Can You Spot the Difference Between Innovation and Improvisation?

Think about how you on-board customers. Is it an efficient, streamlined process or is it a patchwork of quick solutions implemented to satisfy changing regulatory, technology and channel requirements? Is it architected on innovation or is it built with improvised fixes which have gradually become permanent?

Now, I have nothing against improvisation. It can be a fabulous way to meet a tight deadline when an unexpected challenge arises. But it’s not usually a good framework for a long-term business strategy. I recently returned from India where I saw improvisational problem solving examples that would impress MacGyver. I saw hundreds of extension cords directly tied into utility poles, a family of five somehow balancing on a motorbike while carrying groceries, and roadside repairs being successfully made on cars and two-wheelers using whatever materials they could scrounge from the side of the road. At the same time, I saw some of the largest, most innovative and technologically advanced companies on the planet.

In India, the difference between improvisation and innovation was visually obvious, but I see the same thing happening in the telecommunications business back here at home. For example, here’s a story about how the marketing department of a leading cable telecommunications provider recently went from being improvisational to innovative.

Their CMO was very proud of their customer on-boarding program which involved a welcome kit including:

  • Market-specific coupons
  • Area-specific channel guides
  • Package-specific rate cards
  • Localized how-to-reach-us cards
  • Along with other brochures and subscriber communications

Not only did these welcome kits assist with customer on-boarding, but they satisfied strict FCC regulatory requirements regarding wordings and notification timings. But, while the deliverable was world class, the process for getting it created and out the door was an improvised collection of emails, spreadsheets, mailing programs and labor evolved from quick fixes as channels and markets were added and as regulations changed.

Fortunately, they had a visionary leader who recognized how while great improvisational fixes helped in the short term, they became burdensome as an ongoing strategy. They took stock of how their process had become cumbersome as their subscriber base, markets and channels grew, as compliance became more complex and more closely monitored, and as they strove to personalize more and more of their customer communications. The waste in time and money they unearthed was huge since this process was being applied to hundreds of thousands, or even millions of subscribers across multiple markets via several print and electronic channels.

See if this process sounds familiar:

  • Templates needed to be revised every time there was a change in address, or channel lineup, or contact information, or offer, or anything else
  • Every affected version ID needed to be reviewed, signed-off, and sent to the production facility where, once again, the final welcome kit products needed to be approved
  • PDF files marked up with sticky notes were sent to design agencies for every change, adding the time and expense of having graphic designers make changes – no matter how minor
  • Then every change had to be reviewed and approved for every version ID, and the final template files sent to the marketing services providers

Eventually this visionary leader said “enough” and they replaced their improvised, manual-spreadsheet-agency-email process with an innovative multi-channel content management and delivery platform. Their new approach has the scope and capacity to handle the volumes and complexity required to excite their customers and placate FCC regulators while reducing their delivery times and costs. Here’s how it works:

  • Users within the company log into an online storefront and change whatever content needs to be revised themselves
  • The system takes the data and dynamically creates different versions of materials, rate card templates for instance, across all the various formats, e.g. for kits, brochures or booklets
  • Template updates automatically occur and are merged with InDesign templates
  • Pages are automatically added or removed as needed and PDFs are returned to the users in just a few minutes
  • These PDFs then go into a managed approval process which flows into production-ready workflows for print or email
  • All materials are shipped to appropriate vendors on a scheduled basis

So, why is this so interesting?

  • They Reduced Waste: Prior to digital production, these guys recycled large volumes of outdated, offset-printed welcome kits and other materials. Now, they quickly print what they need.
  • They Shortened Turn-around: Their change cycle times used to be in the 3-4 week range from start to finish across all channels. That length of time is dangerous at today’s rate of change. Now they talk about initiation to customer reception turn-around times in the 5-day range.
  • They Saved Money: Their agency costs have dramatically dropped. Now they’re using their agencies to do real creative design work for fresh and personal marketing – not to diddle around fixing typos and minor verbiage changes.
  • They Improved Efficiency: Their staff can proof in real time, reviewing just changes rather than entire templates. Once approved, they can update content in one location and have it flow through documents everywhere.
  • They Ensured Compliance: Perhaps the most important benefit is that by simplifying the change and production process to reduce error likelihood, they are better able to comply with regulatory requirements and reduce the risk of severe penalties.

Now, don’t let me leave you thinking that this company had been foolish. It is incredibly easy to let improvised fixes creep into your processes until they become the process. It is all-too-rare to have a visionary leader who is willing to step back from “the way it’s always been done” and ask “how it should be done.” This company did that and is reaping the rewards.

So, don’t be like the little Indian internet café which is cleverly siphoning power and improvising ways to snag pedestrians to come in for a chai and a chat. Be like the massive internet services provider right across the street which has replaced improvisation with innovation in order to efficiently deliver services on a global scale.