A Conversation with Todd Duclos, Vice President of Digital Strategy at Lucas Group

Most people would not expect to find a world-class innovator living on a farm in the middle of Iowa. But Todd Duclos, the bow tie-wearing Vice President of Digital Strategy at Lucas Group with a Boston accent, happens to be an industry whiz who studied a technology and innovation master’s program at the University of Tampa, a program that undoubtedly changed his life.

There, Todd studied statistics, new product development, innovation theory, and product, marketing and program management–all the pieces and details required to get innovation out to market. In a recent conversation with him, he told me that the program gave him a huge advantage in connecting the dots between where the industry is today and where it looks like it’s going, based on research and available knowledge of the innovation industry.

“It really made the innovation process very straightforward to me and allowed me to bring that to my employers in a new and different way. ” 

Todd Duclos, Vice President of Digital Strategy at Lucas Group.

I had the opportunity to talk to Todd about his experience in innovation as part of our Innovation Series, including his take on culture and product innovation, what makes a great innovation program, and how failing and unlearning are strategies for success. Read on for more of our conversation.

Culture Innovation vs Product Innovation 

Tod and I discussed the importance of identifying if a company is interested in cultural innovation or product innovation before beginning any sort of successful transformation. First things first, Todd said that an innovation team is based on the idea that the company is going to be three or four years ahead of everyone else. What does this mean? In short, innovation should be more about where you are going than where you are. He says designing in this way places you in a much better spot to lead the company away from being disrupted. The company is then in a stronger market position later on. But if you get too tied down in the tactical and operational side, the audience will feel that their existing work is being criticized, and you’ll lose them. 

“Trying to determine whether you’re going to be a cultural driven or a product innovation team and making that distinction early, then deciding how you’re going to go about it, is very helpful in the very beginning.”

He says in order for your innovation team to be focused on changing the culture, you want to get ideas from them so that they become subject matter experts. Then, it is important to drive them to understand that they are part of the company’s growth and direction and what you should be working on next.

“Cultural innovation is a job in and of itself, driving the idea that we’re all part of the innovation process.”

Todd Duclos

Product innovation is more about where you see the marketplace, or your market, going in the future. It also calls for a focus on what you should be doing now so that you’re not caught by a disruptive technology that could seriously impact your future earnings or your direction as a company. Todd understands that tackling innovation from within an enterprise is different from innovation as a startup or as a younger company with more flexibility and fewer guard rails. But within an enterprise, the challenges are greater because oftentimes the goals of the innovation aren’t quite solid. “They would like to infuse the culture with innovation, and while they do all that, they want to see incremental gains in product and marketing acceptance and things they can fix along the way,” he says. 

“Often, you end up leaning towards the current fixes, whether that’s for foundational purposes or just being able to build upon that later. By the time you get around to the innovation side, where you really could start to make some market changing updates and adding different things, sometimes the funding runs out, or the quarterly goals change, and you become much more operational than innovation-focused.” 

Disruptive or Incremental Innovation?  

When companies begin to look at innovation as incremental, it’s very easy to take the existing path and continue forward. This is a trend Todd has seen time and time again. You’re listening to your top customers, he says, serving their marketplace. While that occurs, someone is building a better widget beneath you.

“When you look at that market you think, ‘Well, we don’t need to be there, it doesn’t really affect us.’ Before long, they’ve taken over your market space and you’re left holding not much of what’s left. That is the very definition of disruptive innovation.”

Todd says that incremental innovation prevents the ability to be proactive against being disrupted. “As a market leader, which many of the companies I worked for were, my job was to keep them from being disrupted. We often would say disrupt externally not internally, so that we could disrupt the marketplace with our products and activities and move up in the market share side but not get disrupted by an external company, affecting us internally.” 

“Because I view innovation both as a long-term strategy and potentially disruptive as well, I am looking for success metrics that show things like where your new products or services are on the adoption curve,” Todd says. “Is your market viewing your entire company as ahead of the curve and a thought leader in your space, and most importantly, are you failing fast and putting those learnings from failure to work going forward. Using metrics and reports to predict trends moving forward is helpful, so you’re not disrupting the internal operations of the company, but you’re seeing where a problem can occur if you continue down that path.”

Failure and Unlearning as Forward-moving Strategies

Todd Duclos teaches the power of unlearning for successful innovation.

Todd insists that if at the very beginning of a project you start to see a disconnect between the original intent of that project and where it’s starting to go, you need to raise your hand and explain why it’s not going to work. CEOs and people who release the funds are much more comfortable pivoting than they are shutting down and starting from scratch.

“If you can pivot and fail quickly, you’re learning through it and incorporating it into your overall goal.”

“I learned that the highest hurdle for innovation is to unlearn what has been learned. Part of my job is to teach people how to do it. It is the biggest challenge, but it’s more cognitive dissonance than just plain objection. Once I understood that it made going into very challenging change situations a lot easier. Often people get so caught up in the failure part that they can’t get past it. Moving past that is far more productive than trying to force a solution that won’t ever be there. I have met many a colleague with the right mental amnesia capabilities to successfully do this. You can’t buy into new ways if the only success is what you have seen work previously.”

Todd Duclos

To make this process most effective, Todd says it’s important to follow up with a quick and hopefully relatively easy win, which will gain you some initial credibility and evangelists going for you.

“If it is unclear what your team does, having a clear example of success and how it ties to future innovation is perfect.”

“If you can show what you’re there to do, why you’re doing it and how it impacts the rest of the business, they’ll understand that you’re a whole lot more than just the innovation team coming in to change the way we work.”

Todd advises to come up with a way to show everyone that you’ll be collaborative, working with them to solve the problems they’re facing. After talking to the teams to understand what their biggest problems are, you can solve something quickly to show them that you’re listening to them and taking them into account.

“Suddenly, their whole mindset changes to where you are a person who solves things for them, you’re not going to create problems for them.”

Innovation is a dirty word 

Well, not really. But Todd believes the term is overused, and often used incorrectly.

“It’s turned into any change you want to make in your company is now an innovation.”

He went on to explain, “Even CEOs who drive innovation throughout the company will say, ‘Stop saying innovation, I can’t hear it anymore.’ And it’s because the word has become synonymous with sucking capital out of the company with no forward progress on the other side. I think over time that will start to change again. I see it even more now with agile design and innovation being used interchangeably when they’re very different frameworks to be trying at your company.”

Typically, innovators see connections and options to innovate more clearly, finding new white spaces and focusing on the bigger goals following that initial win. This is where storytelling and innovation must come together. The key is finding a concrete example to affirm what you’re saying. “I often talk about the idea of robotics and warehouses and they would say that’s 25 years away,” says Todd. “Meanwhile, Foxconn is doing it throughout Asia right now. They have buildings with less than 10 employees, and they are all robotic. That means it’s coming faster than you think. Part of storytelling should be to reel that future closer to the day to day so that they understand why you’re seeing these things that could be a problem later.”

Todd says that, too often, companies let the framework drive the result versus using the right framework to achieve the best result.

“Sometimes it feels like the framework is driving the project instead of the other way around, and often it’s because companies decide a specific label with which they identify and won’t do things any other way, even though it might not be the right way to accomplish the goal. You can’t use a cookie cutter to fix a complex problem.”

That’s why Todd sees Netflix as the most successful company regarding innovation. “Their self-awareness of their market and needs has always been impressive,” he says. “They are the only company I am aware that successfully used the innovative process to look at their long-term strategy and was willing to kill themselves before others did it to them. First when they pivoted into streaming very early while being the market leader in DVD rentals by mail, and then moving into content creation. Taking funding from a stable business product that’s generating revenue almost automatically and address it towards something that’s going to kill it sounds like Kamikaze business, right? I’m just going to blow up the plane and me and everything in it, but hopefully it will be fine in the end. Sometimes you must look at your products that way.” 

What makes the perfect innovation program?

In Todd’s perfect world, he says a successful innovation program would include the fearless drive of Netflix, the cross-functionality of an IDEO, the product marketing understanding of Steve Jobs and the autonomy to not be derailed by current operations and strategies.

“I would have a beginning focused on the foundational elements required to build upon, whether a platform or product. My team would also be virtual to ensure you get the best team members and have frequent SKRUM-like stand-ups to define ongoing progress.”

The goal is to have the diversity of thought-leading the project, which studies show leads to better outcomes.

It’s not just a good thing from a social standpoint, it’s also more effective from a profit-generating standpoint. This is one reason why Todd is a big proponent of virtual work. When hiring for his teams, he is first and foremost looking to find the best person for the job, even if it means they work remotely or they’re in a completely different place in the world. But the amount of pushback you get at a large enterprise is still surprising, even when so many companies are purely virtual now. 

Hiring a lesser skilled person just because they’re local versus best available is a problem according to Todd.

“If you cut out a commute and you give people the autonomy to work from home, they’ll work well past that time you’re expecting, and productivity generally rises. I think it’s just an Old School vs. New School kind of thing. That’s always the hardest thing–getting any human to unlearn something is the biggest challenge we face.”

Today, Todd sees biotech and pharma as successful in innovation because they understand they are in the innovation business already and are moving to an understanding of innovation faster than other industries. But he sees a problem in recruiting since they are always looking for people with experience in their field, and not getting enough diversity of thought. “I know Biogen and others have seen good results of partnering externally to increase their effectiveness,” he says, “and even some of the general healthcare companies are looking at wearables and other things that can help their patients move forward, so innovation there is growing pretty quickly.”

“You shouldn’t be thinking of innovation as technology; it’s important to remember that innovation can often be process or people oriented instead of always being technology oriented.”

As an example, Todd points to retailers who have been failing for years and are now looking for innovative people to come to help them redesign their business to make it work better. “It’s not just about that anymore, it’s about the way people interact with retail that has dramatically shifted,” he says. “No innovation in the world is going to change that. But if you can show the theory behind it–here’s why I think it’s going to happen, and here’s how I think we should address it–I’ve found that’s been productive. But that’s a big unlearning.” 

The Future of Innovation

Todd Duclos

Right now, Todd says he is excited by the changes in the staffing and recruiting industries that will be brought about by AI and Machine Learning. Although these are in their infancy, he believes that AI and machine learning will take away mundane tasks and open society up for a larger focus on artistic endeavors like design and UX, and more roles that strategize and use the collective power of their teams to propel things forward.

“We are only in the embryonic phase of AI where a chatbot asks you logic questions with expected answers,” he says. “But down the road it will converse with you to understand you and your needs and then a human will help you achieve that. It is very exciting times.”