Ryan Lawler

31 December 2020

26 min watch

Innovation at scale requires the ability to adapt to challenges, develop appropriate strategies, and implement long-term efforts required to sustain growth.

In their December 2nd Masterclass at Web Summit 2020, “Embracing the Inside and Outside To Drive Innovation,” Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson tackled the ins-and-outs of the innovation process.

Twilio has democratized communications channels -- such as voice, text, chat, video, and email by virtualizing the world’s communications infrastructure with APIs that are simple enough for any developer to use, yet robust enough to handle demanding applications.

Here are the biggest takeaways from the interview.

Build or die

As CEO and co-founder of cloud communications company Twilio, Jeff Lawson is no stranger to innovation. His new book, Ask Your Developer, is a toolkit of ideas for unleashing the full potential of software developers in any organization, showing management how to utilize this coveted and valuable workforce to enable growth, solve a wide range of business problems, and drive digital transformation.

Ask Your Developer focuses on the instrumental — but often overlooked — role of developers in driving industry innovation. Informed by his own experience as a developer, and now an industry leader, Lawson’s book is a recognition of the new reality faced by organizations: Success is no longer driven by the “build or buy” model of software and solution.

As Lawson explains, success “has turned into a Darwinian evolution of every industry, where it’s build versus die because the companies that are able to listen to customers and address their needs, instead of sitting with some static thing that doesn't change over the course of a decade, the ones that adapt more quickly to changing needs are the ones who are going to win.”

A recent Forbes piece noted that the catastrophic consequences of an inability to innovate as once-ubiquitous brands — such as Blockbuster and Toys-R-Us — fell victim to staid and stagnant processes. For Lawson, innovation and industry success are inextricable, driven by “a differentiated experience in terms of the way a customer feels when they use your product and engage with your company.”

The developer as problem solver

Developers are often under-utilized creative problem solvers who can help companies find new approaches to existing problems while also helping to identify alternative paths to ongoing success. “Most businesses don’t use the full potential of their software developers because most businesses feel that developers are basically technical talent,” said Lawson.

In fact, Lawson points to the example of product requirements. If businesspeople create must-follow documentation with steps A, B, C, D, and E in this exact order, they’ll get exactly what they’re asking for — but it could take six or twelve months.

He suggests another approach: “What if you said to the developer, here’s the problem we’re trying to solve, what’s the most interesting and fastest way to solve the problem? They might come back with a completely different route.”

“God gave us two ears and one mouth — use them in that proportion.” — Jeff Lawson, CEO and co-founder, Twilio
Why small teams are the key to innovation

Of course, finding the right people for the job is only half the battle. For David, this raises a key question: Are there organizational structures that naturally facilitate innovation?

Lawson said the answer is yes. “Organizing into small teams, where those teams are no more than 10 people, with every team defined by a mission, a customer and the metrics of success,” he said.

This organizational approach offers two key benefits: Engagement and evaluation. With only 10 people per team, everyone on the team is closer to the decision-making process, in turn boosting engagement. And with such a tight-knit group, there’s no room to “hide out and coast” — it’s much easier to evaluate individual contributions and commitment.

The experimental initiative

Armed with a build-or-die mentality, top-tier problem solvers and small teams, businesses should be firing on all cylinders to deliver on-demand innovation, right? Not quite.

“The process of innovation is a messy one because you have to try a lot of things,” said Lawson. In practice, this means failure. Often a substantial amount of failure. While failure has been almost fetishized by Silicon Valley executives, Lawson noted that “the reality is that nobody likes to fail. Failure sucks.”

Instead, failure is sometimes about recognizing that experimentation is the prerequisite to innovation. While the failure aspect of experimentation is inevitable — and unpleasant — it’s just one more step on the road to success.

Lawson cited the work of the Wright brothers as an example. They didn’t simply draw up plans, build a plane, head to Kitty Hawk and vault into the wild blue yonder. Instead, it took seven years, a host of experiments — and multiple failures — before their first successful flight.

A painted doors approach to customer connection

Effective innovation can’t happen in a vacuum: Even the best experimentation won’t drive success if nobody wants your product. As a result, it’s critical to test potential innovations against the reality of customer experience to see what sticks. Lawson pointed to so-called “1 percent tests” run by companies like Amazon and Facebook who “test out new products and new features on a small set of their customers in order to figure out if there are improvements.”

Another option for startups without the resources of a multinational enterprise are “painted door” tests. The idea is to see if consumers notice — and knock — on your digital door when it stands out from the crowd.

Lawson applied this painted principle in practice when he had an idea for a new email API. He bought a $5 domain name, built a basic website for the new service, purchased $20 in advertising and created a “buy now” button that led to a “coming soon” web page. This was his painted door — and conversion metrics showed that customers were more than willing to knock.

Change as constant companion

If there’s one key takeaway for Lawson from his years as a developer, entrepreneur, and now CEO, it’s that “God gave us two ears and one mouth — use them in that proportion.”

Moreover, Lawson noted that the most difficult times of his career came when he wasn’t listening enough, and when he didn’t adapt quickly enough to the changing needs of his company.

When it comes to driving innovation, both inside and outside the organization, Lawson put it simply: “You can get really frustrated. You can get really angry like; how come no one’s listening to me anymore? Or you can say actually, you know what, the company’s grown quite a bit since last year. And so instead of getting angry or upset, recognize that that's just the changing nature of the world and that you need to evolve how you do your job in order to serve that company that now has different needs.”

The bottom line is that innovation isn’t a static scenario. It’s a constant process of finding best-fit problem solvers, identifying ideal environments, empowering continual experimentation, expanding customer connections and embracing the consistent challenge of change.

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