Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Atif Rafiq, Innovation Expert

After rising through digital native companies like Amazon, Yahoo!, and AOL, Atif Rafiq held C-suite roles at McDonald’s, Volvo, and MGM Resorts. He oversaw thousands of employees as a global P&L, transformation, and innovation leader. He was the first Chief Digital Officer in the history of the Fortune 500, a pioneering role he held at McDonalds, and he rose to the president level in the Fortune 300.

While leading business units, teams, and growth for companies, Rafiq has built a large following as one of today’s top management thinkers. Over 500,000 people follow his ideas about management and leadership on LinkedIn. He is the author of Decision Sprint: The New Way to Innovate into the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action by McGraw Hill (April 2023), a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Rafiq recently spoke to The Innovator about how workflows can create a more inclusive form of innovation.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your various roles at Fortune 500 companies and how did you overcome them?

AR: Making a move in 2013 from Amazon to McDonalds was like crossing a cultural fault line. Amazon is known for constantly moving into new spaces and territories.  It has a good success rate in entering new markets. McDonalds and other traditional companies with proven businesses focus on doing things a little bit better and that generally works out for them, until it doesn’t. That was the situation for McDonalds in 2013. The company was not growing and needed to make a transformation, a generational leap into something different around convenience and customer experience.  The first lesson I learned was use familiar language. Instead of talking about digitalization I focused on what it meant for the customer and what we need to do and why it matters. If, like McDonalds,  you have owned convenience for 60 years you don’t want to lose that, so digitization needed to be connected to the heritage of the company. Innovation doesn’t have to be foreign. It is about reimaging something you are already good at and reinvigorating that.   Looking back, billions of incremental revenue resulted from this transformation.

If you place innovation in a silo that only goes so far. A well constructed  working team needs to be activated. Sourcing input from key contributors is how you avoid blind spots. The only way to do that is to give people some mechanisms and pathways  to contribute – so ‘how’ you are innovating matters just as much as ‘what’ the innovation may be.  Siloed teams can only progress an idea so far because they may lack critical input to shape it and bring it to life. On the other hand, nobody wants to be slowed down by bureaucracy so it has to be objective input, not idea-killing skepticism.

This is a big reason why I wrote the book. What I focus on is how to create a more inclusive form of innovation without creating bureaucracy.  The world is lacking workflows that promote purposeful innovation, and allow us to do it fast.  Don’t get me wrong about creating space to explore ideas – speed matters.  So does being right.  We can achieve both.   A smart innovation workflow will provide this pareto.

Q: In your new book Decision Sprint you talk about how innovation works, what the pitfalls are and how to avoid them. What are some of the key takeaways?

AR: For over 10 years I have been a student of the workflow hidden behind the pursuit of innovation. It’s now the mantra I preach  – a workflow for innovation  really matters.  Here’s one example of why.  Let’s say that a new idea is presented and the people who hear about it immediately make very decisive conclusions about it.  And they would like consensus on their conclusions.  This is often referred to as ‘alignment.’   The reason why good ideas often go nowhere is because people want to rush to align before they explore. They may conclude very quickly that the idea won’t work, isn’t sound or is distracting.  I found this common at well known companies like McDonald’s.  And when I arrived at Volvo, I took the bold step of banning the word alignment because it essentially meant watering down the new ideas.  In hindsight, that was an over-correction. I quickly modified my approach to redefine alignment instead of banning it. I began to spread the idea of ‘exploration, then alignment’ in order to allow teams the space to develop their ideas.   Exploration is a purposeful way to understand the matters and questions behind an idea, and call to spend time getting to the bottom of them. It starts with creating space to source questions. It then involves making the key questions actionable.  Questions will always outweigh answers at the start of a bright idea.  And that’s okay.  A good workflow will make questions actionable so that a team can get to the bottom of them and use that work to draw conclusions.  Drawing conclusions before running a good exploration is what often kills great ideas.

In Decision Sprint, I explain how exploration is just one part of the ‘upstream’ work of teams.  Upstream work is what leads you from idea stage to decision points. Once decisions are taken, you move on to execution or downstream work. This fit perfectly with the approach of Volvo’s CEO who is input obsessed. Teams should obsess over inputs. . If you are working on a new idea and you go into a big meeting to pitch the top people in the company, and they ask a question you haven’t thought about, it can potentially derail the idea. When you source these questions upstream the process is more neutral, and objective and it can help the team avoid the pitfalls of blind spots and help move an idea to action.

Another thing I talk about in the book is how the role of an executive should be about calibration rather than control. The people at the top need to recognize that their teams are closer to the information because they live the day to day. What doesn’t help solve problems is being told what to do, so it is important for executives to be careful about their interaction with teams. Calibrate instead by poking holes – asking questions about things the team might have missed and to ensure their detective work has well connected the dots. It is about pointing the team in the right direction, giving them space for exploration, ensuring the exploration is robust, and allowing teams to do their best work, actions that raise the bar for teams as opposed to saying: ‘This is what I want.”   Team enablement is key and should be a big part of an executive’s role.

Q: The role of knowledge workers is changing in the age of AI. How will that change the way that leaders innovate?

AR: The impact will be profound.  You could argue that the work of innovation is essentially a learning activity.  You have an idea but don’t know a lot or enough about it at the start.  Teams spend weeks and months getting to the bottom of things.  Gen AI has the potential to speed up this kind of learning activity. It can help raise important questions and subject matters to consider that would help your organization design better solutions, manage risk and reduce surprises. In the not so distant future it will take the outputs of exploration – like answers to questions – and compose strategic business documents and critique those we write in the same way executives review the work of their teams.  This is not far away. But here’s the rub: it requires continuous input from human intelligence.   That’s a good thing.   It’s how we preserve jobs. Bringing out the intelligence of people within an organization —and asking AI what’s missing is the model of the future I am advocating.  That’s why it makes more sense to mobilize people to answer key questions, and later prompt AI for what’s missing.  AI is helpful when we point it in the right direction. Pretty soon when the AI stack for the enterprise is built there will be an AI companion in the meetings that people can ask “What do we know about X, Y or Z.?’  Getting there will require a lot of change.  We need new software, new technology, more training, more upskilling and most of all bold leaders willing to help us forge the future of knowledge work.    The consequence of that is that there will be a much higher velocity of new innovation.

Q: What advice do you have for leaders who hope to make their company more innovative?

AR:  It’s time for companies to find a new way forward when it comes to innovating and solving an organization’s most meaningful problems. Traditional processes are no longer effective in the modern era, where the velocity of business challenges is increasing and each challenge contains high levels of ambiguity. Unknowns are the main source of slowing down momentum and decision making. Leaders constantly face new and unknown territory, but struggle to make strategy actionable. The challenge lies in converting ambition and intent into the right course of action. Without a system to tackle unknowns and make them actionable, it’s impossible to navigate the complexities of modern business.

When it comes to innovation, there is the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’  The ideas and opportunities comprise the ‘what.’  The collaboration that determines the quality and speed of how well an idea is developed comprises the ‘how.’   Pay equal attention to ‘how’ is the advice I would share.  We need a more systematic way of embracing innovation that is beyond personalities and the luck of who is involved. Think of innovation as a workflow. Invest just as much time in workflow as the idea pipeline. Workflow can help you take ideas and mature them in a way that achieves quality and speed. Tap into the collective intelligence upstream so the team asks the right questions. Believe in the power of exploration.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.