insights around what our vision is, what our values are, how we’re going to attack that, what the obstacles are that we need to address and how we will know when we’re successful. It starts with our CEO and gets cascaded down. What that gives us all is incredible clarity on what we’re focusing on and, just as importantly, what we’re not focusing on. The first thing to do is have that alignment because if you don’t, then you’ll be innovating across a broad area, and in many cases, irrelevantly.
Second, innovation is really about answering the question, “What’s the problem that you’re solving?” That means it’s about the customer. You need to give a customer their voice so you can more deeply understand their needs and have them effectively guide you where to innovate. We have an enormous number of processes that we leverage to achieve that because it’s critically important.
After that, it’s about innovating as a whole organization. Of course, there’s no such thing as an “Innovation Department” that does all the innovating; it’s about everybody innovating at every level. A good approach is to have a “beginner’s mind.” Don’t just embrace everything you did before with the logic of what got you to this place, but rather, look at the challenge with a fresh, almost childlike mind and see what you come up with.
Finally, don’t just think there’s going to be one big bang explosion and you’ve innovated. It’s not a light switch you flick; rather, innovation is incremental. That means in many cases, you’re constantly innovating on everything you do. We release our product three times a year. There’s constant innovation on that front. We avoid what many old companies might do: have a project, then run the project, finish it, celebrate it, and then walk away from it. We don’t do that. Instead, we know that our programs and projects must constantly evolve.
In your view, how can organizations evolve their culture so that everyone – irrespective of department – sees themselves both as innovators and as salespeople?
Mulcahy: We always talk about what we call “The Full Power of Salesforce.” It’s part of our shared lexicon that goes back to the idea that innovation is not just the duty of a so-called “Innovation Department”; breaking away from that is incredibly important. Ultimately, it comes back always to the customer. Do we have a 360-degree view of the customer? Do we truly understand who the customer is, what they’re trying to achieve, and is that information appropriately shared across the organization?
Sometimes you can’t see all the information, but what we want to do is ensure that many people have the same view of information available. It’s not just one team who sees it. What that does is it then allows multiple teams to be part of solving the problem. We think of every customer engagement as a massive innovation opportunity. You can bring multiple parts of the company to bear. The salesperson becomes the orchestrator, the facilitator bringing forward all of that power.
For that to happen, it means that we have to rely on a few things, particularly integrated planning. A good example is every Monday morning there is an important “forecasting” call with more than 100 of our top leaders and executives where we go through our pipeline and the health of our key customer relationships. It’s not so much about the forecast but rather what help and support are needed across the board.
Because you’ve got people who’ve been engaging with other customers around the world, you get this really rich experience and collective knowledge. The same thing happens with our teams across marketing and PR, sales and service — they’re all coming together in joint integrated experiences. That’s just a very big part of how we do things; we formally bring people together, share information and facilitate teams collaborating.