San Francisco Velocity Forum Takeaway: Learning Underpins Adaptation

Steven Duque

Last week, senior executives from leading enterprises in the San Francisco Bay area gathered at One Kearny Club in downtown San Francisco for one of Catalant’s Velocity Forums. Attendees of the invitation-only, half-day event immersed themselves in interactive, peer-to-peer paneled discussions, presentations, and an action-oriented workshop — all centered on why and how organizations must accelerate their mission critical work.

Setting the stage, Actionable Analytics Group CEO Jenny Dearborn – who formerly served as SAP’s Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Global Head of Talent, Leadership, Organizational Effectiveness, and Learning – spoke about the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution on the future of work. Big data, technology, social connectivity, demographic shifts, career complexity, and rapidly evolving markets are compelling companies to reimagine how work gets done, Dearborn observed.

“The speed of ongoing change requires an ongoing cycle of Work-Learn-Change.”

One implication, Dearborn told listeners, is that we need to educate ourselves differently. The speed of ongoing change requires an ongoing cycle of Work-Learn-Change or, as Dearborn alternatively described it, “learning, learning to unlearn, and learning to relearn.” Distinctively human skills, like critical thinking and empathy, will become increasingly important as organizations hand off a growing number of responsibilities and tasks to artificial intelligence and automation.

Throughout the remainder of the morning, the topic of learning — and the organizational structures, processes, and best practices to support it — emerged as a critical underpinning for organizations’ abilities to rapidly adapt to ever-evolving conditions.

More specifically, here are a few recurring themes from the Forum.

Recipes for Past Success ≠ What’s Needed to Succeed in the Future

VP of Strategy at ServiceNow Marshall Tyler described the enterprise software company’s continuation of its history-making growth trajectory as both exhilarating and challenging. One particular challenge, he described, is conveying the need to continue evolving to quota-crushing, wildly successful account executives. Even with a product customers love, Tyler said, ServiceNow’s acceleration along the enterprise maturity curve calls for different skill sets from salespeople as they become increasingly strategic partners to customers.

In a similar vein, Pablo Pollard, Director of North America at Workplace by Facebook, described how, at Facebook, they “have a saying that we’re only 1% done.” As a reminder of the mantra and what happens when you become complacent, Facebook keeps the logo of Sun Microsystems, who once inhabited their headquarters space, emblazoned on the back of the sign at the entrance to their Menlo Park headquarters. Despite both successes and challenges, the key, Pollard continued, is to build a resilient culture.  For the uninitiated, Sun Microsystems was once a titan of the computer and software industry that made significant contributions to several key computing technologies.

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Creating Conditions where Failing Fast Is Possible & Acceptable

Global VP of Innovations at AB InBev Pato Prini discussed how his organization stays lean and moves quickly while introducing operational innovation within the world’s largest brewer and home to more than 180,000 employees and 400 beer brands. Beyond having the right people on the team, Prini said, one key is organizing work around missions instead of roles. Missions, Prini described, begin with a clear business case or hypothesis from day one and creatively testing hypotheses with limited resources. After proving hypotheses, scaling innovations can take one to two years by design, leveraging the collective muscle of the mothership.

Williams-Sonoma VP and Head of Strategy and Business Development Anddria Varnado described a similar approach to making the customer experience of shopping for furniture easier. For example, Williams-Sonoma is driving innovation through acquisition, launching new products, and key partnerships—all while taking a data-driven approach to testing minimum viable products (MVPs). Central to this approach, Varnado said, is piloting and testing new products and approaches, empowering others with ownership and accountability, and simultaneously working to remove stigma associated with failure.

A “Learn-It-All” vs. “Know-It-All” Culture

Dara Treseder, CMO at Carbon, a leading digital manufacturing company, underscored the importance of fostering a “learn-it-all”, as opposed to a “know-it-all,” culture. “Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean you have the best ideas,” Treseder said. “Creating a culture where you can debate is critical, because no one person is the arbiter of good ideas and answers.” Encouraging employee curiosity and innovation, Treseder continued, starts by creating space where they can learn and grow.

“Creating a culture where you can debate is critical, because no one person is the arbiter of good ideas and answers.”

Living a “learn-it-all” culture in practice, GoDaddy’s VP of Global Marketing Community Melissa Schneider described how the 300-person marketing organization at GoDaddy is engaging in an “always-on transformation” initiative. The driver, Schneider shared, was a singular focus on delivering the customer experience, with the intended result of increasing the velocity of work. Schneider, with full-on executive support, launched the transformation initiative with the understanding that it would be iterative, starting with a hypothesis about how they would organize, as opposed to an org chart.

Closing Reflections

Catalant co-founder and co-CEO Pat Petitti shared insights from the responses of Velocity Forum attendees to Catalant’s Agility Benchmark survey toward the end of the Forum’s duration. Although perspectives on the top sources of obstacles to agility varied across respondents, one thing was clear: realizing business agility requires constant learning.

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How agile is your organization?

See how your organization stacks up against top companies with Catalant’s Agility Benchmark.

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