Zoe Dunning has a long history of managing change, transformation and innovation for Fortune 1000 companies, nonprofits and even one of the largest and most complex organizations on the globe—the U.S. military (she spent nearly 20 years fighting for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and stood next to President Barack Obama as he signed repeal legislation in 2010). A Client Portfolio Director for Future State, a human-centered management consulting firm, as well as an advisory board member for Vets in Tech, Zoe understands that success in innovation lies where tech and people intersect. Here, she shares her thoughts on why tech and people are both critical components for companies growing to scale.
1. Why do companies that are growing fast need to consider both their tech infrastructure and their human infrastructure if they hope to scale successfully?
Zoe Dunning: Companies often become disruptors or insurgents because they’re in bureaucratic, stagnant industries. They become the champion of the disaffected customers of the industry and give these unhappy customers a solution to the problem, so they experience rapid demand and grow quickly to meet it. The risk is they grow so fast, they outpace their ability to develop existing talent and recruit people aligned with their culture and values. Then we see internal talent getting promoted into management roles without the training or resources they need to be successful. That’s particularly relevant for companies in the tech sector because they tend to experience exponential growth more frequently than many other business sectors.
2. What are critical practices you see companies overlook when they’re growing rapidly?
ZD: I often see companies failing to provide effective feedback mechanisms for team members. Without feedback programs and tools in place, most people give unspecific and infrequent feedback. They don’t take the time and energy necessary to provide candid, actionable information to one another to learn and improve. As a result, we see employees who are dissatisfied because they don’t know how they’re doing, or burned out because they’re doing too much, or watching the wrong people getting promoted. It’s important to enable 360-degree feedback with tools and processes. Then employees get feedback from direct supervisors and their peers, and leaders get feedback from their peers and their direct reports.
There’s a perception that process stifles innovation. It’s quite the opposite—if you have well-understood, efficient, repeatable processes, your time is freed up to do more strategic and innovative thinking.
The second challenge I encounter is determining what is the right level of documenting, communicating and adhering to processes. Growing companies want to be nimble but they can’t scale without repeatable processes. It’s important to build in some processes as you grow so you can scale without reinventing the wheel each time you do something. There’s also a perception that process stifles innovation. It’s quite the opposite—if you have well-understood, efficient, repeatable processes, your time is freed up to do more strategic and innovative thinking. You know you’re not putting enough focus on processes when customers are getting touched by your company from multiple directions because of lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities. But you have to right-size it so that what made you an insurgent in the first place doesn’t get mired down in process enforcement.
3. How does enabling an inclusive environment enable growth to scale?
ZD: Tech is about innovation and innovation is about different kinds of thinking. So you want a broad spectrum of folks doing your engineering, doing your research and development, doing your marketing. That means you need to recruit a diverse workforce, which includes the typical gender, race and ethnic diversity, but also sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status and disabilities—both physical and learning. SAP has a lovely program with a goal of 1% of its workforce coming from those on the autism spectrum. Those on the autism spectrum are among the most highly unemployed sectors, and these individuals bring a divergent way of thinking about things that can bring unique value to an organization.
Research shows people are at their best in a work environment where they can be themselves. Bringing our full selves to work makes us more effective and productive. Finally, a diverse workforce enables growth to scale because when you have a diverse talent pool, you’re tapping into many networks. The more diverse your employee pool, the more diverse their networks, so you will be better able to find the talent to continue to grow.
ZOE DUNNING is a client portfolio director for Future State, a human-centered, purpose-driven management consultant firm based in Oakland, California. A forward-thinking leader, Zoe drives transformation and enablement for clients using her expertise in team leadership.