Natália Štefániková shares her experiences and practices on how to work smarter and how to leverage change to your advantage; be it by seeking collaboration with people who are not like you or by building solutions that enhance people’s lives.
We live in a world that changes at lightning speed. Many things that would previously last for decades, only stay relevant for a few months or years.
Although we have strong capabilities to adapt and move forward as a species, we tend to incline towards stability and patterns we are used to. It makes us feel safe and gives us the very pleasant reassurance that what we do and who we are is the right way. Why change anything, if it indirectly indicates that whatever we were doing up until now might not be good enough anymore.
A friend of mine once said, that “the only person who likes change is a baby with a full diaper”. It’s hilarious, but it’s true. Change and accepting differences both require us to step out of our safe and comfy comfort zones, because being open to the fact that not all we do is always perfect is not something all of us are willing to do easily.
I have experienced a great deal of change and have been constantly in situations where I either had to disrupt the status quo or I myself was just the different, the odd one.
It was never easy, often exhausting, but the result was always worth it.
Whether it was my family moving to South Korea when I was 6, or studying abroad in Paris and Vienna as a former “Eastern Bloc” student. It was also not easy to come and drive change management projects in the financial industry as a woman in Turkey or Germany.
What I learned very quickly was to embrace our differences and continuous sustainable change, both happen slowly and they happen step by step. You can force it to some degree, but for it to become sustainable, you need to bring everyone on board and make them part of it. And do not forget to bring yourself on board first.
I have moved back to CEE after over 10 years of living abroad. Me coming back was a coincidence, I had no expectations and I have to say, I am enjoying it extremely. I came back to an environment where there are so many smart, driven and emotionally mature people.
They are people who want to build amazing things. People who are ambitious, but are not necessarily motivated by profits only and want to contribute positively to the society they live in. The diversity that we currently have in our region is driven by all the different nationalities, backgrounds and values, and the fact that we are so close, historically and geographically, enables us to leverage everything in a very exciting way.
Our region and the way we think provides us with a huge advantage — we not only have a strong and educated workforce that provides us with an extremely stable starting point, but we are extremely motivated to prove that we can be as good, if not even better, than any other Silicon Valley startup. The great thing is that our customers are expecting products and services, whether in business, arts or the public sector, that are of global standards. This is evidenced by how open Czech consumers are towards digital solutions — “The Czech Republic has the most e-shops per capita in the whole of Europe with 45,000 e-shops estimated to be in operation by the end of 2020”⁴ and “there are nearly 6 million Czechs who shop online. This means that user penetration in this market is 54% in 2020 and is predicted to reach 65.1% by 2025.”³
This setup is simply amazing because it enables us to innovate at lightning speed and can be an incredible competitive advantage. So what else do we need? What else should we do to leverage what we have going here?
I have a few practices I do to support and encourage people around me (including myself) to go the extra mile by not necessarily working harder, but rather smarter. It really is not rocket science, but does wonders when it comes to creating a driven, happy and high performing team that continuously improves on the way. I am adding a few references from interesting articles that support these phenomena if you are interested in reading a bit more about it.
Seek Collaboration With People Who Are Not Like You
Acknowledging the fact that you or people like-minded to you might not always know best is the first step. By realizing this, you can start actively searching for team members, partners or suppliers who enrich the process. Whether it comes to building your team or working on a project, the act of bringing more people from various backgrounds, with different skill sets, experiences or opinions always generates a higher quality outcome.
It all sounds lovely and so simple, but it is often quite difficult. It is so easy, being surrounded by people who share your opinions and nod approvingly at all your ideas. In the same way, it is much easier to lead a project where all the team members incline towards the same solutions. All of us probably know how difficult it gets once people start disagreeing and therefore find it difficult to sync up.
It is crucial to see this as an opportunity rather than a source of annoyance. I believe that every single person can foster their own leadership skills and so mitigating situations like these should not only be the responsibility of managers or leadership teams, but of all of us living and working in a successful ecosystem.
Creating an environment that is open to feedback, different approaches and opinions is not easy and requires continuous effort. This can be, however, the distinguishing factor between successful and happy teams vs. the rest.
“Companies increasingly rely on diverse, multidisciplinary teams that combine the collective capabilities of women and men, people of different cultural heritage, and younger and older workers. But simply throwing a mix of people together doesn’t guarantee high performance; it requires inclusive leadership — leadership that assures that all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and sense that they belong, and are confident and inspired. Teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.”²
Embracing our differences and leveraging the different strengths each of us bring to the table is the way to go. Build diverse teams, work with the best in class external partners and be open to constructive conversations. Your end product will always end up being better.
Build Solutions That Enhance People’s Lives
I love to work and spend time with people who have experienced different things than I have. I am very much an observer and people with different backgrounds and stories fascinate me. Listening to them is not only interesting, but I selfishly like to embrace their points of view and by doing so, challenge my own. This is something I also strongly believe in when working on customer solutions. Bringing in people on the team who are from completely different fields and have absolutely no idea why things have been done for years a certain way is extremely beneficial. These are fresh minds and eyes who ask very valuable questions such as “why are we doing that this way?” or “does this really make sense, will the customer be excited?”
These people look at something that is so familiar to us but they see it in a completely unfamiliar way. This is a huge opportunity for building customer centric products and services!
And this is exactly the reason why when I hire new team members or external partners, I often tend to prefer candidates from completely different industries.
“‘Think Different,’ said the famous 1997 Apple advertisement. Excellent advice, obviously, to all creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs.” It is often, however, not that easy. “Our brains are designed to stop us paying too much attention. This is well demonstrated by the optical illusion called Troxler fading. If presented with a steady image in the area of our peripheral vision, we actually stop seeing it after a while. Neurons stop firing once they have sufficient information about an unchanging stimulus.“ This phenomenon leads to “our built-in tendency to sink into the familiar way of seeing and experiencing. One way in which great artists, entrepreneurs, and creators of all kinds come up with the insights that enable them to change the world is that they do not see the way most of us do. Their methods teach us that by seeing differently, we can end up seeing what no one else has yet seen. This is how the future is built.”⁵
In order to continually delight our customers, this is exactly what we need.
We need to surprise them by creating positive experiences solving problems they have or did not even know bothered them in the first place.
Companies are having difficulties catching up with how quickly customer needs evolve — trust me, I have worked in the financial industry for over 10 years and it never stopped being exciting! If you can stream a show in a few seconds, why should clients be expected to print and send signed documents to banks, insurance companies or government institutions?
The pace is mindblowing and companies that understand that everything they create needs to be based first of all on delighting their customers rather than paying higher dividends are the winners in the long run. If you do not get it right the first time, customers will rarely give you a second chance — a recent Zendesk study shows that today’s consumers have higher standards than ever before, and 61% will switch to a competitor after just one bad experience!
Meaningful digital innovations, which transform old products and services, is the way to go (meaningful being the key word here). Innovate with the clients well-being and preferences always in mind. For example: Should AI answer your phone or chat with you every single time? Hardly the right way. But it definitely makes sense, when you only need help with simple transactional tasks, so that when you really do need to speak to an actual human, you do not have to wait on line for 30 minutes but rather get connected immediately.
Many players are joining the digitalization trend slowly but steadily – “companies currently use artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) only 12% of the time, according to a CMO Survey. Respondents predict that AI/ML use will triple to 38% over the next three years, with 28% of companies investing in this space in the past 12 months.”⁶
The ones fostering a truly meaningful digital innovation mindset will always, however, be one step ahead of the others.
Continuous Improvement Is Always on Your Mind
“Whatever it is, you can become better at it. But here’s the thing I know just as clearly as I know you can get better at anything: you will not get better if 1) you don’t want to and 2) you aren’t willing to feel the discomfort of doing things differently.
Learning anything new is, by its nature, uncomfortable. You will need to act in ways that are unfamiliar. Take risks that are new. Try things that, in many cases, will be initially frustrating because they won’t work the first time. You are guaranteed to feel awkward. You will make mistakes. You may be embarrassed or even feel shame, especially if you are used to succeeding a lot.”¹
Sounds wonderful, right?! That’s exactly the state we all love to be in. Not.
It is proven that meaningful change and growth only happen once we step out of our comfort zones. Radical innovation only occurs once we are not satisfied with what we have already seen or achieved and seek for new and better solutions. In all areas of life, we have the tendency to eventually get satisfied with how things are done because we often have little to no time to step back and challenge ourselves and others to do better. So what do we do about that?
What we try to apply in our team are two things:
- An initiative is never done only because it is launched. That is just phase 0 and it is only the beginning. Now it is time to collect data, feedback, analyze, test and improve “to infinity, and beyond!” (to steal a quote from the famous Buzz Lightyear of ToyStory). This leads to sustainable and continuous improvement. It challenges you and opens your mind up to always looking for the answer to the question – “Ok, this is great, but what’s next?”
- Having a mindset where you realize that what was just released was good enough for yesterday but might not be good enough for tomorrow is a humbling exercise and this leads to our second approach – do not be so in love with your own work that it ends up limiting your ability to grow and accept new and more enhanced solutions. Whether it is accepting feedback or new proposals on how to add to what you did, or it is about looking to work with external partners who are top performers in their fields. Working with the best (because you are capable of admitting that it is most probably not always you) and being open to be challenged are incredible ways to open yourself up to solutions that could never happen otherwise.
Well that is it I guess. And as I am not that good at conclusions, I asked a few friends to help out a bit:
To sum up – change is inevitable, it is the only constant in life. We can either adapt or choose to be in the driver’s seat!
To become the driver, we should always allow ourselves to fail, because once we get out of our comfort zones, that is when growth happens. Innovation powered by diverse skills and opinions is important for businesses to survive in today’s marketplace and remain relevant.
So, what are you going to do to foster innovation and drive change?
Ok, speaking of innovation… the few lines you have just read were written by two open source AI text generators, Simplified.com and Frase.io, and all the illustrations in this article were created by Dall•e2, a machine learning model developed by OpenAI to generate digital images from natural language descriptions. Not too shabby, right?
- “If You Want to Get Better at Something, Ask Yourself These Two Questions”, by Peter Bregman, November 09, 2018, published by HBR
- “Why Inclusive Leaders Are Good for Organizations, and How to Become One”, by Juliet Bourke and Andrea Titus, March 29, 2019, published by HBR
- “European Ecommerce Overview: the Czech Republic”, by Kinga Edwards, August 2, 2022, published by eCommerceGermany.com
- “The Czech Republic Has the Most E-Shops Per Capita in Europe”, by Prague Morning, January 6, 2021
- “To Change the Way You Think, Change the Way You See”, by Adam Brandenburger, April 16, 2019, published by HBR
- “Closing the Gap Between Digital Marketing Spending and Performance”, by Christine Moorman, Jana Soli, and Dennis Cardoso, July 29, 2022, published by HBR
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