Jeff Gothelf went from circus performer to failed rock star before he found his groove during the dot-com boom.

Now Gothelf, a New York-based author and expert in user experience and Lean principles, is on the road again, helping organizations create cultures that support innovation.

He spoke last night at a P2P (peer-to-peer) session put on by Communitech and D2L, in partnership with his company, Neo, which specializes in UX design.

Gothelf shared insights he has gained over his diverse career with the more than 200 people in the audience.

Q – What is the biggest mistake you see enterprises make when it comes to culture and trying to innovate?

 A – I think there are a couple of things.

I think in many organizations there’s a fundamental lack of trust between management and the people that they have hired.

In theory, you’ve hired smart people who are going to do a great job, but managers are very hesitant to trust those people to make decisions. Instead, they force ideas onto those people who end up implementing them to the best of their ability, but never fully owning the solution, or never really believing in it.

I think the biggest mistake that essentially translates into is pushing teams to deliver features, as opposed to pushing teams to solving business problems, and there’s a fundamental difference there.

The difference is that solving a business problem means that the team gets to decide what the solution is and the measure of success is objective. It’s not as subjective, like, “I don’t like the colour that you put in your check-out process,” or “I don’t like the word that you used to initiate that work flow.”

It’s an objective thing; did you get more people to sign into the website? Did you get people to come back more regularly? Did you get people to tell their friends about it, or buy more stuff? That becomes an objective measure of success and lets the teams refine the solution to achieve the success. And that’s very rare to date in most organizations, because it requires that explicit level of trust in the team.

Q – During your talk, you said most companies are now software companies, whether they realize it or not. Why do you say that, and how can companies transition to start thinking like software companies?

A – The only way to scale and stay competitive in the 21st century is to think of yourself as a software company and to have software at the core.

What that essentially means and enables you to do is build a continuous conversation with your market and your customers. What that further enables is a flood of insight about what your customers are doing with your product, why they are doing it, why they aren’t doing certain things, what actually gets them to buy stuff and tell their friends.

It allows you to learn what will help you achieve your business objectives much more rapidly. If you don’t leverage technology to do that and you don’t build the culture to support the learning that comes from that, then it becomes a very rigid and dictated process that assumes that we know everything about our customers and what motivates them. More often than not, we’re wrong about those assumptions.

Q – You talked about cross-functional teams as being a great model to adopt. Can you explain how companies can scale that knowledge and expertise as they grow?

A – Scaling is one of the biggest questions right now, and it is difficult. There is no silver bullet, one-size-fits-all answer.

I will say that the key piece in scaling an organization and a learning culture is knowledge management.

The key is to ensure that, if this team over here has learned something, that they can somehow make it evident to the rest of the organization, so that people don’t have to repeat that task and they can build off of that learning.

The ways that I have seen it done successfully is with Wikis, but they have to be updated and tracked.

I’ve seen it done successfully with weekly demo days, where every team in an organization or department demos something on Friday, whether it is something that they built, they have designed, they have tested, they have experimented on, or a learning.

And then there has to be some managerial co-ordination. In an agile organization, maybe it’s a scrum of scrums. In a discipline-specific level, maybe it’s a weekly design team meeting, or a weekly engineering team meeting, where there is knowledge sharing actively taking place.

Those are some techniques that I have seen work well, but it is a difficult challenge.

Q – What is one piece of advice you would give companies who are struggling with innovation and culture to support it?

A – Talk to your customers.

I mean, really have the humility to listen to your customers.

Learn what it is that they love about your product; learn what it is that they hate about your product; learn about what it is that they hate about your competitor’s product; learn about what they love about your competitor’s product.

Listen to them and their needs. Figure out what job they are hiring your product to do, and then make your product do that better than anyone else’s. You will never know that unless you leave the safety and comfort of your office and go out and talk to your customers.

Q – This is your first visit to Waterloo Region. What are your thoughts so far?

A – I’ve been blown away by the reception here.

The D2L team has been very welcoming and we’ve had a terrific session so far.

The amount of people and the conversation we’ve had since I have been here at Communitech has been amazing. The learning and the discourse has been amazing. I can’t believe how many people turned up – I am really blown away.