Business leaders focus much of their attention on efficiency and productivity, and rightly so; no business can survive if it ignores them. But in our age of digital disruption, efficiency and productivity aren’t enough. From my experience as a technology CEO, I know that success depends on how well a business enables innovation, both for itself and for its customers. And we in the workflow automation industry have an important story to tell about the power of our technology to enable innovation.

I was thinking about this recently as I read an article in Harvard Business Review arguing that U.S. businesses overall have wrung out most inefficiencies and should pay more attention to productivity to drive profit growth. The HBR article, by Bain & Company consultant Michael Mankins, cited recent research supporting this point, and also discussed key findings of an extensive Bain study about reducing organizational drag, aligning talented people with critical roles, and fostering employee engagement. (These ideas are explored in greater depth in a new book Mankins co-authored, titled “Time, Talent, Energy.”)

All this is great. But doing the same things faster or less expensively will not necessarily bring success — we must innovate for our future. In every industry from books to banking, telecommunications to transportation, advertising to autos, education to entertainment, traditional providers are falling by the wayside as innovators make off with their customers, revenues and market cap. In many industries (I’d posit all), it’s innovate or die. It’s not if, it’s just when.

The innovators aren’t building more stores, expanding their fleets, making more movies, or otherwise doing more of the same. They are adopting new technologies, including workflow automation, to position themselves to change the rules of their industries. They have created bookstores without books, transportation companies without vehicles, communications companies without telco infrastructure, and there are more in the making. But how is it that some are able to find new ways to use technology, while others stay stuck in old ways?

For starters, leadership matters. At innovative companies, leaders point the way by demonstrating their own commitment to finding new ways of doing things, and they encourage their employees to do the same. They give their people both freedom and structure – for example, a day off from their regular routines and obligations, and a framework for success, such as requiring a deliverable in 24 hours.

Leaders who seek to drive innovation also make a point of measuring it, following Peter Drucker’s maxim that what gets measured gets managed, and the corollary that what gets managed improves. They develop innovation-focused metrics such as the revenues generated by new ideas, or the share of new ideas that succeed. Some create separate entities or management structures to nurture innovation. Leaders also understand that “first versions” of new ideas often don’t succeed, while second and third versions often do, so they build their evaluation models accordingly.

Many successful leaders have taken the time to study design thinking, a formalized process for fostering innovation. One tool for getting started with this is The Bootcamp Bootleg, a free resource from Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as the d.school). Another is Intuit’s Catalyst Toolkit, which distills the accounting/bookkeeping software company’s own experience with Stanford’s model into a form that any organization can use.

We — the workflow automation community — are in a uniquely powerful position because most of the innovation occurring in business today depends on “being digital,” and facilitating “being digital” is what we do.

Yes, we deliver massive improvements in efficiency and productivity. Across the globe, in every industry, enterprises routinely report reductions of 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent in the time required to execute key processes, and per-person productivity increases greater than 10 percent. But as we’ve stated, these aren’t the end goal; they are valuable because they create time for innovation and an environment where doing things in different ways becomes the norm, almost expected, as a matter of course.

It’s important to understand that what we are doing in workflow automation is innovative at its core. Most digital automation has been about automating repeatable tasks – speeding up transactions. That’s been the domain of IT. We provide a very different and greater type of value by automating and accelerating the work done by people, whether few or many. People don’t work in transactions, they work in interactions. Framing it this way helps us think in a much different way — and that leads to innovation.

John Burton
John Burton

is Chief Executive Officer of Nintex. Burton, a 30 year operating veteran CEO of listed software companies, is responsible for driving Nintex’s corporate strategy and ensuring the company drives innovation in process automation and intelligence.