Never stopping in the never normal

By Phil Le-Brun, Director, Enterprise Strategy, Amazon Web Services (AWS).

A prominent theme at this year’s Dublin Tech Summit was acceleration, appropriate given the speed with which companies have had to act since last year. I had an opportunity to talk about how Amazon innovates rapidly while staying centred on what customers truly want or need. We start by diving deep to understand customers, working backwards from there to delight them. Within Amazon Web Services, our cloud technology business, 90% of the services come directly from customers’ requests. The remainder come from being close enough to customers that we can invent on their behalf.

To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied. Understanding this and genuinely obsessing about customers is at the heart of creating this culture of innovation. We call this our “Day 1” culture, one that is focused on reinvention and continually strives to understand customers better while not becoming complacent based on past successes.

There’s been a counterpoint to this philosophy though. The phrase “the new normal” entered our vocabulary last year, heralding a desire to return to some sort of calm and stability. COVID-19’s disruption of this business-as-normal mentality has hit industries hard. It’s prompted many organisations – both public and private sector – to create their own culture of innovation, embracing agile working practices to quickly adapt to new demands. Tito, the event-ticketing platform, pivoted from in-person to on-line events. The heavily impacted services economy saw companies like Phorest build a new ecommerce platform to help hair salons bring in new revenue. Others such as TDS focused on the return to the workplace, creating new features for contactless check-ins and real-time monitoring of office occupancy thresholds.

What do these and similar companies have in common? Firstly, they capitalised on the broad services available within the cloud, and the ability to technically and financially scale up and down in-line with business demand. Cloud-based hospitality and travel companies dialled down technology consumption to preserve liquidity. Retailers and healthcare companies seamlessly accommodated spikes in customer calls and on-line orders. This elasticity encouraged companies to try new ideas faster and more cost effectively. Ideas popular with customers could be widely deployed in minutes, not the months taken previously. In turn this enabled companies to focus more of their limited resources on activities that competitively differentiated them.

Equally, a significant proportion of these companies learned that the advantage of agility is not limited to a crisis. The phrase “digital transformation” has liberally peppered shareholder reports for years, but the pandemic brought a laser-like focus to accelerating these investments along with a true understanding of what it means to be digital. It isn’t about a new website or app, rather it’s an understanding that customers are in the driving seat, able to switch easily between the multitude of options available. The implications are obvious. The future has never really been normal: it requires adaptability in the face of accelerating customer, competitive, political, and economic changes.

Doing this transcends a mission statement on a website declaring how important customers are. It’s so easy for companies to become immersed in their own complexity and focused on competitors instead of engaging deeply with customers. Decision-making turns inwards and slows down. Yet the pandemic triggered a response in companies that pushed aside these barriers out of necessity: trusting employees, taking calculated risks to learn quickly, and rapidly scaling successful tests or pivoting.

Customer-centricity and agility are finally being seen as not just platitudes, but a true, sustainable competitive advantage. These companies learn quickly and iteratively with customers by busting through organisational siloes rather than blindly executing initiatives based on assumptions and desires. Innovation is not seen as an adjunct: it is deeply embedded into these businesses’ DNA to continually reinvent on behalf of, and with, customers. It’s an approach which enables external disruptions to be taken within companies’ strides.

We don’t know what the future holds but we do know that the winners will be those who have their own “Day 1” culture. These companies understand that the status quo poses a greater risk to them than embedding a culture of change within their organisations. Let’s welcome the never normal as an opportunity to never be slow and never be irrelevant.

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