In turbulent times, you need to respond quickly to the changing tides. You need to make progress during the swell, do your best to protect your team during the trough, and know the tide can change in an instant.
As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Michaud, VP, EPAM Continuum.
Chris Michaud leads EPAM Continuum’s Innovation & Design Practice. With more than 20 years of experience driving revenue growth for our clients by finding better ways to serve consumers. Chris has worked across a spectrum of industries, helping leading companies bridge the gap between business strategy and market results. Chris also has the practical experience of having built a company from the ground up, served on the boards of several start-ups, and understands the challenges of driving innovation within a large organization, having worked at GE early in his career.
During his career, Chris has been part of award winning teams who created the world’s first wearable infusion pump (omnipod.com ), designed the Centurion Product Experience for American Express, defined LL Bean’s core design principles for the next 100 years, and worked with Fisher Price to define its future offering in a digital world. Looking ahead, Chris and the Innovation & Design Practice are working with our clients to create new connected experiences in health and medical, transportation, financial services, and in the retail and restaurant industry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I sort of stumbled upon human-centered design.
I grew up in an engineering family. My mom was a computer science engineer for the defense industry, and my dad was a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry. As a result, engineering was familiar to me. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about design. I earned a degree in chemical engineering — chemistry always made great sense to me — and an engineering degree meant I’d be able to apply that knowledge to practical problem solving. I love problem solving.
My first job was with GE. Amazing place to start. I got to do four very different jobs in two years. Manufacturing, sourcing, R&D, and marketing. In my last job, marketing, I worked with these really amazing, creative design firms… and I fell in love with the team at Continuum. They were so talented, eclectic, and passionate about their work. I was blown away by the way they’d mix teams of scientists, engineers, designers, and humanists to not only solve complex problems, but to take on responsibility of identifying “problems worth solving” in the first place. Becoming part of the team was one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
My first job at GE was a six-month assignment in manufacturing. The brief: Design and install a new packaging station to match an increase in our production volume. I was straight out of school and had a several hundred-thousand-dollar budget to get the system in place. I dove in and started designing the system, which would be installed in the high-bay area of our production floor. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get the system stack-up to fit within the high-bay. After grappling with this challenge, I finally went to see my boss, ready to admit defeat. I clearly wasn’t a good enough engineer. I couldn’t design the system to fit in the high-bay. Assuming my boss would review my work and show me where my mistake was, I started to explain the situation and unroll the design (literally: we used paper back then). He chuckled and stopped me. Then he walked me through the problem:
Had I done a thorough job on the design? Yes.
Did I believe the design would work well? Yes.
Was the only issue that the design didn’t fit in the high-bay? Yes.
And you can’t solve that problem?! No.
He was a great guy, with a bigger-than-life laugh… which definitely came out at that moment. It echoed up and down the hallway as he told me: “Well, cut a damn hole in the roof then! Didn’t they teach you how to think outside the box in college?”
It was a defining moment for me. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t thought creatively about solving the problem and I was liberated. Never again would I be faced with a problem and not think about breaking outside of the known constraints.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate on this front. I have had some of the best bosses and mentors at GE, Continuum, and EPAM. For example, GE had this culture where you were encouraged to take calculated risks. My first week on the job, the executive who had sponsored me as a new hire pulled me aside and said:
“I sponsored you because I think you can make a difference here. And to be clear, making a difference here means doing remarkable things. Those things don’t happen by playing it safe. If you play it safe, you can probably have a long unremarkable career. But that’s not what we’re really looking for. We want people who take big swings and make remarkable things happen. Now mind you, we expect those people to take calculated swings… it’s a bit like baseball. If you work here and always seem to manage to get on base, be it through a walk or a bunt perhaps, you’ll probably always have a job on our team, but you’ll never really stand out. On the other hand, if you’re always swinging for the fences and strike out all the time, I’ll fire you personally. However, if you can hit for the cycle: singles, doubles, triples, and home runs, all while keeping your batting average up, then wow — you’ll change this place.”
This was such a gift. The exec had only met me a couple of times, so this pep talk wasn’t really about me and my potential, but it helped me understand the culture at GE, what was expected of me, and where the boundaries were. It encouraged me to take risks, while providing context on the upside and downside. I still carry the spirit of this with me.
Leaders and mentors at Continuum taught me about what it really takes to promote exceptional collaboration across multi-disciplinary teams, and the resulting value from getting this right. Now I’m at EPAM and learning so much about what’s required to operate at scale — with even greater diversity of talent. The leaders and mentors here teach through metaphors and all embrace the fact there is no substitute for practical, hands-on experience. It’s a remarkable opportunity to accelerate the positive impact we can have through our work.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I first learned about the power of purpose at Continuum, one of the original human-centered design and engineering firms. I had the privilege of working closely with our founder, Gianfranco Zaccai, for over 20 years. The firm’s original vision was to have a “continuum” of design and engineering talent that would come together to solve really complex problems for our clients. Over the years, we recognized the importance of more clearly articulating why we existed and expressed our purpose this way: “To drive meaningful innovation into the world for our clients; innovations that improve people’s lives.”
In 2018, Continuum became a proud part of EPAM Systems. In the end, the decision to seek out an acquisition partner and to move forward with EPAM was guided by our purpose. As part of EPAM, we’re in a much better position to help our clients bring new innovations to market. To “make it real,” as we like to say. Today, we practice experience design and innovation as part of EPAM Continuum, EPAM’s integrated consulting brings together experience, business, and technology consulting. Under the EPAM brand, we’ve established a new purpose for the consultants who are driving transformation efforts with our clients: “To amplify the power of competition as a force for good — driving positive change that moves us to a more equitable future for society, organizations, and their people.”
Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
EPAM Systems is a technology company specializing in product design and development, digital platform engineering, and digital transformation. We help our clients navigate rapidly evolving markets by partnering with them to establish customer-centered strategies for growth, guide and accelerate their transformation efforts, and execute solutions that help them stay ahead of the competition.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive? What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
The big recent disruption for us was not a new technology. It was COVID-19. In 2020, the world was forced to accelerate adoption of new tools, new ways of working, new ways of living. With this came having to find new ways to do customer-centered innovation work, including developing new ways to get into people’s hearts and minds. For example, my colleagues Darryl James and Alison Kotin have written about using unboxing and observing people digitally in their homes — how people reacted to new products in their own environments. Generally speaking, as innovation consultants used to dealing with the fog of uncertainty, we found remote research an invigorating challenge. Of course, we have experimented with remote research for many years before COVID-19, and those experiments prepared us to be successful in 2020.
We were able to innovate even when we couldn’t get into our Made Real Lab — “a place to prototype brand new concepts, the Made Real Lab enables clients and consumers to see, touch and experience them for the first time — and at scale.” When COVID prevented us from getting into the Made Real Lab, we demonstrated what we already knew to be true: The Lab itself is an idea, one that’s quite portable.
2020 was a substantial year for many, many reasons. It was a year that accelerated digital transformation by five to ten years, and hopefully will also prove to have accelerated social equality. It was a year whose impact, I believe, will reverberate for the next decade to come. In our 2021 NXT Trends Report, we distilled down the year’s impact to six essential themes that will shape the way we work and live in the future: (1) digital communities; (2) interoperability; (3) work; (4) loneliness; (5) localization; and (6) migration.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period? Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I’ve had the privilege of working with some exceptional leaders over the years, and some of the principles I’ve picked up definitely helped as we navigated 2020. Not sure I can give you just one principle, but the ones that were most helpful this year all centered around being highly adaptive:
- In turbulent times, you need to respond quickly to the changing tides. You need to make progress during the swell, do your best to protect your team during the trough, and know the tide can change in an instant.
- Accept you can’t predict the future but keep your eyes on the horizon and push yourself to see and grab hold of the new opportunities ahead.
- Necessity is truly the mother of invention. In moments like 2020, we get to re-invent ourselves. The moment is there to be seized.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Be human, be candid, be positive.
In challenging moments, I think we all respond best to leaders who are transparent, even vulnerable. This is what I mean by being “human.” I also think people respond better to leaders who are candid. In the absence of candor, people may think things are better or worse than they actually are. Neither of these is particularly helpful. And lastly, I think a good leader is someone who can keep their eyes on the horizon, who knows life will go on, things will get better, and that the best way through turbulent times is making really smart decisions. Don’t over-react, but also, don’t under-react. Ride the swells forward, and paddle like hell through the troughs.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common misstep I see: companies jump on the bandwagon of a new disruptive technology without taking the time to determine how it could bring meaningful value to their customers. Some examples from early in my career include the initial onslaught of IoT devices (does anyone really need a connected toaster?) to the tremendous proliferation of apps that have very few or any users. This response to a new technology is still happening today. Organizations should avoid racing toward a new technology with an “If we build it, people will come” mindset. This rarely works out.
Another common mistake I see is not taking a holistic “systems design” approach when trying to determine how to respond to a market disruption. Consider how greeting-card companies first responded to the internet…. they focused on trying to figure out how make money from digital greeting cards. They simply attempted to apply a new technology to their existing product. They should have used a “systems design” mindset and thought about how the internet could be used to deliver the value they provide to their customers. The value wasn’t the card. It was helping people stay connected. Say what you will about social-media companies, but a key part of their value proposition is helping people stay connected.
And of course, organizations need to be sure they are designing, first and foremost, around customer’s needs. Even when companies have all the right strategic reasons to create a new offering in response to market changes, if it’s not designed to properly engage the customer, it will struggle to gain strong user adoption. To help get this right, we always recommend early and frequent prototyping and resonance testing to see how well a design works with real users. Stefan Thomke’s new book, Experimentation Works, is a great guide on how to use scientific method to test business’ assumptions and refine hypotheses.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important questions a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies?
There’s a list of necessary questions I set out in a blog post titled “Tackling the Pivot.” Asking these questions early, and answering them honestly and completely, will go a long way to enabling a pivot — in this or any other economy:
(1) What value do you provide to your customers? Not what products, but what value.
(2) How will people want to access that value in the future?
(3) What assets can be used effectively, and which have actually become anchors?
(4) What are the options and challenges for pivoting? What needs to be added? What should be discontinued? What are the capital implications?
(5) Where are the opportunities to accelerate change? Survival in today’s world requires rapid adaptation. How can change be accelerated? What is the right prioritization of actions? How can you draw up and execute an appropriate plan for implementing them?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Life is a collection of experiences. The easiest way to live a rich life, one with lots of new experiences, is to be incredibly curious. Never stop exploring and learning.
I think this shows up in many facets of my life. It is why I love trying new things, it’s why I love to travel to new places, and its why I love design and innovation consulting. In my work, I’m always challenged to learn new things.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The easiest way to keep an eye on what we’re up to is to visit EPAM Continuum.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!