Zubin Chagpar, Venture Capital Business Development, EMEA, at Amazon Web Services on how to create a business culture that powers innovation

Interview by Jo Bowman

JB: How can companies build an innovation culture?

ZC: Every company has their own unique culture, focus, history, and goals. These will affect the building blocks required to get started. At AWS (Amazon Web Services), we focus on working backwards from the customer – what are they asking for? How are they using our existing products and services? How could we make their life easier or delight them. We also release services and features often and iterate quickly as we get feedback from our customers. We do this by using modular design principles – taking the basic requirements to build a service, putting them together, and releasing it for customers to provide feedback. It’s an adaptive process done by co-creating with our customers.

Q: What are some of the wrong ways to go about fostering innovation that people might not realise are mistakes?

Innovation itself is an exercise in the unknown and disrupting the status quo. If an organisation is going to be innovative it has to be a company-wide initiative. There needs to be a commitment to innovation within teams, across processes, at all levels of leadership, inside the company, and outside when working with customers. 

Q: Is there an ideal combination of people and skills in a team that needs to innovate, perhaps on new product development?

We focus on areas that enable employees to create on behalf of our customers. Our culture is centered on 14 leadership principles. Some examples are “Customer obsession”, “Invest and simplify”, “Think big”, “Bias for action”, and “Dive deep”. These help center our focus and discussions. Our architecture is modular and service oriented, giving us the ability to create new services and incorporate our customers’ ideas and meet their needs quickly and at a minimum cost. We have processes we run through before building a new idea. For instance we write a “press release” to understand the customer perspective. We also write an FAQ even though the product doesn’t exist, to help us think of questions a customer may have. At this point we start looking for the basic building blocks so we can build the simplest representation of our idea – sometimes called the Minimal Viable Product. Then we launch and iterate based on customer feedback.

Q: Are small companies better at innovating and, if so, how can they stay innovative as they grow?

There are many examples of large companies that are innovating at a rapid pace so we wouldn’t say a small company is better at innovating, but being nimble and responsive is a benefit. Larger organizations are starting to pay attention to and learn from what start-ups are doing.

A good example of this is Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest bank, who have started running hackathons using anonymised retail banking data stored in the cloud. Working with AWS and the Israeli developer community, the bank is using their imagination to develop new financial applications that help them to better understand their customers and give them a better banking experience.

We do discuss how we organize internally, creating teams that are small enough they can be fed with two pizzas. The idea is they can respond, build, test, and iterate quickly based on customer feedback.

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