Driving innovation from within to assist the whole region

On this What’s Working in Washington EXTRA episode, we spoke with two women in the area with with huge responsibility in their respective positions: driving innovation not just for their own companies, but for their customers as well. Caitlin McKenna is the Senior Director of Customer Experience and Innovation at Hilton, and Brinda Sen Gupta is Deputy Director of the Booz Allen Hamilton Innovation Center.

ABERMAN: It’s just terrific having an opportunity to talk about innovation because, as I say, it’s a word that is used more and more around town these days. You’re gonna help me now: what does innovation actually mean? How would you define it? Caitlin, I’ll start with you.

MCKENNA: Sure. That’s a great question. We think a lot about what innovation means, and you’re right, it is an absolutely misused word in many many respects. But for us, innovation is really around finding new experiences and products that just literally add value to a customer’s experience in whatever they’re consuming. Often, the customer doesn’t even know what they want or need, and really getting to the core of that, their behaviors, the stuff that they expect in an experience, sometimes often said but sometimes not spoken of, and being able to kind of discern that and build a product around it, to create value, is what we believe innovation is.

ABERMAN: So innovation, from your perspective, is helping a customer delight a customer with something new that they didn’t already have?

MCKENNA: Right. And it could be something that is a physical tangible product. It could be something that is a service oriented product, it could be, you know, we think of it in the context of hospitality, of course. Along the entire journey, may it be the digital experience, the physical experience, the service oriented gestures that you might experience in a hotel, through the entire journey. And so for us, innovation is quite broad, and encompasses really the full perspective.

ABERMAN: Brinda, I know that this is something you spend a lot of time over at Booz Allen with your colleagues about. A lot of people look at government contracting, or working with the government, and say, what’s innovative about that? But yet, this is an area you’ve made a big investment. How does innovation relate to serving the nation, or why did Booz get so interested in it?

SEN GUPTA: Absolutely. Innovation, for us, is change with impact. It is any kind of change whether it’s incremental to transformational, that creates a positive impact for our clients, our customers, and the end users, which ultimately is the American citizens. So, sometimes it might mean collaboration, or building a culture of collaboration. Sometimes that means building a product out, sometimes that means a set of services that Booz Allen will do to to grow the customer mindset towards innovative products.

ABERMAN: So, when organizations such as yours, or a Capital One, or some of the others that are really getting into this in a big way here in town, Amazon is another example. When I talk with entrepreneurs, they will often conflate entrepreneurial behavior, startup behavior, with innovation. Are they really the same thing?

SEN GUPTA: Innovation can be anything to anyone, I think. In some cases, innovation is creativity. In other cases it’s an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s defining innovation for that particular person, or that particular agency, and then taking that and saying, okay, this is what we can do for you, this is a strategy that we can create, and a set of tools and products that we can help to bring to you through various strategies, like tech scouting, and working on something in-house, that can then get you to where you want to be.

MCKENNA: I would agree with that a little bit. We like to think of ourselves as a little bit of a startup. You know, a startup mindset, and an entrepreneur mindset, but in a big, big, big giant company, and that has to start with not a very specific team. You know, granted, I run customer experience and innovation, but our mindset transcends every employee at Hilton. And we work very hard to start at the top, and drive an entrepreneurial, or innovative, or whatever word we want to use, and frankly, they could be synonymous in some cases and sometimes I think they’re just buzzwords we pick and choose for the sake of discussion.

We work very hard to give people the authority, the leverage, the creativity, to do things differently, think differently, and try something new. You know, we find it, much like you possibly at Booz, but many industries are sort of built on practices that have been consistent over the course of 100 years. It’s really hard to break a specific process, or specific practice, or specific frame of mind. And where I think we probably share a similarity in our role, is helping to change that culture, one person at a time, and force people and allow people to do things differently. Which is sometimes the toughest stuff, especially when you’re talking hundreds of thousands of individuals who have to take that ownership.

ABERMAN: I think that’s a very important point. My view is that the conventional wisdom has been for years that innovation happens in startups, and big companies don’t innovate. But yet, in the 21st century, if you don’t rapidly change to your customer, you’re roadkill. So, are these efforts, at some level, whether it’s a Booz or a Hilton, are these basically efforts to change an organization’s internal culture by teaching people how to be more customer focused?

MCKENNA: Oh I think absolutely, and where we, I think, do a decent job, and we’ll continue to get even stronger, is relative to understanding the customer. My team specifically, and many others, we spend every single day with some customer, be it customers that we currently have and we want to help even more, or customers that we don’t have and want to understand better. Indeed, the customer is at the core of it all. And you can really only deliver value and innovation when you’re serving a need, a gap, a purpose that will ultimately be desirable by the customer.

SEN GUPTA: Yeah, I totally agree with that. It’s, for us, Booz Allen has always been an innovative company. We essentially created consulting, as a firm. We were the first consulting firm out there. And since then, you know, we’ve been around for about 100 years, and we’ve kind of been in the game for an extended period of time. If you look at other consulting firms out there, we’re actually the underdog. We’re relatively small in comparison to some of our competitors, and we’ve been able to keep the edge because of our investment in innovation.

Having said that, I don’t think that, for instance, the innovation center that we have, which is the physical manifestation of our innovation agenda, I don’t think that that would have succeeded if we said, oh, let’s plop down a space, right when we first decided that we were going to invest in this changing mindset. In the beginning, it took some time to build that culture, and then when we decided that that culture was ready, that’s when we built out the physical space.

ABERMAN: Brinda, obviously, from the day you were born, you were destined to run an innovation lab, right?

SEN GUPTA: That’s correct. Yes. No, not at all! I wanted to be an architect. I went to architecture school, and then realized that, at some point in time, I needed to know how to run my own company, and architecture school was not going to teach me how to do that. And I wanted to do it specifically towards real estate. So, my background academically and professionally, before joining Booz Allen, is in architecture and real estate.

And at some point, I realized that I needed to not limit myself, my creativity, and the strategic mind that I have, to just buildings, and be able to use that to solve real-world challenges. My husband at the time was working at Booz Allen, and he was in the design thinking cohort. And he was working specifically on veteran suicide, and it was a compelling argument. The ways in which they came up with those solutions was so perfectly aligned to my background that I thought I’d make the jump.

ABERMAN: Interesting. A builder, or somebody who wants to build things, ultimately is building things, but building things around creativity.

SEN GUPTA: Building experiences, yeah.

ABERMAN: Interesting. Caitlin, of course, since I struck out once, I’m going to try it again. You, of course, were destined to be involved in innovation from the beginning, right?

MCKENNA: Oh my gosh. Well, unlike Brinda, I think I have really no specific destiny, and I never really have. In fact, when I was in college, I had a professor who called me a scanner. And at the time I thought, what on earth is he talking about? And then I came to realize what he meant was, I have a real interest in everything, and I love, and I’m most passionate about the sort of cross-section of all these different disciplines and industries and layers of business and politics and math, and you name it.

So, for me, my career started out in a place of comfort, which was math and investment, and in the real estate sense, and where I think the customer piece started, which led me towards innovation, was that every single person has a customer, whether you’re in human resources, in architecture, design, product development. And you learn how to understand what they need, how to deliver information, how to formulate value for them, and when you’re in math and investment, it’s all about calculating value and delivering something to real estate developers, or investors, or lenders, and things like that. And you’re trying to figure out what the value of something is.

However, in my world, the value of a piece of real estate is much derived by the brands that actually encompass the piece of real estate. So, in our case, the 15 brands that we have at Hilton. And so, I wanted to learn a lot more about the brand side of the business, and brands really encompass product. So, I started to contribute to leading our wellness product, which was spa and fitness at the time, and a lot more out of personal interest, less so out of a lifelong destiny in wellness. But that really started the real interest in developing product, and brands, and to me, it doesn’t matter what the product is.

If you have the capacity to understand your guests and your consumer and your customer, then you could build any product, no matter what it is. Whether it’s an app, a piece of digital something, a consumer packaged goods, or a complete customer experience. And so, then I was asked to lead up our product innovation, which ultimately landed me in the customer experience and innovation world, which is defining our brands through product and experience, and all of its facets.

ABERMAN: I do a lot of work helping organizations become more innovative, when I’m not here in the studio working so hard. I find that no organization changes unless it has people like you, you know, scanners. People who want to be creative, and so forth. You’re both now in charge, or working with teammates, to create cultures of innovation tangibly. How do you teach people in your organization how to become more innovative?

SEN GUPTA: It depends on the person. So, a person who might be extremely extroverted, might have a different definition of innovation than a person who is more introverted, and might need some more closed time. The work that they do, or the way in which they project themselves, as well as the client delivery that they have, can be different for different things. Again, innovation is different for different people. And as long as they’re making change with impact, that’s really all we want to empower them to do. We want to empower them to change the world.

MCKENNA: Mine might be a little bit different in my approach, and I think there’s something to be said about the power of communication. I think there’s kind of an art in persuasiveness and logic, and how you communicate that to people within your business, and internally and externally, for that matter. Much of it is storytelling. So, when you get to an individual who just doesn’t want to change, doesn’t understand a new process, or doesn’t think that something matters, there’s a bit of a craft in just the storytelling component of it, and that is actually a major piece of my job, but it’s also the most fun, because you see individuals who have been doing something for example, 40 years in a particular way, and to help them ever so slowly kind of turn the corner is really kind of cool. So, I would say it’s part logic, but also just genuine communication and the art of persuasion.

ABERMAN: For me, one of the things you said that really crosses over, I recently interviewed on the show General Stan McChrystal, and we talked about leadership. He had just finished writing a book all about leadership, and pointed out that leadership these days really is about mythmaking. It sounds to me that innovation, in some ways, is really about mythmaking and telling people a story.

MCKENNA: Yeah. Well, truly, sometimes the outcomes aren’t known. You have to take chances at times, and that’s OK, and nothing is a failure necessarily, but it’s okay to say, look, we don’t know exactly what will happen when we do this. We know our 12 month runway, we don’t know our 10 year, but trust in this new process, trust in how we’re doing it. Trust in the potential, and the opportunities that lay before us, based on all the things that we know, and then you know, I guess that’s the storytelling, the myth making that you’re kind of alluding to.

SEN GUPTA: Even at the Innovation Center, we have a wall full of inspiration and ways in which people have failed. So, everyone who sits and works at the center, as they’re incubated in the space, we encourage them to try something completely different, without knowing what the outcome is, and then being able to say, I failed so hard on this, and move on from there, and also celebrate it. Celebrate that risk taking, that’s not necessarily something that especially large corporations are willing to, necessarily, want to have.

ABERMAN: Let’s give our listeners some hints and tactics that they can use in their own organization to help their employees become more innovative. Brinda, I’ll start with you. I know that you’ve been thinking about this a lot.

SEN GUPTA: There are a few different ways in which we innovate within Booz Allen, and then also deliver to our clients. Part of it can include crowdsourcing, building out a larger solver set of people that can take their disparate experiences and apply it to a specific problem. Sometimes, we silo ourselves and, using something like crowdsourcing, as well as incubation within a physical environment, allows these teams to not feel so insular, and be able to mentor each other in a peer and cross training kind of way. So, that’s one example.

Another example is to not go it alone. We have, within Booz Allen, we have a thing called the innovation blueprint. And this is something that we also bring to our clients, and once we know that there is a solution at hand, and maybe we have part of a solution in place, we can go in and not go it alone, and bring in our partners, and alliances, small companies to large ones, that can help to tech scout as well as bring in a joint solution

ABERMAN: Breaking down silos, getting new voices connected.

SEN GUPTA: Exactly right.

ABERMAN: Caitlin, how about you.

MCKENNA: Great question. So, we do some some similar things. You know, for example, last year we put on the first ever hospitality hackathon with Cornell University, and in fact, we just finished up another one last week, because we understand the power of many in thinking, and we understand the importance of many different companies and partnerships contributing to our thought processes. But I think what I want to talk more about is, the art of prototyping, and the importance of the day to day tactics that get us from ideation to delivery.

When you think about the practicality of it, when you spend your time sitting with the customer, building a prototype, iterating on that prototype, and every single time you create an iteration of something, and you gain feedback, the launch of whatever you’re ultimately developing is that much more secure. And so, with my teams, and across the company, we spend a lot of time gut checking ourselves and what we might have started off with in the ideation phase might be something completely different at the point of launch. So, a mixture of pitch events, corporate partnerships, hackathons, crowdsourcing and all that. That sort of stuff is great, but it doesn’t ultimately always yield to a final product solution, much like the day to day tactics might.

ABERMAN: I find that, if you really want to do organizational change, which is really what innovation activity is, there is no substitute for two things in my experience. The first one is people need to experience something together, you know, whether something tangible, there needs to be some sense making to it. The second one is, I find generally you have to put them under stress. People seem to learn a lot more when they’re under stress.

MCKENNA: Yeah. And I think people are sometimes fearful of saying, oh, my idea was no good, or hearing that their idea was no good. But what a better opportunity to get that at the early parts of the development, as opposed to towards the end, after launch, when you know it’s too late?

ABERMAN: A couple minutes left with you. What’s your best argument for why somebody should want to be involved in innovation? Caitlin, I’ll start with you.

MCKENNA: Well, I would like to think about it in the context of my world, mostly, number one, because I’m extremely passionate about my industry and the scale that we have to do big, wonderful things that differentiate and contribute to the world in mass. You can imagine, we’ve got about 5000 properties or so, and growing around the world, which means we have 5000 communities. We’ve got over 300,000 employees, all of whom have a really solid place in our business. And so, to innovate, and offer resources, tools, products, services, to all these people around the world, every customer you can imagine, is pretty powerful, and a really cool opportunity and platform for us to embrace.

ABERMAN: So for you, then, it sounds like it’s big footprint, change the world. Brinda, how about you?

SEN GUPTA: For us, innovation is a mindset. The basic beginning of innovation starts with a change in thought and behavior and habit, that leads to a culture of innovation amongst a large group of people. And, going back to that initial definition of innovation, that change with impact, we believe that a person who wants to be innovative has the ability to use the same sets of tools and behaviors and community to have that impact in the world, whether that is just within their own team, or within them, their own selves, to a larger government agency, to a commercial entity, to, you know, throughout the world, essentially.

ABERMAN: So, if I’m a cartoon character, who’s the most innovative cartoon character you could imagine?

MCKENNA: I’m hooked on Incredibles 2, as are my 1 year old and 4 year old right now. So, I’m thinking someone in that movie might be my most innovative.

SEN GUPTA: So, I actually like Dr. Seuss.

MCKENNA: There you go!

SEN GUPTA: I think Dr. Seuss has this different way of thinking, and a different way in which he’s able to show children, and even adults. When you read Dr. Seuss books, you can learn so much about things like sustainability, and things like kindness, and the way in which people interact, and the idea of not always going with the norm. I like that about Dr. Seuss, and I think that his character is truly innovative because of it.

ABERMAN: That’s terrific, and the reason why I asked you about that is because, as I was spending the time with you in the studio today, the one underlying theme to this all was, we were having fun together, and talking about innovation is fun. Innovation, ultimately, is the way you can make coming to work matter to people, and can delight customers. And it was great having you today. Caitlin McKenna, thanks for joining us.

MCKENNA: Thank you very much.

ABERMAN: And Brinda Sen Gupta, thanks for taking the time.

SEN GUPTA: Thank you so much.

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