The only certainty in business is change, and change means innovation.
Anthony Armendariz knows quite a bit about innovation. I recently had the chance to sit down and chat with him about his work and the way he thinks about innovation, competition, the global marketplace and ways to unplug from work and recharge his creative juices.
Who are you and what is it that you do for a living?
My name is Anthony Armendariz. I’m a designer by trade, and have been for twenty years. I’m a partner and head of design at Funsize a digital service and product design based in Austin, Texas.
Having worked with so many brands, why do you feel innovation is so important?
As you point out, we’ve worked with many different brands over the years at Funsize. Innovation has a different importance depending on the company, mission, culture, team, and individuals.
For startups, innovation is important because an original innovative idea is critical to creating a company and a digital service that investors will invest in, people will want to join and work for, and that satisfies a consumer need. Innovation is the very foundation of what a startup is and what they have an opportunity to achieve.
Sweetheart technology companies, popular digital services, and companies in a growth stage rely on innovation to compete with essential tables stakes, head in new directions, grow their customers and revenues, and appease shareholders continuously.
Some very large and established corporations are going through massive digital transformation, meaning that they are taking strategy, vision and execution in-house. Maybe, for example, they were a logistics company and now they suddenly realize they’re actually a software company.
They have to figure out how to do things in-house, change their whole culture and innovate themselves because they’re so used to big agencies doing everything for them. Not only do these companies rely on innovation to compete and meet the needs of the future, but they are learning how to innovate internally and at scale.
Sometimes, companies of all sizes struggle by focusing too much on the today of their business versus the future of their business. It’s understandable, though—it’s hard to balance the daily work that needs to be done with the macro of stepping back and saying, ‘Is this meaningful? Are we going the right direction?’
More specifically, what is it about innovation that can help a brand overcome competition?
Innovation to me means proactively staying ahead of the game instead of being reactive.
I’ll look at things from a few different levels—innovation is often limited only to marketplace innovation, but I think that’s short-sighted. Marketplace innovation is the most critical, but you need to think about innovating in every aspect of the business, even recruiting and things like that. You even have to be innovative to hire the best talent.
From that perspective, if you’re working on innovative and meaningful things, you attract people who are interested in that, and they’re more likely to both get it done and help you be proactive moving forward.
In addition, economically, if you’re innovating you’re ahead of the game. You’re not stuck behind the times. If you only focus on the here and now, you’re being reactive. You’re obsolete. You’re replaceable.
Finally, I think innovation can help a brand overcome competition by creating internal competition that forces the company to be better. More big brands should think about creating their own competition—for example, creating a startup you’d usually perceive as a competitor to validate your own ideas, instead of getting beat out by startups that are faster than you.
Apart from innovation, is there anything else that comes to mind to help with this pursuit?
So, before we get into this, let me make one thing clear. I’m not a deeply experienced executive. I’m a designer that tries to help people think about these things.
First, you have to have the right people. Dreamers, doers, risk takers.
You also have to have people who can execute innovative ideas really well.
Finally, you have to have the right type of company culture and team that encourages and allows you to invest in this.
What steps can a business take to better identify its ‘north star,’ so to speak?
Design thinking is a hot topic these days, and not to sound cliche, but one of the easiest ways is to identify their north star is to adopt the right mix of facilitated workshops that get all of the right people people together, and the big ‘meaty ideas’ out fast.
Bring all the executives and stakeholders in a room with a big whiteboard. Talk about what’s working well, what’s not. Bring out the hopes and dreams everyone has. Show what the customers are saying. In two to four hours you can have a whole slew of ideas on the board that can radically transform your product, service, business, culture and everything else that goes into making your brand what it is.
That’s a design thinking exercise, but it doesn’t just work for design. It also works for business.
There are a couple of great things about it—it helps you get all those ideas out and onto the board, and you’re able to build consensus. You also get everyone building empathy with each other and figuring out what everyone’s priorities are. What are the CEO’s priorities? The CFO’s? The design team?
Everyone gets to understand where each other is coming from.
Figure out what we can do this week first, then this quarter, then this year. And make sure you dream big. Be willing to break things down. You have to get out of an iterative mindset to innovate, because iteration often means the death of innovation. Think about, ‘What should this be now, and what could it be at some time in the future?’
The great thing about this is that most companies are already doing this to some degree. They’re leveraging design thinking—along with hard data analysis, customer research, and user research—to find their north star, and it’s helping them innovate and stay ahead of the game.
But the more we implement it, the better off we’ll be.
If you could leave C-suite executives with one piece of advice for getting ahead with innovation, what would it be?
If I could offer one piece of advice, it’d be to invest in the right kinds of people.
The right mix of people gives you the right ingredients, ammunition and tools to look at problems in many different ways, and implies that you’re willing to hire people who think differently to you. You need people that have new ideas and think differently than you.
That also includes having a diverse mix of contributors, from in-house to out-of-house—all the vendors, partners and employees needed to do the task at hand.
Lastly, on a side note, what do you do to disconnect from work? Our readers are interested.
Disconnecting from work is actually relatively complicated for me, because my business partner and our principal design director is actually my wife, and we recently had a child.
Work revolves around everything we do and it’s really important that we disconnect.
The big thing that I do to disconnect is to plan a quarterly destination vacation where I go somewhere that I’ve always wanted to travel. When I go, I make it a point not to look at my computer or phone for the entire trip.
That’s really important—really, really important.
I also spend time with people that I love who inspire me. I like conversations over fancy dinners or beer and exploring my hobbies—distilling whiskey, beer and other things that are craft-related.
Finally, recently I’ve been disconnecting by making sure that I’m completely at work when I’m at work and completely at home when I’m at home. If I’m not the best person I can be—the best husband, the best father, the best friend—there’s no way I can go to work and be the best boss I can be.
Something we can all strive for. Thanks for your time, Anthony.