A conversation with Sonja Kresojevic, founder of Spinnaker Co, co-founder of Seedtime Collective, and co-author of Lean Product Lifecycle.
When Sonja Kresojevic was hired at Pearson, she led digital transformation for the international part of their business. After a year, she was promoted and joined the Global Product Office to focus on driving change globally across the whole business. In this role, Sonja was a key part of the design and implementation of the award-winning Global Product Lifecycle program, which focused on transforming product development and delivering a faster and more entrepreneurial-focused organization.
During her years managing products, Sonja noticed that, just as companies deploy agile or lean startup practices to build products, the same principles can be applied in a broader organizational context. “I always see myself more as a practitioner than as a consultant, so my work is inspired by what I learned building products,” she says. Armed with this strategy, she sought to figure out how to apply such principles to transform an entire organization.
At first, Sonja encountered some resistance while trying to implement broad system changes at Pearson. “People’s reaction was often ‘This won’t work here’” she says. “However, this led to us focusing on bringing people on the journey and working to co-design solutions. We enabled them to deliver things that were important to their success and built strong communities of practice to enable learning at scale.”
Empathy and listening was key to the process. Her team invested time bringing stakeholders into the process, through town halls and workshops. She also found that words like “agile” and “lean” were scaring them off, so she listened to their struggles empathically and changed her messaging to help them solve the problem. Gradually internal and external stakeholders became involved and got on board.
One of her main takeaways from this experience was that a process shouldn’t be followed just for the process’s sake. She didn’t approach restructuring Pearson from a perspective of merely implementing lean startup. Instead, she noted the significant issues that needed to be addressed and set out to work to solve them with the organization. Sonja shunned dogma for flexibility, pivoting when encountering obstacles rather than throwing her hands up and deciding things were not working.
The life cycle process was one part of the plan. Still, the company quickly realized that it was just one of the components of a much bigger program that involved how they behaved, how they acted as leaders, how they managed the organization, and how they made decisions regarding systems, tools, culture, and incentives. Sonja believes that even inside large organizations, it is possible to get teams to work and behave differently, applying agile principles and convincing people that value creation should be what drives the organization forward.
“I was very much of the mindset that we don’t have all the answers,” says Sonja, “and that it’s more fun to collaborate with people and to build that momentum through the internal and external community, and expose people to some interesting stuff that was happening elsewhere.”
After 20 years in the corporate world, Sonja passionately believed in her ability to instill change in large organizations but also learned that she was somewhat lonely doing it. She says that, if you talk to other people trying to change large organizations, they’re often going to tell you it’s the loneliest job in the world. You go against a brick wall every single day.
“What I had to do was work hard on myself. To figure out what is it that I want to do next, where do I see myself, how do I contribute to the world differently? I realized that the key is in me, and changing myself, and showing up differently for other people, and not separating my personal from my professional life, because I am one person, and I need to share who I am with the world. I cannot be one person at home and another in the workplace.”
For Sonja, it is of utmost importance to empower the whole organization to enable significant and successful change.
Upon leaving Pearson, Sonja became a strategist and created her consulting firm, Spinnaker Co. She regularly speaks on topics of transformation, business agility, leadership, innovation strategy, and culture. In this role, she sees that innovation efforts die over time because they are not connected to strategy. CEOs usually don’t realize that if they invest more in innovation and connect that to strategy, it can save the company or transform how it works. For Sonja, it is of utmost importance to empower the whole organization to enable significant and successful change, and for innovation at scale to work.
Empower the whole organization
According to Sonja, we need to start empowering people and making some significant changes when it comes to culture, and in how we incentivize people to bring them on the transformation journey. When companies have groups that are solely targeted at innovation, but the initiative is disconnected from the strategy, it is difficult for the groups to succeed. Direction must come from an executive team making deliberate strategic decisions.
“Innovation doesn’t work in isolation,” states Sonja. “You need to know why you are trying to innovate what the strategy is. You need to start to put measures in place. You need to change the way you find not just those projects, or products, or initiatives, but beyond that, you need to start looking at the balance of your portfolio. You need to start strategically investing in core versus adjacent versus transformative. It’s not something you can just stumble upon.”
“Innovation doesn’t work in isolation. You need to know why you are trying to innovate…”
If leaders don’t show their human side to others, they’re going to struggle to get anyone to follow them, she says. The more we show the human side and reconnect with ourselves, the more we are going to be able to influence people around us and start to move the boulder in the right direction, whether it’s in societies or large companies.
“I don’t think I can influence leaders in large organizations unless I show them by example how I’m leading myself, or how I’m behaving with my friends,” she says. “I think we need to start to model those right behaviors for other people. We need to be brave enough, and we need to start to speak up and have the real conversation, instead of just the polished version of it. I think some of those softer skills, if you want, is what’s missing when you look at executive teams nowadays.”
The more we show the human side and reconnect with ourselves, the more we are going to be able to influence people around us and start to move the boulder in the right direction.
Global transformation one individual at a time
These days, Sonja talks to her clients about her evolution and transformation, humanity, and vulnerability as much as innovation or business transformation.
“Humanity needs a substantial upgrade,” she states. “I am finding myself more and more focused on the human side: whether it’s to do with all the personal changes we are all undergoing, or with how to bring communities together to facilitate change at scale. I am looking for new, innovative ways to get us working together and learning from each other.”
This belief has led Sonja to recently launch a community called the Seedtime Collective, along with co-founders Héloïse Ardley and Philip Horvath. As they describe in their site, Seedtime was “born out of our personal transformative experiences and a realization that global transformation can only happen one healed individual at the time. We believe that exposing people to transformative experiences that nurture body, mind, and soul, in a supportive and authentic community will create an environment where people can learn to trust their inner-guidance, unlock unique learnings and work together to bring a much-needed change in their communities, organizations, and society at large.”
I love the boldness of Seedtime’s vision and am looking forward to seeing the work that Sonja does there. Sonja has proven that a flexible, human-centered approach that is inclusive and honest will yield better results in bringing innovation and change, even at a large scale.
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.