How to launch fresh ideas in an old-school industry
When a business is driven by highly personal customer service, like booking bucket list trips to the world’s best golf courses, it’s a challenge to introduce digital innovation while retaining the special touch that sets the company apart. Jon Richards, head of digital at Golfbreaks, has built an in-house Digital Center of Excellence to do just that.
Jon recently spoke with us about how to unlock the power of in-house expertise, empower teams across the business, and the advice he has for other leaders that are moving companies into the future.
Get comfortable with discomfort
Shaking up the status quo often means confronting strong opinions and ruffling some feathers within the organization, especially in companies that have had many years of success.
‘When I was challenging what we were doing and how we were doing things, I found it really uncomfortable to begin with,” Jon said. “The more I did it, the more I came round to the thinking that I’m here to make this team work the best they can and deliver the best products they can. So if I need to ask some difficult questions, and have some uncomfortable conversations, so be it.
“Don’t be afraid. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations, and then they soon become comfortable,” he advised.
Unify new and proven strategies
Taking a critical look at how a business operates will uncover areas for improvement as well as show that there are very good reasons for certain legacy ways of working. Part of an effective transformation is blending new, data-driven tactics with the established people-driven processes that are central to the business.
A major competitive advantage of Golfbreaks is the personal, thoughtful service from sales and customer service agents. Key to this is empowering agents to make decisions on an individual basis, such as noticing a client’s flight was delayed and calling the hotel to arrange a free round of drinks. This human touch makes a big difference in a traveler’s experience and creates a lot of loyal customers.
At the same time, digital can provide convenience to customers at a scale not possible with 1:1 agent interactions. During the pandemic lockdowns, Golfbreaks was able to quickly spin up a self-service application that customers could use to process refunds online. This freed up the sales team to devote more time to working with clients to rebook trips when travel opened back up and, overall, retain 80% of the business in that period.
Data can also be used to quickly validate new strategies and shed light on the business impact of human behavior. For example, Golfbreaks introduced a feature that allowed customers to use the website to set up a date and time for a call-back and sent a reminder to sales agents 15 minutes before the scheduled time. The data showed that if agents called too early, right when they got the reminder, it negatively impacted conversions by 30%. By passing that statistic along to the sales team, and disabling the 15 minute notification, the business got a quick and significant win.
Leverage legacy knowledge
Discussion around digital transformation tends to focus on how to help people learn and develop new skills, but just as important is figuring out how to better harness the knowledge that’s already there.
Golfbreaks has dozens of employees that have been with the company for over 10 years and know their customers, their suppliers and the market inside and out. This gold mine of expertise is what enabled a major part of the company’s transformation strategy: moving away from external agencies and building up an in-house Digital Center of Excellence.
“For an agency, it’s really difficult to come in and understand the complexities of the business and the systems and in 12 to 18 months deliver a really compelling digital experience,” Jon said. “We have huge internal knowledge that we weren’t really utilizing for these digital projects.”
Making the most of in-house expertise means adopting a more collaborative way of working. A Digital Center of Excellence can put processes in place that encourage people to share insights.
At Golfbreaks, this included bringing stakeholders from marketing, sales, account management, product teams and customer service into the scoping phase of the new website, as well as getting regular input from different departments to help prioritize investment, improve new features and minimize the risk of spending time on projects that experts know wouldn’t work well in the market. A monthly stakeholder meeting is used to communicate progress, get teams thinking about digital in new ways and collect feedback.
“Everyone is very clear on what the business is trying to achieve and there’s a lot of great collaboration,” Jon said. “At any level of the organization, people can have a voice and put forward their ideas.”
Invest in the next generation
Along with tapping into the expertise already in the company, great ideas can come from bringing in a fresh pair of eyes that can look at the business from new angles.
“One thing that's been really important to the business, for many years, is investing in young people,” Jon said. “We work with universities across the UK to support student work placement programs.”
These programs are a great way to find talent and Golfbreaks has employed many placement students after they graduate, some of whom are now at a director level in the company. They’re also an invaluable source of insight to guide the future of the company. While golf has traditionally catered to an older demographic, the rise of Topgolf and driving ranges, as well as the fact that golf courses were one of the only sports facilities open during pandemic lockdowns, has led to an influx of younger players.
“We see them as being our customers of the future,” Jon said about the students in the program. “It’s important to get an understanding of how they’re using technology and what their expectations are of brands when we’re looking to build our products.”
Empower teams to think big
Finding great ideas is one part of the transformation equation. Another is having a team with the skills and creativity to bring them to life; a team that doesn’t see digital as one-off projects but looks at the needs and ideas coming from all departments and is able to drive a cohesive digital strategy across the business.
“Come to us with the problem, not the solution,” is what Jon and the team at the helm of the Digital Center of Excellence tell the organization. “Tell us what you are trying to achieve, and we will tell you the best way to reach those goals and that outcome.”
Building a team that can perform at this level is not only about recruiting the type of people who want to problem solve, but also giving them the time and resources to do so. For instance, every two weeks the Golfbreaks digital team is given an an R&D day to work on new ideas, new projects or learn new skills.
Investing in teams leads to teams that are invested in the work they do, empowered to make decisions and able to move fast. Over the last four years, the Center of Excellence team at Golfbreaks has successfully brought all digital projects in-house, completely rebuilt the tech stack, launched a new website and handled the many changes brought on by the pandemic.
“Everyone in the team was really committed and passionate about building the right platform for Golfbreaks. It was great to see everyone just pulling in the same direction,” says Jon. “That’s been one of the key successes in my career so far.”
Levi's Zach Crittendon supports big ambitions with flexible tech
One thing jeans and technology have in common? You can outgrow them. As digital became increasingly critical to Levi Strauss and Co.’s strategy, it was clear that the single, monolithic platform that had been powering the website wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the company’s omnichannel ambitions. “That was a great way to get started,” said Zach Crittendon, software architect at Levi Strauss & Co., about their legacy all-in-one platform. “It has a lot of best practices built into it and was sufficient to get us live on the internet, but it was not going to scale with us in all of the things that we needed to do as a company.” Crittendon recently spoke with us about developing scalable solutions, designing tools that empower creative teams and the advice he has for other leaders making the transition to a composable architecture. Minimize risk with phases Moving from an all-in-one platform to a composable approach, where different systems handle different responsibilities, can be a complex challenge — especially as most companies aim to make this transition in a way that quickly proves value and poses minimal risk. “A huge part of the transition is finding the business case that fits it,” Crittendon said. “One that will give you a real world evaluation of what you’ve built, what its strengths and weaknesses are, but in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your main line of business.” For Levi’s, this meant taking a phased approach. In phase one, the team added a headless CMS to create a new homepage while the rest of the website stayed in the legacy platform. Phase two was to completely replace the legacy platform for the Eastern European website, which was a simpler use case because a third party handled a large part of the order management process. In phase three, the team completely moved to a composable architecture. These phases allowed the team to gradually add complexity and step off the monolith one capability at a time instead of a big-bang replatform effort. “You can have those learnings and if there are any issues you have the time to work through and identify and resolve those before you bet the business on it,” Crittendon said.Build with growth in mind “The most important thing with composable is having a very clear idea of where you’re going," Crittendon said. “Make sure that you have a good idea of what a strong, powerful, flexible, composable architecture looks like in the future.”Keeping the long-term vision in mind helped the Levi’s team to develop and implement capabilities that would be able to grow with the business. For example, instead of creating a one-off template, the homepage was built in a modular way with the intention that the APIs, content types, content schema and the content itself could later be reused and repurposed for different use cases. “We ensured that the initial architecture was structured in such a way that we could expand the number of locations that this modular system could be used within our site and that the set of modules themselves could be expanded,” Crittendon said.Having a foundation of reusable, flexible modules allows the team to repurpose content, integrate data, combine experience elements and deliver to different channels with very little technical investment. For instance, in a two-day hackathon they were able to develop shoppable videos that display inventory-aware products and local prices.“It’s very simple to reuse all of these pieces that we’ve built and just reconfigure them to suit the requirements that we have at the moment,” Crittendon said.Enable creative teams The long-term vision that guides how capabilities are designed and implemented should be developed with both technology and creative teams at the table. At Levi’s, the long-held desire from the marketing team to be able to blend brand-driven content with conversation-driven experience was a major factor in the design of the new architecture. “Going composable has made it faster and easier for us to create essentially whatever experiences our product and user experience teams are able to dream up,” Crittendon said. “The way we’ve integrated our commerce and product information management APIs with our CMS APIs, we’re able to make it very easy for our business users to create these experiences that combine the commerce and the content in one place,” he explained. Crittendon and his team have approached this from two directions. First, by making it easy to put “content in commerce” and letting business users put text, images and videos directly in category pages and product grids. Second, by enabling “commerce in content” experiences like the ability to tag editorial photos with related products and use real-time data from the commerce platform to only show products that are available. “We’re not trapped in the template of a product display page but can instead deliver a very rich, custom, bespoke brand experience and have the commerce part of that experience just a click away,” Crittendon said. “That’s something that our team had been dreaming of for years before we moved to this composable architecture.” Focus on usability “Half the project is the experience that we’re delivering to the external customers, the other half of the project is how we’re doing that in a way that is easy to use and easy to learn and understand for the business users,” Crittendon said. “As a technology person my job, as I see it, is to understand what it is that they’re trying to convey and what the differences and similarities are across campaigns, locales and languages,” Crittendon said, explaining that a critical part of designing a solution for a global, multi-brand organization like Levi’s is making sure there is significant flexibility. So while architecture components are designed to be reused as much as possible, it’s easy to adjust if a country or brand needs to do something slightly different. This approach has made it possible for Levi’s, in just a few years, to go from a website with basic e-commerce functionality to having over 100 business users actively contributing to an omnichannel experience with thousands of pages live across 60 countries and nine languages. “Being able to create the tools that allow that to be managed at scale by a really wide group of users is something that I’m really proud of” Crittendon said. “Business users are able to create really rich experiences without any ongoing, day-to-day involvement from quality assurance, engineering, or performance.”Learn more about going composable here.
Make internal collaborators your change champions
Controversial opinion: Our product alone won’t solve all our customers’ problems. How many times have you been in an organization where a tech product is purchased and then sits gathering dust? Some reports show that more than one-third of enterprise product purchases go unused.Change involves more than a purchase. It involved internal buy-in and mindset and behavior shifts. And all of that requires empathy for your collaborators. While you should evaluate a tool based on whether or not it meets the needs of your end consumers, I’d like to offer an equally important perspective. Ask yourself: Does the tool not only meet but supersede the expectations of all the people using it internally? In a recent episode of “People Changing Enterprises,” Levi Strauss & Co.’s Software Architect Zach Crittendon talked about the company’s transition to composable technology. He currently has over 100 internal collaborators in the Contentstack platform. His job is both to put the tech in place and make sure that marketers never have to call him for help.That last part is an example of true change.Make your internal collaborators your biggest technology — and change — champions with these tips:Focus on how the tool solves their challengesSet aside the deck that shows why you purchased the product from an end-customer perspective. Instead, focus on the benefits to your collaborators. It could be ease of use or time saved vs. what they’re currently using. Will it automate mundane processes machines can handle better? For example, if you have 10 regional websites, show how marketers won’t have to make the same edits 10 different times. If you’re moving to a headless system, show how quickly you can translate creative to multiple channels.Stick to the top three to five benefits that line up with your collaborator’s biggest pain points and communicate that to your internal stakeholders — at a meeting, through a video or in another creative way. You’ll probably have to communicate the benefits more than once to move toward buy-in, but benefits before training, always. The first time your collaborators hear about the tool shouldn’t be when they receive an invite for the training session.Talent sets organizations apart; tools are there to minimize error, enhance the talent and unlock their potential. As Zach acknowledged, Levi’s outstanding digital customer experiences come from the “creative geniuses that we have within our company, whether that's our copywriters, our creative designers or our marketing teams.” Examine resistance to changeSteve Schlafman writes about conscious change. He says: “When we set out to change anything — ourselves, our families, our communities, our organizations — we often focus on a vision, a goal, and a plan, but we fail to account for the often invisible and internal inhibitor of change: resistance.”Resistance is a natural human reaction when people are asked to shift away from familiar ways of doing things. However, when we examine the reasons for the resistance, we can better address any concerns or issues that may be causing it. I’ve experienced resistance in hundreds of shapes and sizes, both as an employee and a founder. There was the time early in my career they layered someone above me and I felt diminished. When my new boss showed me how she would catapult my development, that fear turned to trust. Recently, we brought in new HR software to support our next stage of scale. Imagine the pressure and resistance when dealing with employee benefits and payroll.When they were initially examining Levi's internal content management business process, they found that one of the biggest delays was in using full Photoshop PDF mockups during the review process. They built a robust preview capability as a result.Guess what Zach was met with when he said they wouldn’t have to use PDFs anymore? A “look of horror.” The creatives resisted because they saw it as one of the most important things they did — showing their work in its optimal state. So, Zach made the transition optional. The creatives kept doing previews manually for a few months but slowly realized that the change benefited everyone since the work could be experienced in its actual environment.If you, as the driver of change, did a good job of understanding what your internal collaborators are doing and why, then the change will eventually happen — even if it’s at the pace of those most affected by it. Envision life on the ‘other side’I don’t mean to get bleak, but I love those thought experiments where you ask people to write their obituaries. It forces the question: What’s the legacy I want to leave or the accomplishments I want to be known for?It also helps you set aside any current pain points and imagine a better state. Here’s the thing: a better state is likely possible if you can imagine it. It takes people on both sides of the equation to achieve that better state — those with the vision and know-how and those willing to take a leap of faith and chip away at the obstacles. Enterprise change doesn't happen in a vacuum. It needs a groundswell, and activating your internal collaborators is the only way to achieve that groundswell. Show that you empathize with their unique position, paint the picture of that better state, and then embark on that journey together.
De-risking your transition to composable
Everyone has a different journey to composable. Some companies adopt it quickly; some take several months. Some are eager; some are skeptical. But nearly all are concerned about risk during the transition. That’s not surprising — any good business leader considers all the risks at hand when making a big move. Levi Strauss & Co certainly did, and they weren’t shy about discussing it on our “People Changing Enterprises” podcast. I was a fan of the openness from Zach Crittendon, a software architect, as he broke down Levi’s approach to transitioning from their monolith environment to a composable architecture.Since risk is on everyone’s minds, I wanted to share my perspective on how to minimize risk when making the move to composable.Get everyone on boardChoosing to make the switch from monolith to composable doesn’t happen overnight. It also can’t be accomplished alone. You need a team. If critical stakeholders like finance and procurement are not on board at the start, it can cause problems and increase risk in the future. Finance might question the higher upfront costs because the business is adopting several best-of-breed tools with built-in benefits like scalability and extensibility. Procurement is going to look at the different vendors to manage and balk.Demonstrate the business case for why this move is important:To finance: “The market is ever-changing and we need to pivot quickly when required. Our current environment doesn’t allow us to do that. Composable is much less risk, time and cost than our current environment in the long run.”To procurement: “I know you want to consolidate vendors, but our current tools aren’t working for the business. There’s no solution in the composable world where we just buy everything as one.” (If Contentstack is your composable partner, I would recommend telling them about Care Without Compromise™, the industry’s only cross-vendor support program).It’s a slow process, but worth it. There’s much less uncertainty and chance that risk might be incurred in the future from internal conflicts.Make a plan and take it in phasesOnce you have everyone on board, your next move to decrease risk is to make a plan. I recommend pacing the transition in phases so it’s not so overwhelming or too fast.I like how Zach said it: “I think the choice of the word ‘composable’ is really meaningful in the sense that it’s like a musical composition. It’s a series of notes and chords that come together into bars and movements. Eventually, you have an entire piece.”The terms “come together” and “eventually” are important in Zach’s quote. Levi’s didn’t adopt composable all at once. In fact, they started with just four modules. Eventually, they were able to create cool content experiences that they had been dreaming about for a long time — but it wasn’t what they started with. They started with a plan and phase one.However, remember this: Plans change.I love this quote from President Eisenhower surfaced by a previous “People Changing Enterprises" guest: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”I wouldn’t say having a roadmap for your transition to composable is useless, but I would advise you to be open to change as circumstances evolve. It’s the act of planning for the future that will de-risk your transition most, rather than the plan itself. Balance the present and the futureConsider the balance between the capabilities you need now and what you’ll need down the road.One of the benefits of composable architecture is the flexibility it provides. If you build something into your initial stack that you want to remove later, it is much easier than in a monolithic environment. Conversely, if you leave something out that you discover a need for, you can easily integrate that into your stack. Balancing the present and the future also means you have a long-term vision of what you want to do but start with a very clear and provable business case. For Levi’s, their first phase in the composable transition was proving Contentstack would excel with one use case: the homepage. While the homepage ran through the headless CMS, the rest of the website remained on the monolith. It was like a small trial run: Once they proved the business case for composable, they moved on to phase two. They replaced their old environment and created a simple version of the website in a smaller market (for them, it was Eastern Europe). The third, and last, phase was taking the lessons learned from phases one and two to fully replace the entire website.Trust your instinctsThe term digital transformation – along with all the moving parts and plans it brings – can be intimidating. So, here’s my biggest advice in this process: as a business leader at the head of the charge, trust your gut. I got this advice from Dheeraj Pandey, founder and CEO of Nutanix and someone I respect, who said that gut feeling comes from experience. You may not have walked through a digital transformation project before, or it might have looked very different in the past. But experience forms the foundation of your gut instinct.If something seems like a risk, consider it. Check with your colleagues and trust their gut instinct, too. Remember this transition to composable is a less risky approach than staying with your old tools and technologies. Any good tech leader knows you’ll never fully de-risk your transition to composable. But with a thorough approach, an understanding of where you want to go, and an experienced partner to offer expertise, you can pave a path to less risk and more flexibility for the future.
Young people can be your greatest asset
As a young engineer, I was full of excitement to solve problems and make things better for everyone. As my career progressed, I took on more responsibility and began to realize the limitations people and companies have around innovation. (I would still say, however, that I’ve kept my curious, entrepreneurial spirit.)I couldn’t help but think of that young engineer — full of ideas and excitement — as I listened to Jon Richards, head of digital at Golfbreaks, talk about the importance of young talent on our ”People Changing Enterprises” podcast. Golfbreaks is a specialized golf travel company that organizes golf vacations for people all over the world. As a sport that primarily focuses on an older demographic, it was interesting to hear Jon talk about how young people revitalized it during COVID. It also led Jon to talk more about the value young people bring to the company. Contentstack — including myself — takes a similar perspective on the unique advantages that a younger generation brings to the table. I’m passionate about championing our young people, and believe they hold the key to our experimentation and innovation. Here's why.Young people have less experienceYou heard me right, I said less experience. While it’s important to have more experienced people on our teams, less is also a benefit. Less experience equals fewer rules, and breakthroughs rarely happen when people play by the rules. When more experienced talent tries something new and it doesn’t work, we tend to throw in the towel. We also can unconsciously brush off good ideas without realizing that the context we’re thinking in has completely changed. The world is not the same as it was 10 years ago. We’ve leveled up tech, business processes and skills. When we think, “That’s not the way things work,” a young person thinks, “Well, why can’t I do it this way?”A more lenient perspective on rules allows younger people to build more innovative products. I might think of a new idea for a problem and build it completely from scratch. A younger developer might think of a new idea and hodgepodge existing tools until it gets them where they want. They put a new meaning to the idea of working smarter, not harder.Leon Kass, an award-winning teacher at the University of Chicago, said he likes working with 20-year olds because “the big questions of life are electric in their minds.” Challenging the status quo is something young people are already doing naturally, so why not put that to work?They’re great at solving problemsSometimes I find that as much as I want to make an impact, it can be easy to get comfortable. I wasn’t always like that. Once, I left a new job within a year. The pay was great, but I was bored out of my mind and moved on well before “the rules” say you should.There’s something like that in all young people. They want to do new things, learn, and advance forward. That tenacity for momentum and innovation means they’re one of your biggest problem-solving assets. On the podcast, Jon and Jasmin discussed how young people have an ability to “learn fast, fail fast and learn fast” again. If solving a problem one way doesn’t work, they pivot and try something else. Quite literally, they won’t stop until they get to the root of the issue and solve it.That’s why we hold events like hackathons. It’s basically a high-speed race from a problem to a solution in a fun, competitive format. We’ve done two so far for our product team in India. It’s fun, but also helps us solve customer issues and create items from their wish lists quickly.Here’s a snapshot of the winning team that integrated Contentstack with Google Voice:But keep an eye on that drive; it can be a double-edged sword. A common growth area I’ve spotted in some of our younger team members is that they are quick to move on and less keen on quality control. That’s why we often pair junior and senior engineers right away to work on projects that will go to production. Determination and quality, working together.All young people need to succeed is an opportunityWe train our interns and staff at Contentstack. But some companies like to put them in front of a computer for half a year to attend online modules; we don’t do that. Instead, they also help us on new projects. I like to create a team of smart interns and bring in a senior leader to oversee them. Then, we give them two to three months to solve a problem.Once, we even solved a critical piece of Contentstack like this. We were trying to fix a system bug with some of our tools, which was a major task with huge repercussions if we didn’t get it right. We didn’t have many resources at the time, so we corralled our best interns to solve the issue. It worked and the bug was fixed. (Our more experienced developers triple-checked their work to be sure).Jon said this on the podcast about giving young people opportunities:"It's really important for [Golfbreaks] to recognize young people and give them the opportunity to learn at a company that encourages them. Young people will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but fostering that environment for them to come in and continue their education in a real world workplace sets them in really good stead for the rest of their career. And also, it allows us to identify really good talent for when they graduate.”We have a team of 18 interns starting on our India team in January, and I get excited thinking about what we’ll accomplish. While there are many things we can teach our young professionals, there are also many things we can learn from them. For all my senior people reading this, here’s my advice: Open yourself to learning how the next generation sees the world. You have no idea of the possibilities you will uncover.