Think Like Amazon in the Era of Intelligent Automation
The Digital Leader Newsletter — Strategies and Techniques for Change Agents, Strategists, and Innovators.
Here are the highlights from my conversation with Brad Hairston of Blue Prism, a market leader in robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent automation. Brad runs partnerships for Blue Prism with major consulting companies and partners. We were colleagues together at Alvarez and Marsal.
You can listen to the podcast conversation here, or read the highlights.
BRAD: Hello, everyone, I'm Brad Hairston with Blue Prism, welcome to the Transform NOW podcast. Today I'm delighted to have as my guest John Rossman, a true thought leader on digital and innovation strategies.
John, if you had to narrow it down to two or three of the Amazon leadership principles, which of them would you say are most relevant to today's current business environment, where technology is evolving faster than ever, where work from home is the new norm, where customer experience expectations are rising through the roof. What would you say?
JOHN: It's interesting, the way you phrase that question. I usually get asked, “What do I think was most responsible for Amazon's success?” Your question is a twist on that, which is “what do I think is most important for companies today?” What I think is most interesting for companies today is still the first leadership principle, which is about customer obsession. Customer-centricity is putting the customer at the center of everything you do, and the willingness to do really hard things on behalf of your customers. It's the willingness to change with your customer as the motivation and as the customer, as the thing that gets you through the hard days and cuts across all your bureaucracy and enforces people out of their little silos in which they tend to operate in, the customer goes across silos and that's why the customer is a great proxy to evaluate and operate “like an owner” across your enterprise, not just your job title.
I got a great lecture from Bezos one time that your title is one thing but I want you to operate in a different way and that was the message was, don't pay attention to the silos we put you in when you're working on transformation. I think the other thing that I would take away from those principles for companies today, and honestly like I could make a case for any of them, but the two I'll highlight today is one is “think big”. The leadership principle reads
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.
One of the skills that I've come to appreciate and have tried to develop for myself is the ability to both “think big” and be able to communicate that to others. Change is the process of bringing others along with you. That ability to be consistently on point to the right person on the right points at the right time in a consistent manner is just a superpower of what great leaders do. Again, back to Bezos, if you look at his communications, whether in their shareholder letter or the things you've read about him, he is continually reusing the same language, the same phrases, right? Like we're a day one organization, as an example, right?
BRAD: You make the point that sometimes it's important to think strategically and not just get caught up in a technology discussion. At Blue Prism, that's a common theme, we tend to prefer to have business conversations with our customers and partners and avoid talking about technology. We really like terms like “future of work” and “reimagining work”. In your dialogue and consulting work with companies, how many of them do you think are truly thinking about the future of work?
JOHN: When most companies are talking about the future of work, what they're primarily thinking about is the pandemic and how it's forced us to work from home and have video calls and collaborate in a different manner, which is one small sliver of what the future of work means. They're not thinking deeply about how do we actually architect outcomes, define processes that get to those outcomes, and then define the work and the jobs and the roles that go on and what the best way is to achieve that and to measure that. You need to be able to do both, relative, right. Companies are not thinking through how do we compete differently from a speed standpoint, from a cost standpoint, from a scalability standpoint, both for the customers as well as for better-operating results by really redefining how work gets done. That's why I'm excited about one essential way to do that which is RPA, but not the only way. You need to start with a vision for why you're really doing this, what the future of work is, and what the opportunity is for your business model and for your organization. Many people are taking this piecemeal and from a short-sighted basis.
BRAD: John, we are in the midst of the “great resignation”. What are your thoughts on what's driving this?
JOHN: I'm not an economist or a labor expert, but what I think is behind it is the pandemic has certainly played a role in setting up an environment where people don't have to go to work, they've got a good reason not to go to work, and we've got an environment where there's a lot of funding making it possible for people to not have to go to work, but I think at the root cause it's a real symbol that a lot of work isn't really rewarding. If we can make work more creative, more fulfilling, then you're on a basis for retaining, attracting, and growing great talent in an organization and hence why I feel like as part of a plan, relative to this, automating appropriately is part of the answer relative to this, but there's a lot of people who can probably give a lot more data and insight.
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Companies are not thinking through how do we compete differently from a speed standpoint, from a cost standpoint, from a scalability standpoint, both for the customers as well as for better-operating results by really redefining how work gets done.
BRAD: What is the key to retaining the best employees in this economy where there are so many unfilled jobs and you have the Great Resignation going on, but what do companies have to do to address this?
JOHN: No simple answer to this. Reduce the brain-dead, repetitive nature of work can be really helpful in retaining talent, giving people paths for progress is really important relative to that and using work as a way to socialize with other people is a big part of the value and the reward you get out of work, and so isolating people is a difficult situation if you want to retain them for long periods of time. These are some of the strategies and attributes in setting up an environment to retain great workers and talent.
BRAD: Okay. Let's go back to Amazon and let's talk about Amazon Web Services for a moment. I think it's been 11 years in a row that they've been the global leader in cloud infrastructure and platform services. We partner with them very closely, with Prism and AWS, so we're very high on them. What do you think has been the secret of their success, John?
JOHN: Bezos has talked about the fact that AWS got a six to seven-year head start before anybody in the established technology arena responded to it as one of the keys to their success. Anytime you shift a fixed capital cost to a variable operating cost where you take something that's really hard to do with a lot of friction and a lot of expertise and you make it much easier and abstracted to use, I think in general you've got a pretty good business to go to market with and I think that's the real brilliance behind cloud computing and what AWS did was kind of those two aspects that completely flipped the establishment 180 degrees on both of those aspects.
We are at the very start of an era of radical knowledge worker productivity gains through the use of technology like RPA and AI. But, it takes more than just technology. Defining processes as simple as possible to focus on just value-added steps, simplifying flows, creating metrics, and understanding how a human and intelligent agent collaborate is the critical design and strategy work to be done along with technology deployment.
BRAD: The word “disruption” is used to have a negative connotation, now it's something companies are striving toward and Amazon is certainly one of the better-known disruptors. What do you think it takes to be a disruptor like Amazon?
JOHN: It takes the willingness to truly change the traditions of a customer experience, which means typically the traditions of an ecosystem and a business model so that things don't operate necessarily as they've operated in the past. And what's difficult is that sometimes we inflict pain or change either upon our partners or upon our own existing business lines, right, like that's the challenge of eating your young, and disruption, to me, like that word really what it infers is rapid change and new winners and new losers.
BRAD: You had a newsletter recently that I really found interesting, it was about digital transformation and you talked about how there are so many different definitions of that today, many of which are really not that good, but you in the end boil it down to two words, which I really, really liked, agility and speed. Can you elaborate more on that? Why do you think those are the two words that really embody what digital transformation is all about?
JOHN: The term “digital transformation” at a high macro level serves a purpose for aggregating all of these other concepts and strategies and technologies and all that, but I don't think it's a good level to operate at as a company or as an exec, because it means too many things to too many people, and so you've got to have multiple layers of definitions and communication strategies. And so I just kind of took the next click down from what's transformation.
It really is kind of back to this concept of speed — if you think about the attribute of speed, that's really about efficiency, right, repetitive motion, highly predictable, highly efficient for outputs and for quality and for cost centering, well that's operational excellence, and so to transform you have to keep a keen eye on the investments necessary to continue to improve your operating basis.
Secondly, if you think about the attribute of agility, well agility sounds like speed but it's actually completely different, and in an athlete, agility is the ability to sense and make change happen, right? Sometimes big change, sometimes small change. Well, what does that take? First, you have to be aware of your surroundings, you have to be a student of what's going on out there. Second, you have to have the ability to try something, to test, to innovate.
Here’s your homework this week. Tell me (email@example.com)
How is your company setting a course to compete based on speed and removing complexity?
Are you systematically designing or reengineering processes with the goal of improving speed, increasing the value-added quotient for people, and automating repetitive tasks through digital agents?
Thanks to Brad Hairston and Blue Prism for the opportunity to have this conversation on the Transform Now podcast.
About The Digital Leader Newsletter
This is a newsletter for change agents, strategists, and innovators. The Digital Leader Newsletter is a weekly coaching session focusing on customer-centricity, innovation, and strategy. We deliver practical theory, examples, tools, and techniques to help you build better strategies, better plans, better solutions — but most of all, to think and communicate better.