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Kiwi business leaders take a leaf out of the Valley's book

San Francisco is known for its golden bridges, crooked streets and island prisons. It’s also known as a hotbed of design and tech innovation, which is why 25 Kiwi business leaders hit the city for a week in November, thanks to NZTE’s Better by Design programme.

It was an intense week of structured learning sessions, along with visits to 12 cutting-edge companies including Facebook, Apple and Google. The main focus was on how to design the innovation process better – for both employees and clients.

Phillip MillsPhillip Mills

Les Mills International chief executive Phillip Mills says the trip was a wonderful opportunity to visit a lot of top companies.

But the key thing he took away was around the innovation management process, something that is driven by, and focused on, the customer.

Mills says the Stanford University d.school has come up with a five-step process to guide innovation: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.

What’s important is moving through the the ideation and prototyping stages quickly and testing innovations in the marketplace.

“Don’t spend months and months and months designing a new customer experience and getting everything pinned on that before you finally do your grand release,” Mills says.

“You learn a whole bunch more when you take it to market in a pilot situation.”

Mills says that at many of the top companies they visited, the office interiors were dominated by hundred of metres of whiteboard space, rather that inspiring décor.

“You don’t keep your stuff secret, locked up in your computer,” he says.

What you do instead is put your ideas up on the wall, so people armed with pens and post-it notes can give their input. It’s about opening up and encouraging the creative process – and living in the customer space.

Deloitte accounting and advisory partner Matt McKendry took away something a little different.

“These high growth companies, they focus as much on the employee experience as the customer experience.”

He says that while everyone is getting excited about how products and services impact on the human side of the customer, “when you reflect on that there’s a whole bunch of other humans in your business and they’re called your employees”.

“The rationale for that, clearly, is that if you’ve got really engaged people who love the employee experience, they’re going to personify the brand externally.”

Ultimately, it’s the employees who deliver the brand experience to the customers.

McKendry says they’ve started implementing some of what was learned in San Francisco at Deloitte already. The innovation process has been refreshed to encourage more hands-on involvement and there’s a lot more emphasis on empathy and emotion.

“I’ve come back a bit of a people person.”