A conversation with Amie Gray, CEO of N³ Innovation
Amie Gray is an expert in launching external innovation programs at F1000 global corporations. She is the CEO of N³ Innovation, a small company based in Silicon Valley that packs a big punch. They help large corporate clients who want to explore innovation and digital transformation.
Most large organizations are already well-versed in internal innovation and have an abundance of staff and resources at their disposal. What they lack is the know-how to organize them — how to move from an idea to implementing it at scale inside the company. N³ Innovation provides them with the strategy needed to get there.
From Process to Strategy Thinking
Before starting N³ Innovation, Amie was an industrial engineer, where she spent her days delving into manufacturing processes. This perspective has shaped her process for creating successful innovation programs. She channels the concept of oriented thinking, as advocated by industrial revolution-era innovator Frederick Taylor, one of the earliest theorists who looked at managerial practices and how to best conduct business.
Taylor was a significant driver of the revolution, changing the business world with his philosophies and ideas. He and his associates were the first to study the work process scientifically. While Amie applies several of Taylor’s concepts in her work today, she has also restructured them to fit the circumstances of today.
“The problem that we have now is that Frederick Taylor assumed one person, one task. That’s the complexity that we are dealing with today, where you have a computer that do almost any task. You have to know what task you need done. That’s where things start to break down.”
Amie has transitioned from thinking about process to focusing on strategies of innovation. She has found that many organizations become hyper-focused on one tactic or aspect of their larger goals—for example, ideation or creative culture. While these are undoubtedly essential pieces of the overall innovation puzzle, they must also be aligned with the greater business goals to be truly successful.
This is especially important today when many corporations run on a budget cycle. These budget cycles have a limited appetite for ideas, Amie says. Employees are focused on the next big idea, what’s new and upcoming. While this leads to an abundance of ideas, there’s a lack of structure to implement them. In other words, being too concept-oriented overlooks the crucial strategy needed to effectively implement ideas into the business, which often leads to few tangible results that show how the ideation impacted the company.
“The innovation programs that I see, people get really stuck on the front end of it, where they are working on ideation, creativity and building a culture of innovation and working on the softer side of it. I think that’s great, but you can lose track of how that produces a business result,” Amie said.
The most important focus to consider from the beginning of an innovation process, she says, is the task that needs to be completed. It’s the lack of this vision that leads to breakdown and failure. Amie’s first initiative with clients is to create a fundamental strategy, a roadmap that directs them from where they are at, to where they want to be.
Measure Innovation Programs in Dollars
An innovation program must adopt a test-and-learn model to ensure its success, Amie says. Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, the process and results metrics within a company assigned to dollars, help to identify if an idea is sound and profitable from the start.
Amie implements KPIs at the very beginning of an innovation program to address the question of what a company is trying to accomplish and how it should be measured. Choosing KPIs depends on the situation and will change over time as the idea and company progress. Ultimately, the power and proof are in the numbers. “If we did a $15,000 test, and it paid itself back in two weeks, we know that we can generate $15,000 every two weeks. What’s that going to be over a month or six months, or a year, or even if we scaled it up bigger?” Amie said.
Entrepreneurial Mindset Creates Future Success
Amie predicts in what is commonly called the “fourth industrial revolution,” where a focus on strategy will become even more critical. The use of artificial intelligence, blockchain, 3D printing, and other up-and-coming innovations will significantly alter our lives, down to the macroeconomic level. Any automated job, she says, will likely get replaced. She says: “If we have self-driving cars, do we need Uber drivers? Do we need the best drivers? Do we need trained drivers? Do we need any driver in our economy? Maybe not. Where do all those people go?”
We’ll need different infrastructure around this new mode of transportation; for example, how will automated vehicles be maintained and will people own them? The massive amount of technology required to build this new model and framework would impact almost every aspect of how society operates.
Amie believes that one key to overcoming job loss and finding success during this technological transition will be an entrepreneurial mindset. This means teaching people to be a “master” of their career and their own business. Instead of filling a role that already exists (Amie imagines traditional “plug-in” jobs will no longer live in a new type of marketplace), people will need to think outside of the box. “What can I create that doesn’t already exist? How can I make something that does exist, operate better?” These are the kinds of questions Amie says we should be teaching the emerging generation to contemplate and acquire as second-nature thinking.
Encouraging a nontraditional, curious, and innovative mindset will allow more possibilities for success in the new service economy. “Software as a service was the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Everything is going to be subscription and service-based. How do you become comfortable in that environment? Can I create subscription models out of almost anything? I can create subscription models out of transportation. I can create subscription models for almost anything in my life.”
Build Innovation Around Company Core Capabilities
Thinking in an entrepreneurial way is essential to the prosperity of individuals and companies in the future. Companies that think outside of the box while also keeping in mind their core capabilities find the most success, according to Amie. To maintain a company’s core capability is to stay focused on what a company is good at—what is its “thing,” what makes it thrive—and how can problems be solved or improvements be made based on this foundation?
Instead of producing something wholly new and off-base from the company’s main objective or already-successful product, Amie encourages clients to build from the core. She calls these marginal practices, and she says they are what lead to prosperous innovation. One of the most critical aspects of this process is for companies to be honest with themselves and evaluate what they are capable of doing with the resources they have and where they need help from outside sources. “In every company, there are problems to be solved today. The question is, ‘Do I want to solve them myself? Do I know how to solve them myself, and am I the best person to solve it?’”
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