A conversation with Pam Krengel, Principal at Moves the Needle

When training to run the Chicago Marathon, Pam Krengel realized how much it was like many of the starts ups she had worked for and with over the years.

“Focus, determination, learning by running experiments on nutrition and water intake, and resiliency. Being in the fog at some points and not seeing the end of the tunnel, but with continued learning, iteration and determination to see it through and cross the finish line.

Pam Krengel, Principal at Moves the Needle
Pam Krengel, Principal at Moves the Needle

If anyone knows startups, she does. Pam is what you would call a “veteran startup founder.” For over 18 years, she worked with organizations helping them understand the power of the internet, ultimately creating web-based applications for organizations that delivered value for millions of their customers. “We started with building websites and eventually, recognized that customers could be shopping online. Then we started to build a reputation, and customers were coming to us.”

She came to love the idea of talking to companies and helping them understand what they could do, so she started mentoring startups. She started a circuit of talks, and that is where Moves the Needle found her. They wanted her expertise to teach companies how to do this work and how they can grow and transform their organizations. “I fell in love with our vision of what we’re doing: it’s not just transforming organizations; it’s transforming the lives of these people within the organization to wake up every day excited and understanding the impact that they’re making.”

“Innovation can happen anywhere within the organization and growth can take hold through this continuous innovation of creating value.”

Innovation Theater

Companies can veer into “innovation theater” when kickstarting a project or innovation initiative. They hold contests and teams might get 60 or 90 days to work through a problem, test, innovate, and then present their findings and ideas to a panel of “judges.”

From what Pam has witnessed, this type of work can be great when the teams have been trained to come at it from a customer-centered approach. But, where she has seen a lack of education is in the judging of the groups: “The judges have not been trained to ask the right questions at this point. They’re focused on typical ROI. They haven’t been mentored. They don’t understand how you look at this type of innovation differently.”

She would like to see the judges know what to look for and what questions to ask when the team presents their ideas. “You’re trying to understand what evidence — rooted in real customer behavior — that the team has.”

In this type of innovation presentations or contents, Pam would recommend asking teams:

  1. Where are there areas of uncertainty and what learning do you still need to do?
  2. (If there is prize money): Why do you need it, and what will this money allow you to do?
  3. Does the work fit into the company’s strategic priorities?
  4. How far did you get in 90 days?
  5. Is the team poised to go into execution mode?
Pam leading 15 innovation teams through the Lean innovation process.
Pam leading 15 innovation teams through the Lean innovation process.

Broader Innovation

Pam believes innovation within an organization needs to be done on a broader scale and should be a continuous thing. Too often, she sees where things get stalled because no one owns what needs to be done to make innovation work. “Executives must have consensus around why innovation is needed. There has to be alignment with the strategic priorities that are set because that’s another place where things break down. A team will discover something that can create value, but the department that needs to absorb it and own it, it’s not a strategic priority for them.”

Neon sign

She sees four phases in the innovation journey: kickstarting, accelerating it, scaling it and embedding it: “All of these pieces need to come together to be able to have something that you can take from kickstart to then going ahead…Systems need to be in place. We need to allow innovation teams to move fast and clear the path for them. A system of benchmarking and measuring also needs to be in place. You need to have leaders in those positions that have been trained, that are part of that growth, or that are asking the right questions.”

A Growth Board

Pam also believes innovation can be more successful when you create a Growth Board: “You can think of it as an investor board, but these are a bunch of leaders that come from different areas of the business. When teams demo what they’ve learned within a Sprint, this board can ask the right questions to help the innovation take flight.”

“This growth board is aware of what these teams need to answer so when they present, the board has a bigger view of the portfolio that they’re trying to manage to understand if the team should continue.”

Three Es: Empathy, Experimentation, and Evidence

Pam talked about the importance of the “Three Es” of innovation — Empathy, Experimentation, and Evidence.

It starts with Empathy, which is about understanding customers — their pains, passions, and desires — and developing insights from that understanding. “It all comes down to behaviors. It’s the behavior or a team understanding their customer deeply. Can they answer all the questions about the customer? Do they understand the problem they’re solving? Are they walking in their customer’s shoes? The more they understand the customer and remove their own biases and opinions, the more they will understand the problem at hand.”

“The more they understand the customer and remove their own biases and opinions, the more they will understand the problem at hand.”

Once you fully understand the customer’s journey, you can move on to Experimentation, when you identify the riskiest assumptions, come up with solutions to the test, and run research that tests the customer behavior.

Finally, this allows a team to come up with Evidence, where you make decisions quickly based on data and insights rooted in actual customer behavior.

Why She Loves How Slack Scaled Up

Slack is one of the companies that Pam cited as a favorite innovation success story: “You had a company that started with failure. Sometimes that’s what it takes for them to step back…” Pam says, watching them step back and take the elements they already had working for them and what they needed, which was a communication tool, was a significant step towards success for them.

“What they did very quickly is say, ‘What if we take the three elements that we know we can succeed in? It wasn’t a whole list of features; it was focused on what they felt could be a difference-maker. They decided to put it in the hands of organizations, but it was a select few. They begged those organizations to take it on. They were looking for larger teams to go in and see how they were going to work the system.”

Slack is one of Pam’s favorite innovation success stories.
Slack is one of Pam’s favorite innovation success stories.
Slack is one of Pam’s favorite innovation success stories.

She loved how they put their customer first and wanted to see how the customer was using the tool and understand where they were getting things wrong. By taking the time to gain a better understanding of the customer, they were able to start scaling up from a small group of users to larger and larger groups.

Another thing that Pam points out about Slack’s success is that they understood their impact metric and focused on that. For Slack, the impact metric was 2000 messages. They knew if they could get a team to exchange 2000 messages, it increased the likelihood of them continuing to use the product up to 93%. By knowing their crucial metric, Slack could continually aim to improve it.

Failures Happen Too

Pam’s successes have come with her share of failures and learnings. She’s seen first-hand what happens when you dismiss the customer-centered process and fall in love with a product or idea. As an example, she cited the time that her team created an app that allowed high school students and their parents to connect at high school events: “We did the work of empathy, but probably not as deep as we should have.”

Problems arose when they realized most students were still using flip phones; they were ahead of the technology at the time due to battery life; they also found that the students were interested in connecting with the other students and not the fans.

With that experience as a learning moment, Pam has spent the past six years dedicated to educating, coaching and mentoring teams and other organizations in the Lean innovation process to drastically reduce the risk of building a product no one wants.

After all, the question is never can a team build it; it’s should they? Do they have enough evidence rooted in real customer behavior? Pam encourages teams to gain that evidence through a disciplined Agile approach using empathy, and experimentation. And, of course, through a laser focus, iteration, and a determination to cross that finish line.

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.