One big advantage that companies like Amazon have, Masud says, is their obsessive focus on the customer experience. Often, he observes, when you’re working inside a company, “you quickly forget what your expectations are as consumer, and you’re OK with [excuses like], ‘Yeah, there are a few things missing — we’ll get to it.’ But as a consumer of that product, you’re fairly impatient.”
“If you look at a lot of companies that are under pressure,” Masud says, “they’re less customer-focused, and more focused on what the profits look like. But profits are an output, and customers are the input to that.”
Masud adds that long-tenured employees can also present barriers to change: “They’ve been there 30 years, and they’ve done it that way — and they don’t like this new way. This is not an innovation problem; this is a culture problem. Unless you can change the culture, [doing things differently] is very hard.”
How Decision-Making is Different at Amazon
One thing that can support agility and customer focus is what Masud calls “single-threaded ownership.” At Amazon, for instance, “you have an owner for something, end to end.” That category leader has “the right to make decisions about their category, all the way from price down to inventory down to who the vendors were and what marketing was needed.” Things are very different in traditional retail organizations, he observes, “where you’ve got merchandising sitting in a different org, you’ve got inventory management sitting in a different org, the digital team sitting in a different org, and you’re spending a lot of time trying to collaborate. The single biggest take-away for me is, they do collaborate [at Amazon], but there are a lot fewer stakeholder meetings, committees, governance councils. There’s none of that. You can think of an idea, go work with another team, trade your engineering resources, and next thing you know, you’re already iterating.”
Finding and Retaining Top Talent
Masud also addressed the topic of finding and retaining top talent. “The single biggest challenge that traditional companeis face is that, if you’re based in a suburban environment, you’re going to have a very hard time finding the best talent. The folks coming out of college, coming out of grad school…their nucleus is the urban environment, the city. That’s where they want to be. The moment you move outside of the city, you’re going to be left with a lot of folks who…like the traditional format, 9 to 5, and that’s it.” While Staples is headquartered in the suburbs outside of Boston, the retailer sought to improve its ability to hire software developers and tech talent by opening up innovation centers in Cambridge, Mass. and Seattle. “One big difference I’ve seen is that if you have an office in the city, you’re able to attract talent…that may not have joined you,” Masud says.
“Good talent is always hard to keep, but they love having complex problems to solve,” Masud says. “If you can give smart individuals really difficult problems to solve, you’ll always keep them,” though it is essential to supply “some level of resourcing so they can feel empowered to do so.”
InnoLead’s Impact conference returns to Boston in 2020, October 19-21st.