We are constantly being told that innovation is the future, and that companies must innovate and embrace disruption or they will die. Beyond the buzzwords, however, we are not often given the definition of what innovation is and how this definition may change for a particular company, let alone the process of how a company innovates.
Pause 2017 and its major partner Dropbox, however, are keen to share. Revealing the company’s recipe for innovation in a keynote at next week’s Pause 2017 festival will be Daniel Iversen, Head Solutions Architecture at Dropbox across APAC.
For Dropbox, Iversen said the process of encouraging, cultivating, and rewarding innovation internally has been distilled into a systemised recipe, finessed over years of experimentation.
“In a way, it’s organic, but there’s also a bit of science to the madness as well in terms of how we innovate,” he said.
Founded in 2007, Dropbox has become a leader in the global cloud storage and collaboration space. Now ten years old, like other well-established tech companies, Dropbox faces the challenge of ensuring it is innovating to keep up with the needs of its customers and competitors in the market alike.
“The bigger you grow and the older the company is, the harder it can get to keep that rate of innovation up,” Iversen admitted.
“When you grow large it’s easy to have an ivory tower approach to innovation where you have one team that’s responsible for new research, one team for new design, or something like that, which we believe isn’t the right way to go. Even the middle ground, where you have the suggestion box model where everybody can contribute new ideas, we think is still not far enough.”
According to Iversen, most innovation comes from the bottom. At Dropbox, Iversen said 80 percent of the company’s innovation – ideas and execution – comes from individuals, with the strategy coming from the top.
“What we’ve done, and it’s not easy, is put in a framework of all sorts of things to nurture and reward and drive that bottoms-up innovation,” he explained.
The most important part of the framework is the company’s cultural values, which drive everything the company does. Dropbox’s values allow the company to move fast together and make the right decisions, with everyone on the same page, Iversen said. To ensure everyone is on the same page, Dropbox has a focus on transparency and clarity.
“Dropbox is probably the only company I’ve worked for where every employee knows the company values by heart, which I think is really special. Not only do we know them, but we get measured against them, we peer review each other, so it’s quite a strong driver in how we build the products and bring things to market,” he explained.
“We’ve got bi-weekly all-hands meetings with our CEO and product leads, we’ve got all of our roadmaps open and generally we’ve got a very transparent culture at Dropbox, where everyone can see each other’s calendars and that sort of thing. That’s important.”
The other crucial component in this framework is setting clear expectations, about how Dropbox innovates and what an individual’s responsibilities are. This starts at expectations around innovation.
“We’re explicitly clear that most of the innovation has to come from the bottom,” Iversen said.
“Our number one company value is be worthy of trust, and that can mean a lot of things; oftentimes we talk about it in terms of being the custodians of every body’s information, but it also goes to talking about innovation, where everybody’s responsible for taking ownership of issues and ideas and driving it forward.”
This culminates in events like the yearly Hack Week, where everyone comes together to work on new projects. According to Iversen, 30 percent of new Dropbox features come out of Hack Week alone.
To get to that 30 percent, showing participants their projects have the chance to live on beyond Hack Week, the company has put in a process around the hackathon. In designing a new feature or product, teams are focused on simplicity, thinking about starting with something that’s useful, then valuable, and then profitable.
“We’ve got a process to execute in a way so people know what they’re doing has meaning, so we have a way of evaluating these ideas. For every one of them we think, what does this mean? Does this change our thinking in any way, is this something we should do? If so, why should it be Dropbox that does it, why should it be now, what do we need now for the next steps to test this idea further or roll it out?” Iversen explained.
“It’s quite systematic, but it’s also quite liberating at the same time.”
Of course, Dropbox’s recipe has been engineered for a huge, global team, however as he prepares to share it with the Pause 2017 audience, Iversen said various aspects of Dropbox’s process can be valuable for small companies, too.
“Avoiding that ivory tower approach to innovation, where only the managing director makes a lot of the decisions, doing it a bit more collaboratively and really listening out for new ways of doing things is a key takeaway for the smaller companies,” he said.
“We’re a little biased because we see things from the lens of Dropbox, but using tech to remove obstacles is key for smaller companies as well because it means they can be more productive and focused a bit more on innovation.”
Pause Fest 2017 will take place at Federation Square on the 8th-10th of February 2017. Tickets can be purchased here.