Hacking architecture in the name of digital innovation

Image: Warner Bros.
Little did I know, when I embarked on my first job as an architect, that I would borrow so heavily from my Bachelor of Architecture in my reincarnation as COO of a statutory trust business 13 years later.

Lately, in creating the digital provider of online will services Kōwhiri, I’ve observed the commonality between building design and digital business design.

When you’re creating a digital platform with various online ‘branches’ for different groups of customers, it helps to think about it from the customer’s perspective: What will make the environment easier to navigate? What will encourage people to stay longer, browse further, learn more, engage more deeply with the business? What will make visitors comfortable and what will turn them off? How do we encourage people to come back again and again? The questions are much the same in other settings, such as physical retail spaces.

In grappling with these questions, here’s what I’ve learned about driving digital innovation in a large enterprise:

  1. Digital is not an optional proposition

Companies must find ways to reinvent and re-present themselves in the digital space. I was brought into my current role partly because I’d owned my own ICT company and had a start-up mentality.

When you’re intent on designing a ground-breaking digital business while meeting a 130-year-old service proposition to an established customer base, you must start with the right leadership and direction. From the outset, there shouldn’t be any confusion about the desire to change and have technology as a key pillar enabling that change.

In the original widespread emergence of the internet, many business owners demanded a return from any investment in digital – but to see the internet purely as an incremental revenue stream is a very dangerous and narrow view. People are engaging with core consumer services differently than they were a decade ago – banking is a prime example – and the most successful digital enterprises are those that are designed, first and foremost, to work with clients in the way that clients want.

  1. It’s a team effort 

It takes multiple skills to innovate and deliver change. The architect can design a great building, but without the right builder there might arise quality and cost frustrations that leave a negative impression. A great architect and great builders don’t all have to be staff; solid partnerships with experts can help you accelerate or manage the workload from outside the business.

The upshot is that you need the right people to drive a digital strategy and a broader team that understands and works easily with it. Technology changes all the time, so remember that while change is natural for a technologist, it doesn’t come easily to everyone.

  1. Be prepared for the change 

If you want to innovate and you think technology can be a driving force in that change you need to be prepared to continually evaluate the materials and components. This is one area where I have always noticed a difference with architecture. Consulting widely is important, but it can come at the expense of progress. It’s easy to find yourself going back to the same core group of people time and again for discussion, direction and action, and while the larger goal is apparent, you might cause the counter-productive effect of pulling them away from revenue-generating work. Conversely, if you’re too narrowly supported, you’re standing on one leg and need to widen the base.

  1. Buildings house you, but the best buildings also make you feel something

Maintain a relentless focus on that customer experience, whether it means homing in on your frontline, your sales team or whatever drives your business. You need to have a clear proposition and know how to satisfy what the client wants. It’s easy, particularly in operational teams, to have a great process but lose sight of whether that works well for the client. 

More and more, the technology experience is at the core of the impression you create as a company. It is the standard by which people judge what it’s like to deal with you. If your customers see evidence of your commitment to understanding them and giving them what they want, they will reward you with loyalty. In our Wills work, for example, going digital has created a wider distribution curve in the engagement and purchasing process than has ever been seen in New Zealand. There are people you will reach with a digital business that you simply wouldn’t any other way.

  1. Approach problems in 3D

I find it helps to look at a problem differently, multi-dimensionally, as an architect would. In designing a digital business it is very easy to become overwhelmed by information and the sheer complexity of the project, so you must learn quickly to distinguish between the big parts of the strategy and the small detail, and to focus primarily on the former. In doing that, and bearing in mind that the user experience is central, you will often come up with the answer. 

Looking at problems from different perspectives isn’t unique to architecture, but the training it gave me – knowing how to push for innovation and look at things differently – remains invaluable, even though I don’t work in the industry any more.

  1. Innovate from the ground up

The smallest things can make the biggest difference. The famous modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details,” and encouraged his audience to live and work in a thorough manner, taking note of even the smallest detail.

Your people – particularly frontline staff – have the best notions about what really makes a difference to clients, and these can be small things that slip by if you don’t net them. Everyday challenges and workloads can make it hard to hear or filter what is important, but anyone who says “I was just thinking…” should be listened to. Support and direction come from the top, but the best ideas often come from people on the ground.

  1. It only works when it starts at the top

I have sat before boards that were extremely receptive to transformation programmes and others that had no real-world grasp of what a digital business was all about. However good the design of your digital business, however perfectly attuned it is to the needs of today’s consumers, if you don’t have the full support and understanding of those governing and leading the business, progress will be painful and piecemeal at best.

Then comes the cultural change at an operational level, as staff start to see the benefits and transformation speeds up. There is no doubt that progress is a lot easier and faster when the value of innovation and digital is accepted (from board level throughout the business) and the discussion is about how to do something rather than whether it should be done.

  1. IT shouldn’t lead the offline business

It might sound contrary at this point, but unless your company is purely web-based, the IT function should work to support the revenue channels and help reduce cost where possible. The drive for transformation should come from elsewhere in the business and be supported by great IT services and digital platforms.

Lincoln Watson is chief operating officer and infrastructure and IT integration director of statutory trust business, Perpetual Guardian. He also serves as COO of Kōwhiri, a digital provider of online will services.