Clinton Bonner: And there’s a sign outside that’s like, you know, “fill up your gas,” they ask him what his name is, he’s like “I’m Phil! Fill up… Phil!”
[CATALYST INTRO MUSIC]
Clinton: Welcome to Catalyst, the Launch by NTT Data podcast. Catalyst is an ongoing discussion for digital leaders dissatisfied with the status quo, and yet optimistic about what’s possible through smart technology and great people. Often at the intersection of smart tech and great people, you’ll find leaders who are applying a consistent approach to produce innovative outcomes, and today’s guest is doing exactly that with her team at Trinity Industries to drive product innovation. We’re super excited to bring her on. And before we introduce her, I’m gonna pivot real quick, I want to tell you that I’m joined in-studio by special guest and co-host David Shill. You might remember David, he was a recent guest on a different Catalyst pod, on with Ash Howell, we talked about experience design to accelerate innovation. So David, before we get to Kristen, how you doing, bud? And welcome back.
David Shill: Doing just fine. Thanks for having me. Super-honored to be back as a second-time guest to the podcast, so many thanks for having me.
Clinton: Yeah, I think you’re the first second-time guest of Catalyst since we switched this from the Postlight pod to Catalyst.
David: It’s like Saturday Night Live. I’m like a second-time host.
Clinton: That’s it. You’re…
David: On my way to be Steve Martin.
Clinton: I was gonna say, you’re gonna get all… you’ll be up there with a banjo pretty soon, and showing the world that you can do tap, and all those things that Steve Martin somehow is awesome at also, besides just being super funny. You know, quick aside: Only Murders in the Building. So, Kristen, are you a fan of Only Murders in the Building? Have you watched it yet?
Kristen Foster: I’ve seen, like, three episodes.
Clinton: And? What are you thinkin’?
Kristen: I’m intrigued. I’m there.
Clinton: (Laughs) There you go. Well, the good news is now you’ve heard Kristen Foster, so now let’s introduce Kristen Foster. She is the director of Service Product Development at Trinity Industries. Kristen comes to us prepped to share a ton of her top techniques and lessons to accelerate new product discovery and development within the enterprise. That’s the key there, within the enterprise. So let’s welcome Kristen Foster to the Catalyst studio. Besides the Only Murders, Kristen, how you doing today?
Kristen: I’m great, thanks. Good to be here.
Clinton: Yeah. Fired up. And I had the chance to meet Kristen back in April now, we had our Nexus event out in Napa. And Kristen and team were out there from Trinity, and it was, it was really a… it was really cool, really a pleasure to get to know you a bit more. And thanks for joining us today here too. So, we want to dive right in. You’re driving product innovation at Trinity, that’s super cool. And I want to ask right away: what’s harder for you? Is it more difficult to spot the best ideas to move forward on? Or is it more difficult to eliminate the bad ones early enough in the process? So, there’s… there’s one to get us out of the gate.
Kristen: I think it’s a trick question.
Kristen: I think, in this kind of an environment, we have so many ideas that are coming in. And so, in addition to spotting the new ideas, it’s figuring out, how do you prioritize them? How do you whittle down the list to figure out the ones that you want to go after? And then once you get into the ones that you’re interested in pursuing, then it’s just a matter of working it through the process, and, you know, figuring out which ones to continue pursuing, which ones to pivot, and, you know, when you want to go back to the drawing board.
Clinton: So, what kind of volume are we typically talking about? Is… do you look at it in a, like, you know, a quarterly, or is there a monthly? And how wide of a net are you casting within… within or even externally to Trinity to go get the ideas in the first place?
Kristen: So I think, if you think about the net of where ideas might come from, we’re looking across our entire enterprise, which means both internal ideas as well as, hopefully, ideas that are coming from our customers and our existing user base. So, when I think about where Trinity Rail is on our journey, right? We’ve got a history of producing rail products and maintenance and services, and we’re really working towards getting more into digital innovation, and more innovation in a different area of the supply chain part of the business. And so, for us, it has been - relatively to the history of the company - it’s relatively new space for us. And so we need to hear from both customers, but we’ve also got plenty of folks internally that have lots of good ideas. We have a process where we’re looking at a number of ideas every month, and we’re taking a look at what’s come through the pipeline. Whether it was, someone caught you in the hallway, someone sent you an email. We have some internal processes and we also have a number of opportunities to meet with our customers on a regular basis, and so all of those are going to produce pain points, wish lists, ideas, from “Hey you guys should consider doing this” or “I would love it if you could solve that.” And so, we’re taking a look at all of those, and then trying to figure out which ones we think are gonna be the ones to bring forward to start with. And I think we probably have a couple big ideas per year that we’re gonna take a look at. It’s easy and fun to go after, you know, the big thing, but those take time to research and to develop, and so, I think it’s finding the balance between, what are those big bets that we want to go after, and how do we make sure that we’re progressing on those while at the same time, leveraging every opportunity we can to make some quick wins for our customers and for other internal users?
Clinton: I love the idea of casting a wide net. My background is many, many years in the crowdsourcing and open innovation. And that’s not just ideation, that could be the execution wing of it as well. However, a great use case for crowdsourcing is certainly just opening the aperture wider, right? Bringing in different people with either near-field or way out-of-field experiences that could be applied to a problem that you’re seeing, or better yet, an opportunity you’re seeing to do something new. So it’s really cool to… to cast that. It can be cumbersome, right? To then say, “Well, we’ve got this huge volume. How in the world do we set up a processes that is efficient, at least?” So, so you’re not just having a suggestion box that has cobwebs in it, ‘cause that actually could have a… a bad effect, right? If people are putting things in, but they don’t get any feedback or understanding of what’s happening. So I’d love to understand that next cog in the wheel a bit, also, is just, okay. You’ve got these coming in, you’re casting a wide net, it’s a pretty large volume. How much processes? Is it simple? Build a small system for processes? Or is it elaborate at that stage, so that you can look at the best ones, but also keep people, hopefully, I would imagine, informed? You know, so that they understand, “Well, what happened to this thing that I suggested?”
Kristen: I think, for us, it’s been an evolving process internally. And I think it… you have to figure out what works for you, and you have to figure out what works for your organization. And so, could be something as simple as, you’re putting a quarterly meeting on the books to hold yourselves accountable, to recognizing “Hey, this thing that we were sort of cobbling together on our own maybe needs something a little bit more formal to it,” and then… and then you can go, you know, build something a little bit bigger, or a little bit more advanced as you go. But I think, especially when you’re getting into this space, you’ve gotta start somewhere. And so, try it, see what works, see where you need to learn, and then, you know, evolve as you go.
Clinton: Yeah. And Dave, love to pull you in here too. Have you seen a couple of tactics or tools that, you know, you’ve recommended to folks who are… and again, we’re talking about the ideation stage here, and how do we filter down, and yet build up culture and collaboration, and the co-creation process. Anything you want to weigh in on?
David: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So Kristen mentioned something in there that I want to kind of double down on, but, you know, I ran a rather large team on the client side, from the design perspective. And speaking more from a client’s standpoint, client-side standpoint, Kristen mentioned customer centricity, right? Talking about the customer. I think that’s a really important note that, of course, I want to make, is, great ideas should be formed around the customer needs, and what’s really neat about being on the client side and having dedicated design teams and research teams to the products that you have in flight is, they should be meeting regularly with customers, right? Getting insights. They should be meeting… you know, typically they might just be part of the regular spring cadence, where they’re meeting with customers, getting feedback on the new features they’re doing. But they’ve built a really strong relationship with these customers. And one thing that we did a lot of is, open that up beyond that to let them know there’s a path that, of course they’re getting daily feedback or weekly feedback on the features that they’re producing and pushing forward, but they should also have kind of a keen ear to new ideas. Right? The customer’s starting to say this, I’m hearing this more regularly. That leads to new innovation that’s centered around the customer, and that’s a great way internally for your teams to be able to say, you know, it’s not just an idea from me, this is an idea we’re hearing more feedback from customers around. So, for what that’s worth, I want to kind of double down on the customer-centric side of things.
Clinton: Yeah. It likely provides quite a bit of focus in its purpose. ‘Cause it’s… it’s a nice thing to get lots of ideas, but again, it could be rather cumbersome if they’re not directed whatsoever. It could be a good thing, but it could also become overwhelming, and you don’t know what to do with this large volume. And I know we want to evolve the conversation out of… certainly out of the ideation phase, and get into when we’ve identified some good good stuff, what do we do next? How do we continue to move along with what is hopefully the velocity that reminds folks of a startup, and yet, gotta check certain boxes on the enterprise level so that we get the momentum going the right way? We get the… we get the right gravitational pull around this concept? And we’ll dive into that too. And Kristen, one thing I think we really oughta do for the audience, also, is… they might not know Trinity Rail just yet, or Trinity Industries. So, could you just lay out for the folks, what’s the focus of Trinity Rail? You know, what’s… why do they exist, how are they serving people?
Kristen: Yeah. Trinity Rail is a North American leading product and services provider for rail cars, and we have a comprehensive platform of leasing services, manufacturing and maintenance for anyone who is looking at using rail in their supply chain, which I think we’ve heard many, many times over is one of the most sustainable ways to transport goods and services across, you know, across North America. And so, we’re very much focused in the rail space. And we’re also focused on, because of our kind of expertise, and a piece of the supply chain, is we think about digital and digital services, and some of the innovation that can come around there, we’re also looking into, how do we put more information at our customers’ fingertips in the real-time capability that they’re looking for? Whether that’s access to our teams, whether it’s access to our products, and whether it’s managing their own individual rail fleets.
Clinton: Quick story from me. I grew up in New York, so I’m a Northeasterner. I live in Connecticut, went to UConn. So I spent the majority of my time in the Northeast, and I’ve been up and down the east coast quite a bit. And I’ve traveled for work to the west coast and stuff like that, but I haven’t spent too much time out there, even though I’m a huge Seahawks fan. With that, I was out on a business trip in Oregon, and I forget the name of the waterfall that was out there, but really, really pretty waterfall out in Oregon. And then right, like, over the horizon, essentially, right on the edge of it, was train tracks. And I remember watching a lumber train come through. I could not process how frickin’ big this train was, like, how many cars it was. So maybe just talk about the sustainability and the longevity of rail, and what it means to not just the U.S. economy, but literally the global economy. That, for me, that moment is burned into my memory, where I was just mouth agape, not understanding that trains like that actually exist, and an industry like lumber. Right? It was insane. So, really, really cool just to understand that. And I think another cool piece for me is, when I looked at your history, Kristen, you went from many years in the airline industry, so that part, moving to rails, transportation, that’s not specifically the curious part for me. It’s more about the path where you went from being a marketing leader to a revenue strategist, and then into corporate comms lead, and then into the lead for product development and innovation. So I really want to understand that arc for you, and what’s the build like. Like, why that jump? Why the shift to the products? And what were the experiences previously? What did they do for you as you took on a role that was product innovation focused?
Kristen: It’s so funny, when you hear, you know, the pieces of your career come together, it’s really easy to look back and say everything was absolutely purposeful, the whole entire way.
Kristen: I think for me, the reality was, I really have always enjoyed learning about different parts of the business, you know, while my early career was very marketing-centric, it was also very tied to customer research, customer behavior, and understanding why people do what they do. Which immediately tied me to loyalty, and that’s what brought me to American Airline side in the first place. And of course, you get sucked in, and you find all of these fascinating different parts of the business. But for me, the key was understanding how they all fit together. And so, I really enjoyed the cross-functional nature of it all, without necessarily only being one expert in one particular area. And so, I think, as I look at my prior time, it was forming those foundational elements to understand what those moving parts were and how, how that has to work. Right? And work together with a strategy. And so, as I was doing my own, sort of, reflections on, what is my next step in my career? I really struggled to just simply answer the question, in a non-airline industry kind of an answer, to say what is it that you do? Because I felt like my whole background was so cross-functional in nature, I couldn’t come up with the one-word answer, doctor, lawyer, whatever it might be. As I had a number of conversation with a lot of folks across many different organizations, I think two things popped out. One is, just what are my own individual strengths and my own things that I bring to the table with my personality? I actually did a personality test called “strength finder,” which gives you kind of your top five things that you… that you bring. So for me, mine were “achiever,” so I have a high stamina and a high drive for results. “Significance,” so I want to do work that matters. “Input,” is important to me, I’m curious. I’m known for asking questions everywhere I go, I like to be adaptable, I need to be able to navigate through a crisis. And I’m also very competitive, and I want the team to win. And so, as I was talking to folks about what they did, about what they liked about what they did, this idea of innovation and the idea of product management came up over and over and over again. And the more it came up, the more I was just fascinated by this concept, where I could take all of that cross-functional background that I had and feel like I’m actually leveraging every single piece of it when I’m bringing ideas to the table. So, I’m looking at the strategy, I’m looking at the numbers, I’m looking at how it’s going to impact the customer. And so, you know, being on this side of it now, it’s like “Well, of course everything I have done this far prepared me for it.” But now I actually get to use it on a day-to-day basis, and it’s absolutely fascinating and a lot of fun.
Clinton: Yeah. It’s a cool origin story for how you kind of got to now. The reason why I asked the question is, like, the things that you just laid out for the audience, they all come into play when it’s, when it’s about taking innovative ideas and bringing them forward. It’s not just about the success of the idea, there’s so much more to it. Especially, again, non-startup where you’re inside the enterprise, where we’ve got to do a lot of other things, sometimes soft scale, sometimes analysis, that have got to all come together purposefully. Otherwise, sometimes the best ideas, they… they’re not gonna get the escape velocity. Just, even if they’re so darn good, they’ll be shot down for some reason or another. Sometimes just an allergy to new. So, we’ll talk about that quite a bit, and Dave, I know you’ve got something.
David: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was just going to say, I think, you know, the tie between marketing - ‘cause my background’s marketing, advertising as well, too, right, before product was kind of a thing - and the connection between marketing and innovation, like what we’re talking about today, is a really close tie and an important tie. Because marketing… I think it’s a quote from Steve Jobs that’s like, the best marketing is just telling the truth, I think. But in advertising, you have a pitch mentality, right? From the agency side. And that was something I tried to infuse on the client side with my product teams, because product teams can get, you know, in their agile mix, and they’re just in features and requirements. But when you start to build in this idea of, you were talking about response to an idea, like, what do you do with an idea? Getting people to understand an idea’s not good enough just in an email. Like, first off, how are you wording that idea? What’s the… what’s the press release? Right? Press release was a mechanism we used to use on the advertising side that’s also really strong for innovation, which is, what’s the headline that’s going to be in the article about this idea, right? And back to that, that quote from Steve Jobs, about the best marketing is just telling the truth. Like, when Ch… I think it was Chase, came out with the first mobile check deposit, right? On the mobile app, right?
David: Every bank ad you see is a witty, funny headline that’s just trying to convince you to switch banks, and get their savings account, right, and their checking account, and you pay a fee there? They were the first one to come out with a new feature of a product that was actually useful, useable, like actually desirable, you know? This is going to save me time, this is really cool. Of course, everybody was quick to follow that, but that headline became their advertising. They didn’t have to come up with a funny, witty headline for that. All they had to do was just say, “Deposit a check mobile.” And that immediately made a big shift within the market. Again, everybody followed, but innovations should be press releases. They should be a story. They should be what would one customer say to the other? What’s the press going to say about this thing? So, that connection back to marketing, with Kristen’s background and with others, I think that’s a strong tie to understanding ideas, and also being able to shape an idea and recognize, you know, what it looks like and what it holds.
Clinton: Thinking through those headlines, thinking through the utility, and back to what you said earlier, David, the customer-centricity is why that succeeded for Chase as well. So, Kristen, we talked about, you know, you gave your professional makeup. Now I want to kind of pivot a little bit to, what’s the makeup and right environment within Trinity, within enterprises you’ve worked in, so you can get to productive, innovative outcomes? Like, who do you want in that team? What kind of diversity of skill and point of view are you typically looking for? And, do you kind of have a go-to makeup, or does that change from, you know, project to project?
Kristen: The makeup, I think, is project-dependent, and I’ll get back to that in a second. But I think within the enterprise, what’s needed… at the end of the day, I know that we have leadership support within the organization to go find ways to build things that will make our customers’ lives better. And so, you know, I don’t have to fight for every single idea to bring it forward. We have, you know, a mission and a strategic objective here to go find those things and go explore them. So, you know, internally, you have to be able to have an allocation and resource within the organization, I think, that’s really truly dedicated to it. We all know innovation is hard, but part of what’s hard about it is you have to have room for failures, and room for things that didn’t work, and room to try something different and room to pivot. And if you have to justify every single moment of the work that you’re pulling forward, you almost have to have wins all the time, and you need to be able to have exploration capacity. And then, I think, aside from the overall leadership at a high level, having a dedicated team where you have people that are solely focused on a project. So, you know, early on here, it might have just been a team of one that is, you know, my charge to go drive this forward to the next step, or drive to the next decision. But we also need to recognize that everyone’s organizations are complicated in their own ways, and you know, I’m sure we can all think of examples of someone that had this genius idea and tried to put something together but didn’t actually understand how anything worked…
Kristen: …and it fell flat on day one. And so, I think when we look at a project that we’re trying to bring forward, we need to find a balance of resident expertise on how things might work today. More importantly, why they work that way today. And then, some specifically forward-thinking leaders or forward-thinking participants who are really invested in helping to make that change happen. And so, I think having a smaller group where you can then go rely on the experts, or go chase down a bit of information, will help inform what becomes actually feasible as you explore an idea.
Clinton: So you’ve got a good idea or two, you’ve said no to a bunch, you’ve evaluated them. Again, we talked about crowdsourcing internal, external. You filter those out. You’ve got one or two or three that you think, you think have some legs. You’ve got the right team, internally and I’m assuming some external partners as well, likely, assembled. So you’re able to go charge at it. But how? I think that’s going to be a nice thing to pick at and explore and really share with the audience, is, well, what do you do next? What are some tactics that are… also, we talk about being consistent and being repeatable. You talked about earlier, failing… the ability to fail. And there’s a big difference, I think, between fail fast and then fail small. You know, with the ability to take your swings so you can get the volume up, there. So, with all that, you’ve got your ideas, you’re ready to rock, you’ve got your team, you’ve got the right environment. What do you want to go do next so that you get that… that momentum?
Kristen: I think it’s exactly what you just said. It’s, figure out what exactly do you need to know to be able to test if this thing has legs? And so, for me, when I think about that, it tends to be, how can I get to a proof of concept? Or how can I get to what an MVP or a minimum viable product might look like? What is the minimal thing that I need to be able to deliver that still provides the solution that we’re trying to provide, that solves the customer’s pain point or the customer’s problem? And so, I think here, we’ll take a look at… and we may have ten different ideas of how to get to that proof of concept. What is the first step? You may have a million different thoughts, but I think that’s where, for us, you know, the design thinking and that specific approach is really helpful. Because it gives you an environment where you have numerous people with their own thoughts that are able to share the rationale behind their thoughts. They’re able to share, kind of, what that view looks like, that we could all say “We wanna go build a house,” but we all have a very different view of what the house looks like. And so, when we’re able to get into, sort of, one space together, where we’re talking about solving the problem, and what might we do? What could success look like? How can we measure whether this thing solves that thing? I think that’s the part where the design thinking approach, and being very design-centric is helpful. Because we can put together something super-fast and then test it internally. Do we think this works? Now let’s go talk to our customers. Does this solve your problem? Did we capture this accurately? And, you know, I think we’ve all experienced… if you ask someone to sit down with a blank piece of paper, it’s really hard to get started.
Kristen: But if you come with something, it’s really easy to give you feedback about what you don’t like. And that’s exactly what we need, is tell me what to do to make this different, and tell me how to deliver the thing that’s actually going to work for you? So the fastest we can get to that point, I think, is the best use of everybody’s time.
Clinton: And I think the… the beauty of design-led, in that approach, is the combination of velocity, right? ‘Cause you can go very quickly, especially with modern tools, and just understanding of how do you go from low-fidelity into more high-fidelity things that excite? And then it is that other part. It is the visual, right? It is the… that you could put something down in front of someone that makes it look real and crisp, with extreme velocity, and that can… that can really be that spark to take it to another, a next, a next level, and get that… again, that gravity around it that you’re after. And Dave, I want to bring you in here, I know you had the experience directly with the Trinity team, working through some projects that were exactly that. Like, “We’ve got an idea, we want to then use design-led inspiration to move it forward.” When you’ve worked with Kristen and team, what are you focusing on at that point? And I guess, one particular question is, how much volume - how many different looks - is a healthy level? So again, Kristen, great analogy or metaphor. We could all have a vision for how we want to build a house. However. How much exploration is the right level of exploration, given that you still want to go fast?
David: Yeah. So, what Kristen detailed is great, and it solves a few problems that typically happen with organizations when they say, “We have a great new idea. Let’s get going on this.” Right? So, two things happen. First, they take a minute to assemble a team. Right? Product owner, design lead, etc. etc. Y’all get to know each other. Most places remote-based or you’re working across offices, because you have to bring in, you know, specific types of skill sets. That takes a lot of time. So that’s, you know, first off, you’ve got a lot of time. Then you gotta start sketching ideas and start doing the research and doing all the typical processes, and even maybe go into build stages and launch it before you actually learn, you know… you have two things that you’re making assumptions on. You’re making an assumption on a particular problem that your customer has, or maybe a new customer has, right? So you’re making an assumption around a problem. But you’re also making an assumption around a solution. And so, what we did with Trinity and what we do a lot, is kind of a catalyst to that entire process, by saying, you know what? In just a few weeks, we can, you know, (a) wrap our heads around a problem, and the problem space, so that we’re doing our best not to make assumptions, but we still need to just… you know, bring that up with the customer. But then we can use design, and typically no-code-based prototypes, to fast-forward to the future a bit, and be able just to see this thing come to life. You know? And again, it’s not intended to be a final thing, this is intended to be a swing at it, enough to be able to say, we can get this back in front of a customer. And then you want to ask ‘em two really important questions. (A), this problem we think you have, is it a problem? Right? Kristen, with Trinity, their marketplace is still… it operates, still, very much like what you’d expect from a rail car industry. You know, I worked in education. It was the same thing. You think a lot of people can come in and they want innovation, they want this simple problem, you know, or this simple solution that’s going to solve a big problem. But a lot of them say “No, I actually really like the way the process is now, for X, Y or Z.” And so, you do really want to make sure, hey, this problem we’ve noted of yours, is it a problem to you? And then, (b), here’s this thing we’ve sketched up, it could be paper prototypes, it could be, you know, very light wire frames. But it’s, you know, a stitched-together prototype that they can bring up on their phone or their desktop to say, and here’s a potential solution. Right? And enough to resonate with them to say “Oh wow, this would save me a lot of time, or this would do X Y or Z for me.” And that’s the feedback you want to get. And so, again, that process, everything Kristen was kind of talking about, can allow you to get really close to your customer really fast. It can allow a team to get aligned really, really quickly, and off, you know, out of the gates very, very quickly. But then it can allow you to determine, is this thing worth investing into? You know, we can now see it, we can get it in front of customers, and we can learn really really quickly without investing into a big build phase, or a, you know, MVP.
Clinton: I think the, what you encapsulate there, Dave, is that kind of “fail small” mentality, where you can get… you can get a lot, a lot of condensed value. And the condensed is both time and then also not… not spending gigantic dollars just to find out, do we really have something here? You can do that much, much less expensively. There’s still a commitment, there’s still, there's still an investment. But compared to taking a different approach where, you’re 18 months into a project and you’ve blown… you know, you’ve spent millions of dollars, only to find out that you’ve kind of gone up the wrong mountain. That’s bad, right? And that does happen. It’s not like… it sounds like common sense, but that happens quite a bit. And there’s such a better way to use design-led philosophies to, again, to scrunch that timeline down, but also really depress the risk. So if it didn’t turn out well, it’s fine. You probably still learned something, probably came up with some cool interfaces, you definitely learned something about your users along the way. And maybe that interface is not going to see the light of day. Cool. Now you know what not to do. Also value there. And of course, through that process, ‘cause you can do more volume, you can discover the things you do want to go do, the mountains or the paths up the mountain you do want to go climb, and you’ll get to that success a lot quicker, too. But the story’s not over there yet, Kristen. So, you’ve got your prototypes, right? You’ve got some user research. You’re able to get no-code, clickable high fidelity and wires to users right away. That might be internal users, you could be external users, probably a mix. But now you’ve got this thing. It’s a couple weeks later, maybe three to four weeks later. You’ve got these deliverables. What do you still have to go do? Like, what’s the next layer to then take that, and if you really feel like you’ve got something, who are you talking to at Trinity and what are you trying to accomplish next, if we’re staging this thing out for the audience?
Kristen: I think it still goes back to checking back in with your original objectives, and what is achievable? So, you know, there’s so much in an enterprise where you’ve got systems and data and various sources that all need to come together. And maybe this thing that you’re trying to solve is the first time all of that’s actually coming together in one spot. So, I think for us, when we’ve got… we’ve exited clickable prototype, we’ve exited user feedback, we all agree we want to go forward, then we need to do a bit of internal honest looking in the mirror to determine, do we have the ability to actually deliver what the basics are that are going to be required to pull this together? Pull it together successfully, repeatably, and, you know, something that can scale, as you think about a little bit of fundamental change, potentially, within the organization about how these pieces come together. So, at least here internally, we’re doing a lot of working within the organizations from an I.T. perspective, from a data perspective, maybe it’s data analytics perspective. And it’s really… now you’ve got a thing that’s much easier to go to the team with and say, “This literally now is what I want to build. Can we?” Or, what do we need to create? Or, what feeds do we need to connect? You know, at least on the services and software and digital side, right? And so, I think for us it’s a little bit understanding that, and then it’s much easier to put together your business case, because now you can much more easily size… I mean, it’s still some estimation, of course, but you’ve got a better way to size what the build might look like, you’ve got a better way to size what kind of, you know, capital or other resource asks you might have as you continue to pursue the idea. You may decide, at that point, let’s go build an actual prototype and prove we can do it first, before we commit to anything else. It’s another check-in internally, here, anyways, with leaders within our specific organizations and make sure it’s in line with our overall organizational objectives.
Clinton: What kind of data are you looking for, too? Is it quantitative? Is it qualitative? Is it a mix? Is it a feel? Is it a spidey-sense? Like, what kind of data do you need to go make those… to go make that next-level argument and go have your win?
Kristen: It all depends on the project. It really, truly does. Because, you know, you may have an organization where you’re… you know, you’ve got fifteen disparate systems that don’t talk to each other, and you know, maybe the site that you’re building requires all of those feeds to come together consistently. And so, in that case it’s a very real, can I actually extract data from this system and import it into this new system, and do we have a technological stack? Do we have the know-how? Are we able to ingest data? You know, we can extract it, but can then it turn back in and keep getting cleaned? So there’s a little bit of that piece of it. I think I kind of tend to think in the literal, so that’s probably my starting point, it’s the can we? Is it feasible to start?
Kristen: And then, some things might be, okay, we just need to create a new process for this, or you know, we have to take a leap of faith that we’re going to get from step A to step B, and we trust that we can figure that part of it out, so that’s okay. Right? It’s… it’s just literally being able to identify, do I see how the thing comes together?
Clinton: Yeah. And then, Dave, in your experience with different projects you’ve run throughout your career, has there been any times where, let’s call it, like, you know, a metaphor might be, getting over your skis? Where people are really excited about something, and we’ve done a process, we’ve done some design-led things, and for one reason or another, it’s not going to take hold within the enterprise. You can’t get that next-level win. And what are some of the lessons that you might have learned that you can share?
David: Yeah. So… So, what Kristen was just talking about, you know, again, with this repeatable process that I was mentioning, you know, about being able to quickly wrap your heads around the problem space, the customer personas, journeys, whatever you need to kind of understand the challenge, quickly design something, and then get it back in front of those customers to say, you know, does this solve this problem for you, right? You can get great feedback. You can get, like, a “Wow, this is cool,” or “this is neat.” But then you have a couple things you need to do from there, is look at - it got positive feedback, we were right about the problem space, we were right about the solution, but what’s the business outcome from this? What’s the ROI? I guess we’re not just here to launch cool things, if that makes sense.
David: You need to understand what are we going to get from this? So, we’ve had plenty of times where, you know, you need to look at data, like Kristen’s talking about. Like, so, for example, one that we did around a potential account service app idea, right? And so, we had to look at call center volume at that point, and say, this thing can knock off these top three things, that’s gonna lead to X amount of savings. So now you have a business case on top of positive feedback, right? But then to your point, you know, when I was on the education side of things, we had an app that was all about high-performing students. Could they set metrics, could they set performance goals, and things like that. And it seemed like a really fun idea, we had a ton of really great concepts that came out of it, but when the students looked at it they kind of… (Laughs) They kind of were like, “That’s cool, it’s really neat, but I’m not really into… like, I’m here to get good grades and stuff, but I’m not here to go any further than that.” And so we learned a lot about students when it came to how motivated they were. You know, I’m here just to kind of do what I need to do, I don’t wanna go beyond that. So even though it got positive feedback, it was, it was neat, we didn’t get the excitement that we were looking for from that standpoint, and so, we moved on.
Clinton: Yeah. I think that… that part, if we go back a couple of stages in the process, that to me reminds me about, just setting the right… not just the environment, but the right skills, and it doesn’t have to be skills. The team that’s helping you say yes to this early in the stage, or say yeah, this really does have legs. Whether that’s, Kristen, from your… some of the things you were saying, hey, technically we’ve got fifteen disparate systems. Can we actually do this? Like, before, before we get so excited, can we actually do this? So, making sure your engineers and those with the know-how, that they’re involved as early as possible, so that you’re not doing an exercise in futility where you design something that everybody loves, but you can never… you can never employ it. That’s actually the opposite of cool, right? That could cause heartache and setback. So, making sure that if it is a technically really, you know, dependent project, that you’ve got those voices and those, those brains with you from jump street, so you, when you do progress, you’re more confident. Hey, we could do this, we could pull this off. We know we could do it, technically. Doesn’t always, you can’t always mitigate that. But certainly more inclusive at the forefront will help. And then, Dave, your example, probably if there was more user research at the forefront of that example with the students, and be like “Hey, listen. We don’t think they want this. It’s not solving a problem they have. We think they have it, but it’s a story in our head, and we go talk to the market, they actually don’t see it the way we see it.” Which… which, as a 45-year-old with a teenager, lo and behold, sometimes I don’t see it the way my 15-year-old daughter sees the world. Right? Big shock. Or my 12-year-old son. And that’s the way it goes. So Kristen, I want to land today’s episode, and hopefully extract a moment or two, or a pearl or two, from you that you could share. You’ve had this expansive career, and it really has these… I don’t want to call it meandering, because that makes it sound non-purposeful. But purposeful meandering, let’s put it that way, let’s flip it. Where you’ve done lots of different things in a wide array that have culminated, again, whether that’s the soft skills, whether that’s comms, getting people excited. Leadership, getting folks around the idea and wanting to win. Data, how do you use and show data, and how do you accelerate and get a lot of intent around things you want to go charge at? I think you’ve been very, very successful at that. So what is one thing that you wish you knew about product innovation, that you’ve learned, that if you had the wayback machine you could hop in? What’s, like, a nugget or two, or something you would go tell your past self that could’ve helped you earlier in your career, that maybe could help somebody listening today?
Kristen: I think within the space of innovation, I think learning how to let go of an idea that you’re really excited about. You sort of have to become that idea’s champion at the beginning, and do literally everything you can to figure out a way to make it work. Think about any entrepreneur that you know, right? It’s, I’m willing to bet the farm on this thing. But at some point you have to be able to say “Yeah, that’s not it, and I’m ready to move on to the next one.” And so it’s… it’s hard to know when to draw that line, and there’s probably no one right answer to doing it. And so I probably… probably kept on certain things longer than I should have. You know, ‘cause I didn’t want to give up on it yet, I wanted to win. So I think that. And then, you know, I think it’s just about… if you’re ever in doubt, just trust the process and remember to focus on your customer. And if you lose sight of that and lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish, go back and talk to your customer. Because I think that’ll refocus, every single time. Whenever you feel like there’s a… maybe a lack of clarity in your path forward.
Clinton: I think that’s a super wise compass to end on, a true North there. So I want to give a big thanks to my co-host Dave Shill, back for the second time, thank you, Dave, so much. And of course, for our guest today on Catalyst, Kristen Foster. Kristen, it’s awesome to get your expertise laid out here. If folks want to get to know you a bit better, don’t know if you’re a Twitter/X user or if LinkedIn’s the best way. How should people reach out if they are so inclined?
Kristen: Yeah, LinkedIn’s great.
Clinton: We had a wonderful time here today, thank you so much Kristen. A reminder, subscribe to the podcast, because in this studio, we believe in shipping software over slideware, that fast will follow smooth, and aiming to create digital experiences that move millions is a very worthy pursuit. Join us next time as the pursuit continues on Catalyst, the Launch by NTT Data podcast.
[CATALYST OUTRO MUSIC]