Overcoming Legacy Thinking at Established Organizations

By Collin Robisheaux |  August 10, 2021

With a wealth of experience in digital strategy and innovation roles, Atif Rafiq has worked for big-name companies such as Amazon, McDonald’s, Yahoo, and Volvo, and has witnessed one major challenge.

“Simply put, legacy thinking [is] our thoughts and beliefs that are past their expiration date,” Rafiq said. “And that’s actually what makes them a little bit dangerous, right? Because…they lead to poor decision making and reduce the performance of our organizations.”

As part of our recent Charting the Future event, Rafiq sat down with Jodie Brinkerhoff of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to discuss how innovators can circumvent legacy thinking and address its challenges, the benefits of risk-framing for career and innovation purposes, and his tactical advice for innovation strategists looking to create a learning environment within their organization. Key takeaways from the conversation follow.

How to Overcome Legacy Thinking

  • Companies with consistent success from repeated processes may be more prone to legacy thinking. Rafiq says that companies sticking with the same playbook may need a pioneering approach to find new ways around roadblocks. “That’s a hard adjustment and pivot for companies to make,” Rafiq said. “So long story short, when you’re now shifting to an offensive approach, and trying to pioneer experiences for which there is no playbook, you need to bring a different culture, mindset, and system of collaboration.”
  • For excellent consumer brands such as McDonald’s, MGM Resorts, Volvo, and others, adopting the Amazon playbook can be helpful toward overcoming legacy thinking. “So, in many ways, you want to bring your Amazon playbook to these companies and say, ‘What would Amazon do?'” Rafiq said. “Ask that question as a thought process, and then sort of think about how you kind of pivot the capabilities of the company to be digital at the core. And then you have to do a lot of work underneath that.”
  • Getting the organization on board with the innovation plan is vital. According to Rafiq, an innovator should spend a comparable amount of time helping colleagues and legacy workers to understand the innovation project, as they would creating the idea itself. “So really distilling it, making it very approachable, vague, making it relatable, based on the legacy of the company…what the company has been about for a long time, using familiar language,” Rafiq explains. “And mapping – that is a really good way for people to get their head around it. Because everyone wants to have a little bit of innovation in them.”

Framing Risks When Exploring New Opportunities 

“I take tremendous value in the idea of taking calculated risks,” said Rafiq. In his career move to McDonald’s, Rafiq said he effectively became the first Chief Data Officer in the world and jumped at the opportunity to create an innovative new venture within his field. 

“Could [this role] create an impact for this company and others?” Rafiq asked himself. “Do I get to be a pioneer crafting what this role and its contribution is all about? And it was like, yes, yes, yes. So it was a good calculated risk, in my view…  I would say within 60 days, we put something on the table for the board of directors, [and] we got people behind the general direction to digitize the customer experience.”

Creating a Learning Culture

Tactical strategies for overcoming legacy thinking and creating an innovative environment within an organization are important. Rafiq says that focusing on creating a learning environment is a strategy teams can use. 

“One thing teams can do is start by being open to questions and creating a path for learning,” Rafiq said. “Don’t be afraid to list unknowns in the form of questions, and build a plan to come up with high-quality answers based on exploration. Servicing these unknowns and sorting through which ones are more strategic to put an answer against, and what kind of input you need across your organization to create some clarity on these questions is very valuable.”