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Future of Work: Jumpstart Innovation by Listening to Your Customers

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About the Episode

Growing a business relies on constantly innovating and progressing. But with so many possibilities, how do you decide what to pursue? Gene Farrell knows the answer to this daunting question: Listen to your customers, first and foremost. In this special Future of Work episode, Gene shares powerful insights from his 20+ years of leading teams at Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Smartsheet. Listen now to learn a few simple strategies that can help you become a better innovator and leader.

Episode Highlights

Meet Our Guest

Inventor, innovator, leader. These are just a few ways to describe Gene Farrell, Chief Strategy and Product Officer at Smartsheet. If you look at Gene’s history at Coca-Cola and Amazon, you’ll see that he is driven by a need to innovate and push the boundaries. This includes developing the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, recognized by Forbes as one of the best new products of the decade. Although his gift of generating ideas is incredibly impressive, his ability to lead teams and bring cohesion to large projects is what truly sets him apart.

Episode Transcript

Chris Byers: The future of work is being shaped by the advancement of technology and evolving demands of talent. What changes could be in store for the workplace, the workforce, and the nature of work itself? On this season of Ripple Effect, we're introducing a subseries called The Future of Work, exploring the answers to these questions.

I'm Chris Byers of Formstack, and joining me is Gene Farrell, Chief Product Officer at Smartsheet. If you've not heard of Smartsheet, it's a publicly traded company valued at over eight billion dollars and has more than 75% of the Fortune 500 companies using the product.

Prior to joining Smartsheet, Gene served as a vice president of Enterprise Apps for Amazon and held a number of executive roles at the Coca-Cola Company, where he founded and led the creation of the Coca-Cola Freestyle Beverage Platform, which probably most of us have used. It's been recognized by Forbes as one of the most leading products of the decade. And so we are excited to talk to Gene today and hear a little bit about the future of work.

So before I get started, anything I missed in that intro?

Gene Farrell: I think you got it, Chris. Thanks for having me on the show.

Chris Byers: Absolutely. Well, when we talk about the future of work, that can tend to feel pretty broad, pretty generalized. So what what's your answer to explain what is the future of work?

Gene Farrell: To me, it's really about as the volume and velocity of work continues to increase. How are companies and organizations and and employees, workers going to be able to adjust and adapt to be successful? And I think technology plays a really key role in that, particularly given the times that we live in today. We're almost a year into a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed how businesses operate, how employees are able to engage and communicate and collaborate with each other. And I think in a lot of ways that is caused a reset, if you will, in many organizations as they think about how they're going to adapt and evolve their approach to bringing employees together to to do their work in a world where we're not always going to be in the same office or even in the same city.

Chris Byers: Well, let's take a look kind of forward and think predictions just a little bit. What do you think the future of work is going to look like this year, even as compared to the past couple of years?

Gene Farrell: Well, I think this is going to be a really interesting year because there's so many variables in what the new normal looks like. And my personal take is that the first half of the year is likely going to be a continuation of what we saw in the back half of 2020. But I'm pretty optimistic that as we kind of get our feet under us as far as vaccines and we're learning more about the pandemic and what's happening with the virus, we're going to come to a place where in the back half of the year, I think we're going to start to move toward a more normal operating environment as far as being able to travel a little bit more and actually interact with people. That being said, I don't know if that fundamentally changes all of the adaptations that have occurred this year. I know within our company, I continue talk to other other businesses and other customers that likely will not return to everybody in the office 40 hours a week. My suspicion or my belief is that we're going to come out of this in a new normal environment where you're going to have more distributed workforces, different ways of engaging when people are in the office. And I think as much as anything, people are going to continue to rely on the technologies that help them manage in this remote environment to kind of adapt to this new hybrid world. And while there may be fewer video conferences than we've seen over the last year, I think a lot of the remote collaboration tools and other things that people use to to actually automate and manage their work, I think those will continue to thrive.

Chris Byers: Well, it looks like you get to think about this just a little bit more than most of the world. In your LinkedIn profile, it actually says that you are creating the future of work at Smartsheet. Tell us more about that.

Gene Farrell: From our viewpoint, the future of work is really about empowering everyone everywhere to be able to drive meaningful change. And that's really equipping them with the tools to be able to work more effectively, innovate faster, and deliver better outcomes. And we think that really comes into play by giving them technology that helps them manage the pace of work and the deliverables that they have, but also enables them to automate portions of their work, manage the collaboration more effectively, and deliver output or content more effectively. In our mind, it's really about providing that toolset and then the confidence to the average employee, not someone that has technical skills or knows how to write code, but but giving the average worker that ability to really leverage technology to be more successful.

Chris Byers: Well, most of us probably don't walk into a restaurant and think productivity. But if you have walked into a restaurant and used, as we referenced earlier, one of the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, what you're experiencing is a form of productivity and a pretty fascinating one. I'm curious, it sounds like productivity just in general has been part of your life for a long time. How did you think about that all the way back when you were working on really inventing this machine?

Gene Farrell: I think it was actually grounded in a customer need or consumer desire. And I would tell you that the common theme for me throughout my career has been to start with the customer and work backwards. Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Freestyle, the problem we were solving was really one of consumer preferences. And taste had really, I would say, evolved and broadened when you looked at the beverage landscape. When you went to a convenience store or a grocery store, consumers had literally thousands of choices between carbonated soft drinks and teas and waters and noncarbonated sports drinks. Yet when you went to a restaurant, because of the state of dispensing technology, you typically had five choices. And we really were leading the consumer where they were so free. So it was really all about unlocking choice and variety for those consumers to give them the beverage. They wanted to go along with the meal that they were consuming or the game they were going to go watch in a stadium or or the movie they were going to see the theater.

Chris Byers: What I learned about that story and your effort there, one of the things I was thinking about was, I mean, we've all experienced the most innovative and the least productive thing you could ever do, which is try to start something brand new in the middle of a big corporation. But you pulled it off. I'd love to hear some of the lessons you learned about how to get that done.

Gene Farrell: Really, the thing to remember as well is that Coca-Cola at the time was a 120 year old company. So not exactly a spring chicken when it comes to business and in particular risk taking. But what we were fortunate in there was a moment in time when the freestyle opportunity emerged where the company was really searching for a way to reenergize growth. And we had a CEO, Neville Isdell, who had been brought back out of retirement to essentially help get their mojo back, if you will. And so Neville was really advocating strongly for more risk taking, more big bets, more big ideas, which I think one of my lessons is it's very difficult to innovate in a large company and traditional company without buy-in and sponsorship from the very top.

I would say the second thing that we did, and we the decision really early on, was trying to innovate. When you're part of the kind of mainstream operating model is virtually impossible because of how decisions are taken and the need to deliver on the immediate business plan and the need for investment dollars. And so what we did was we essentially created a secret startup inside of the Coca-Cola Company. We literally had the entire team under non-disclosure agreement. We had a separate working area, kind of like, think of it almost like an Area 51 where the team was segregated from the rest of the company in a highly secure part of one of our buildings. And we just kept everything really undercover. And that allowed us to then give us that freedom to operate much differently, much more like a startup. We got all of our investment capital directly from an internal board of directors that we created that was recruited from the most senior executives of the company. And then we really, I think, did a good job of keeping that team segregated from from the day to day and any of the political considerations that might come into play between the different operating groups. And we kept it under wraps really for the first couple of years until we had a product that was at a place it was ready to start testing openly in public. And that gave us just tremendous latitude to go try many different things, to fail quickly and to really focus on the end goal without getting distracted by the day to day or the needs of meeting some quarterly performance goal.

Chris Byers: Well, I'm kind of like nodding my head. Yes. Separate teams, separate building, of course. Love the locked in a secure environment. And I'm nodding my head until you say three years. And it just gives me these haunting feelings as CEO of moments where I've been like, I have no patience for this anymore. How do you think you actually allow the space for that? And what do you have to start to measure when you're in a space where you don't actually have to start generating revenue that fast?

Gene Farrell: To pull off something as audacious as Coca-Cola freestyle, it's a massive bet. It required the complete reengineering of the supply chain and go to market and the equipment and how you sell. The commercial model for a business at that time was about a four billion dollar a year business for Coca-Cola. And it required a lot of things to be completely reimagined and reinvented. So it wasn't something that you were going to easily turn it around. But I would tell you, the big thing that allowed us to manage that with our executive team was that very early we established a stagegate process where before we really ramped up investment, we did a very rigorous business case, went through multiple reviews, and they bought into the overall business proposition, as well as the technical assessment of feasibility. So they had some level of confidence that we were going to be able to actually deliver on the vision and with the technology that we had, it really came down to execution.

And then I would say importantly, as part of that stage process, as we got into development, we had set up gates and regular reviews where we would really go back to the senior team and really validate the business case, but also show them the research that we were doing. It proved out and gave us confidence that we could actually deliver on what we forecast. I will tell you, if there was one moment that was probably pivotal for us, which was during the course of the development of the CEO retired and the new CEO coming in was Muhtar Kent, and Muhtar was much more of an operator. And I'll never forget, we had a meeting where we spent a full day with Muhtar, and it was really just his first week on the job. He had to make a decision to invest another six million dollars in the next phase of development. And he actually brought in senior folks, retired executives, who had perspective from being away from the company and had us do a full review with them. And he wanted to hear their perspectives as well. They didn't have skin in the game. Right. And it was really quite fascinating to hear how that conversation unfolded. At the end of the conversation, we made the assessment that he really couldn't afford not to try. There was no reason. There was nothing that said we should stop investing. And the opportunity to energize the growth of the company was such that he really felt just compelled to say, we need to take this risk. And so I think that was pivotal because he was now bought in. So we had our sponsor back. And it also proved to be that the leg that got us out into the market and where we saw just amazing results.

Chris Byers: It's a fascinating leadership moment. I think you're right. I think in a time like that, it's actually almost easier to kill a project like that. How have you brought that into your current role? Because I presume as well as Smartsheet is doing, you may not have as much cash to go spend on a big project as Coca-Cola. So how should we think about how to make the decision to to make a bet and then how to make a decision and how to fund that, how to set it up properly?

Gene Farrell: I would tell you both at Amazon and Smartsheet, I've really had an opportunity to draw on those lessons learned and it all starts with being grounded in the customer or the consumer. That's your North Star. It gives you a lot more confidence that what you build is actually going to satisfy need and they're likely to buy it. And I can't tell you how many times I see people, whether it's in technology or just business in general, who fall in love with an idea that they have, that they don't actually test it or validate it with their customer. And so then they end up getting way down the path, kind of deluded into believing that if they build this really cool thing that they pick their customers will eventually figure it out and love it. And that rarely works.

So I think it starts with really being grounded in customer signal and customer value. And then I would say from there you have to be willing to take risks and you have to be willing to accept that iterative process that starts with an MVP and we'll build and we'll learn and iterate from there. And we did that all along the way with free-style, with internal focus groups that saw early prototypes. We tested different ideas, some of which we thought were going to be fabulously successful, and they turned out to be a complete disaster. So you have to be willing to go try things and learn and then listen. We do that a lot at Smartsheet in that about 90% of our roadmap is really driven by customer feedback or signal that we hear around customer needs that we think we can help solve. And importantly, the team has to be empowered to make decisions. So I talked about the time when we got buy in from the CEO to spend a big tranche of investment dollars. But almost every decision between those big sign offs and the next one was really taken by the team. And many times we would get guidance from our board, but we were very much empowered to make calls and do what we thought was right.

Chris Byers: Well, we think about innovation. Obviously, we love hearing these stories and how you've set up some success in the past. And I'm sure every day 90% of the product roadmap is about listening to customers, building on those, it's innovating still. How has that progressed or transitioned in this past year where all of a sudden my guess is you had a pretty in office organization and all of a sudden had to learn to communicate remotely. Have you had to work through that?

Gene Farrell: One of the things, as I reflected on on 2020, was one of the lessons and one of the things I was probably most proud of in the organization was really being able to take all the mechanisms and  the things that we use to build product in an office environment and adapt those pretty easily to a remote working environment. So I talked about the fact that we organized into small teams and the way that we managed the coordination and how all those teams kind of come together and work toward common goals is we have a couple of weekly meetings. All of those routines were in place pre-pandemic. And when we went to working from home, we could fall back on those same kind of mechanisms. And it really felt like we didn't miss a beat. Everybody knew where we were. And our developers would tell you they were probably more effective because they were that fewer distractions working from home than being in the office.

Chris Byers: You bring up something pretty interesting there because you're talking about innovation and that requires a certain level of collaboration, et cetera. But then you bring in this process of we check in on a regular basis as somebody is thinking about innovating, how do you think having consistent processes actually makes that go better?

Gene Farrell: I've always thought about it as I want to have mechanisms that give teams the freedom to innovate and make decisions on their own, but then give them a way to actually escalate when they need help, but also ensure that the whole organization learns from the mistakes that we make. You're not going to innovate if you're not willing to make mistakes or try different things. And one of the most important things about making mistakes is that make sure you actually reflect on what didn't work the way you thought and then adjust. Learn from it. Make sure you don't have the same operational failure or learn from the customer feedback on what they didn't like about something and apply that going forward.

And so I think what what we found with mechanisms is the teams now, they don't have to worry about being out there on their own and not being not being able to get guidance when they need it because they have a mechanism that's incredibly safe. Every week we have a meeting and every week a different team might have something that they need help with or they talk about. But it's a natural forum for people to be able to bring up problems or ask questions. So nobody feels intimidated, like, oh, my gosh, I'm going to look weak if I need help. We get to reinforce, like, hey, you know what? We've got to build great products for customers, but we also have to deliver high quality. And if we can't deliver high quality in the time that we have then we're going to adjust the time. Doesn't mean we're happy about it, but we do it. And I think all of those things just gives teams a framework for how to do their work and how to innovate where they can feel both empowered, but also a level of safety.

Chris Byers: Well, and as your embracing or considering a new new initiative or maybe even you're talking to somebody leading product in another organization, there's some obvious flaws that you tend to see people pick up on over and over again, that when when they start to talk about it, you're like, oh, this is not going to go well, do you see some of those things you do?

Gene Farrell: And I think it's always a balance of trying to provide feedback or share experiences. There's a saying that I picked up at Amazon. There's no compression algorithm for experience. And so I try and strike the balance of sharing experiences with the team to help them have context and learn, while at the same time giving them some freedom to learn from their own mistakes and get some experience as well. It's always a tough balance because I'm not always right. And so you have to be careful about not quashing things just because maybe they didn't work in a different context in the past.

Chris Byers: Tell us what's next for Smartsheet.

Gene Farrell: Well, you know, a lot of it's what we've been talking about, the future of work and how do we empower our customers and our users to really be as effective as they possibly can and be successful both in their careers and help the organization succeed. And we really see that empowerment and kind of how the future work is coming together. It really lies in providing a toolset that enables that average worker to be able to do their work really effectively. And there's really three key areas for us. Collaboration. How do you bring people together so they can they can have a shared experience and work together on a project or a program or initiative. There is an element of workflow and being able to plan and map out how the process or work happens and being able to then automate portions of that. And then finally, there is this element of content and creating content around your work. And so I think that for us at Smartsheet it's all about building that platform and empowering those individuals to be able to actually create workflows, to create content, and to collaborate without needint to ask for help from IT or someone with deeper technical skills.

Chris Byers: So what is one thing in your daily work that you wish was solved for by now? For me, it's remote whiteboarding and there's all kinds of software, but it just doesn't feel like it really provides that experience. So what is it for you?

Gene Farrell: Well, I think for me it would be give me the ability to pack 10 hours of meetings into an eight hour day. I'm not sure there's a software that would do that, but it just always seems that my calendar fills up back to back to back, trying to accommodate whether it's one on ones or all the different meetings or customer conversations. So I actually think for me it would be super helpful to have I would actually really like software that did a better job of helping me manage my time, making it easier to do some of that work asynchronously instead of synchronously. I think the one challenge I've faced personally with remote working is so much of work is we've tried to force it into a kind of a synchronous, real time set of tools. You know, it's a Zoom call or it's a phone call. I just think I need more flexibility to be able to do more work asynchronously.

Chris Byers: Absolutely. I think we'd all love love just a little bit more time back and definitely less time on video. So final question is, just as you think about innovation and future of work, I feel like the huge element that people need is a willingness to, I don't know, failure has to be a part of that. So how do you think about that? And what do you want people to hear about why failure is actually important in the innovation process?

Gene Farrell: Well, I actually think failure is important in the innovation process, but also just how people work day to day. One of the things that I think is has really come out over this past year is people are forced to try different things, to work in different ways and hopefully they came away from it, realizing that changing how you work and changing the tools you use in the process to get things done doesn't have to be scary. And maybe it doesn't work the first time or the first thing you try, but you should feel like you can experiment and try different things. And I think too many times as I look at different customers and talk to people across industries, I think people get really comfortable in the patterns that they use for how they do work. And then sometimes it's generational. People would be comfortable with the tools that they learn to do their job with and many times are resistant to change. And so I would just say, just like for folks like our company and our team that are innovating for customers, we need to take risks and try things and break conventional wisdom. I think that on the customer side of things, almost every company out there, they need to be willing to try different approaches and maybe they're not going to work at first, but figure out how you can work differently with the technology that's available.

Chris Byers: Well, thank you for joining us on this special episode of Ripple Effect on the Future of Work. To learn more about how people are reimagining their world of work, head over to also in our show notes.

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Lindsay McGuire
Senior Content Marketing Manager
Co-Hosted By
Ryan Greives
VP, Brand & Communications

Practically Genius is a show built for innovators championing digitization within their organization.

Hosts Lindsay McGuire and Ryan Greives host conversations with real-world innovators sharing stories of digital transformation while also providing helpful advice and insights to listeners.

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