The Ingredients for Innovation

by Roham Gharegozlou

A constant search for constant innovation

From startups to Fortune 500 companies, everyone is searching for the key to making their business “innovative.” Whether it’s a new product, method, or idea, innovation is lauded as the key to corporate survival.

It’s easy for an outside firm to hand a set of tools to a company and say, “here, go innovate!”, but without the right structure and the right people, even the best laid plans will go sour. A company can draw on founder-quality employees, stacking the deck with the smartest team they can hire, only to flounder without strong processes. And even the best processes and teams can only move as fast as their clunkiest tools.

Axiom Zen has worked in “innovation as an industry” for years, and that has given us a unique perspective on corporate innovation. We’ve watched the rise and fall of internal innovation labs, measured the impact of strategy and consulting firms, and even changed our own methods for bringing innovation to our partners. We’ve come to realize through our own successes (and failures!) that how companies are accessing innovation needs to change.

In order to innovate, companies need a perfectly balanced and carefully harvested combination of people, processes, and tools.

We the people

Innovation that succeeds, that is more than a coat of paint on a rusting car, needs to begin from the ground up. The stumbling block for a lot of companies is that this so-called “simple fix” is rarely a change that can be made after a team has already been formed. All the hard work and elbow-grease in the world won’t help you turn an existing team into an innovative one if the people aren’t universally driving that change.

The people you’re working with need to believe in each other, in the product you’re building, and in the company they’re a part of. Passion is an overused buzzword in the technology sector, but it’s real, and it can’t be manufactured. There is simply no substitute.

At Axiom Zen we like to describe ourselves as “a team of founders.” That doesn’t mean that every Axiom has founded their own company before they come to work with us; it means they have an entrepreneurial mindset and a degree of verve and excitement that drives them to think big and take smart risks. Founders have the audacity to build something that no one has thought of, and the fearlessness not to care that they might fail.

That fear of failure is hard to remove from traditional hierarchy. As soon as someone is in charge and someone is subordinate, there’s a subversive desire to please the person who controls your paycheque. It’s hard not to think that failure equates with being fired, and it’s difficult to take wild risks without running it past someone else, which adds time and weight to what should be quick experiments.

Another important factor in building the perfect team is diversity. Not just in terms of race or gender (which are also important factors), but diversity of backgrounds, like education, culture, mindset, and socio-economic class. People who think like you and act like you and are kind of like you will never provide the dynamism you need to succeed. Instead, we very deliberately “cast the creative clash.” Remember — clashing improves creativity when it is done without hostility.

Photo by Ian Dooley

We laud the power of believing in one another, but it cannot be a blind belief in an idea, person, or the company itself. People are part of a team. We don’t believe in the cult of the solo entrepreneur genius that is worshipped in Silicon Valley. Frankly, Silicon Valley media has aggrandized the solo founder/CEO, the lone genius who’s done this thing all by themselves. That is almost never true, except in media articles that should be taken with a grain of salt. Famous examples almost always have strong teams working hard behind the scenes.

So that’s the kind of team you want, but how do you get them? At Axiom Zen, we have an in-depth, multi-layered hiring process. We start with a phone interview, move on to an interview with team members, ask for a ‘homework’ assignment to assess actual skill, have a third interview with colleagues from other departments, and finally have an interview with me (our founder). Then, just to make extra sure, we bring them to a team lunch to assess culture fit. This helps us know we’re getting someone who isn’t just smart and motivated, but who has the Axiomatic spirit innovation requires. It’s not a simple or perfect hiring method, but like all of our processes, it’s one we always aim to improve.

The power of process

We believe that creativity needs strong guidelines in order to work; we are rigorous in our processes, and that sets our teams free. Our processes may be unique, but they have elements that every innovative company should keep close to their hearts: iterating fast, building for high growth, and moving at the speed of a startup.

Processes range from internal to external, and an example of one of our internal processes is the Beanstalk. It helps each of us maintain a constant cycle of self-improvement by simultaneously working while guiding team members to work alongside us. Team members measure improvement along six distinct axes, each of which we have developed based on our company’s foundational principles. Progress is mostly self-judged, with a little help from each Axiom’s Discipline Lead. It’s easy to say you value learning, but without concrete measurement and experienced guidance, self-growth can quickly stagnate under looming deadlines and project pressure.

We work in partnership with Fortune 500 companies to build startups, and a repeatable process is integral to developing and keeping those relationships. Our external Axiom Method defines how we make the trek from concept to company, and involves four distinct stages: Discovery, Prototyping, Building and Scaling.

We only take on projects we believe will succeed. This can be subjective, but we strengthen that decision with extensive research, and back it with years of experience from Axioms and our advisors. Then, we make sure the ask is the best version of itself. Have we explored edge cases? Have we extrapolated and taken the idea beyond its natural conclusions? Once we’ve widened the direction, we then narrow it again, but this time with hard data. We run user interviews, define product strategy, and conduct small and fast experiments to test our hypothesis.

Then it’s onto building! We prototype MVPs, using agile methodology to iterate and test so we don’t get stuck on just one idea. And finally, once we identify the prototype, we scale it into a useable solution, and grow that solution into a strong company.

Photo by Max Ostrozhinskiy

Tools for our trade

Building our own tools is one of the most important ingredients in our secret sauce. No one questions that a tailored suit fits better than one off the rack, but bespoke software still hasn’t become the norm. We realized that no one knew our work the way we did, and the only way to move as fast as we needed was to cut the bloat designed for other use-cases. The first time we did this, we created ZenHub, a project management tool that let our developers stay inside GitHub, without the need to context switch. ZenHub made our team so much faster, and let us work so much smarter, that we launched the tool as a product — and it’s now the leading GitHub project management integration.

We took that success to heart, and we’ve been creating internal tools for four years. To date, we’ve built five internal tools that we call The Collaboration Stack: ZenHub for project management, Hubble to track resource management, Hatch for speedier iOS deployment, Toby to share knowledge in browser and keep teams aligned, and Talera to attract the right talent.

And the best part? The bespoke tools we built to empower our team have become some of our most successful companies.

The recipe for innovation

A key part of what has made us successful at innovation is that we didn’t design our approach with the intent of making it our business.

We put together a team we were excited to work with, and that team developed tools they were excited to use. We iterated on processes that made us work well and smoothly, and then we looked up and realized no one else was doing what we were. We had intended to use our business to sell products, and discovered that our business became a product worthy of selling.

There is no shortcut and no substitute for the factors that lead to innovation. Finding the right people, the right process, and the right tools takes years. Understanding and overcoming this challenge is why partners work with us, and it’s why we believe that outsourced innovation is the way forward.

Axioms are early innovators in emerging technologies.

Our team of interdisciplinary creatives utilize their insights into new technology to design groundbreaking and delightful product experiences.

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