Digital Tools for Innovation Can’t Just Be “Vitamins”

By Alex Slawsby |  September 10, 2020

Throughout her career, Beth Devin has held CIO, CTO and innovation leadership positions, giving her a unique perspective when it comes to the use of how digital tools and platforms can support innovation.

Beth Devin, Strategic Consultant & Advisor, HearstLab

When Devin shared her thoughts on the subject, she turned to a metaphor which she uses often these days while vetting startups for Hearst, a mass media and communications company. “I always think about whether startups are solving real problems or simply offering vitamins. I see a parallel in the innovation tools and platforms world,” Devin says. “I think there are a lot of innovation leaders who simply don’t recognize that they have a problem that needs solving, and so they see those tools and platforms as vitamins – perhaps as things that are nice to have, but not essential.”

Devin is a Strategic Consultant & Advisor for HearstLab, a community of women-led startups supported by the media company Hearst. Previously, she was the Managing Director of Innovation Network and Emerging Technology for Citi Ventures. We spoke with Devin as part of our research report, “Digitizing the Innovation Team.” Edited highlights from the conversation are below.

Why do you think most organizations have yet to adopt innovation-specific digital tools and platforms?

It’s not easy to be a corporate innovation leader. Most don’t have a moment to spare. They are always fighting to get enough people and money to dedicate to innovation. Even more fundamentally, they are always under pressure to justify their very existence. I think many worry all the time about how one bad financial year or change in executive management could cause them to lose their jobs. So given all of that, it’s hard for most innovation leaders to take the time to think about their team’s digital tools and platforms strategy, much less to develop a business case to support a request for even more resources to invest in infrastructure. It’s obviously much easier for those leaders and their teams to simply use the tools and platforms already available to them.

What about innovation leaders who are in more stable situations with more resources available to invest? Why do you think they’re still not adopting innovation-specific tools or platforms? 

Two reasons come immediately to mind. When I’m assessing startups in which HearstLab might invest, I always think about whether the startups are solving real problems or are simply offering vitamins. It’s one thing to take a medication to directly address a medical condition. It’s another thing to take a vitamin when you remember to do so. In general, not just in the startup world, it’s very hard to sell solutions that are “vitamins” — you have to convince people that they need them. I see a parallel in the innovation tools and platforms world. Innovation leaders don’t recognize that they have a problem that needs solving and so they see those tools and platforms as vitamins — perhaps as things that are nice to have, but not essential. It’s up to the solution provider to demonstrate to the prospective client how their tool addresses real needs and will deliver demonstrable value.

Innovation leaders and teams use digital tools and platforms to do so many different things and so there also just isn’t going to be a “one stop shop” solution that does all of those things well. That means that leaders and teams will most likely need to evaluate and sell into the organization multiple innovation-specific tools and platforms. Think about that request or set of requests landing on the desk of an IT leader. Maybe the innovation team in the past got a senior business unit leader all excited about a new venture or product and that leader turned to the IT leader and said, “Go help them with this…” That would obviously frustrate the heck out of the IT leader who will then likely get in trouble if they’re not supportive. And now the innovation leader is asking the IT leader for help. That’s a difficult dynamic to navigate. 

How do you see the current crisis reshaping innovation leader priorities when it comes to adopting digital tools or platforms?

Working remotely has made people much more reliant on collaboration and communication tools and the companies that make those tools are investing significantly to build out new capabilities on a daily or weekly basis. This also means that innovation-focused tools that address needs in a remote-working world — such as digital design and drawing, group brainstorming, virtual storyboarding, and feedback and surveying — have a much greater chance to be utilized. That said, budgets are tight and the normal enterprise procurement and due diligence processes are not functioning nearly as well remotely as they did pre-crisis. It’s therefore much harder for teams to acquire and deploy new tools, which obviously makes the environment that much tougher for tool companies to sell in and win new business.

What advice would you give to an innovation leader who does want to go down the path of adopting innovation-specific digital tools or platforms?

Here’s what I would say. First, identify clearly the need for which you think a new tool or platform is going to be the solution. Second, identify tools or platforms that you think will address that need and that you can freely test in a simple, initial use case. Third, as you begin to sense that a tool might be promising, bring the key internal functions into the loop — IT, obviously, but also functions like risk management and compliance. If those functions are in the conversation early, it’s going to be much easier to get their buy-in. Ultimately, work with vendors who understand all of the challenges we’ve talked about, who can make clear how their solutions will generate an ROI and who are dedicated to helping you throughout the journey.