Verizon innovation leader on why embracing risk is key

March 12, 2021 | 7 minute read
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For our latest Trailblazers feature, we spoke with Serhad Doken, innovation and product realization at Verizon. Doken discusses his career background and why fostering innovation, including renewing organization boundaries and groupthink, are vital to sparking new ideas. “You must be bold,” Doken says.

Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, vice president, Oracle Industries Innovation Lab, led the discussion.

BK: What’s your current role and how has your career evolved since you started in the telecom industry?

I am currently responsible for innovation and product engineering within the Global Network and Technology organization for the Verizon Consumer Group (VCG). VCG is the bigger part of the Verizon's revenue base, reaching more than 100 million consumers and generating close to $100 billion in revenue.

During the first 15 years of my career, I was in product development. That initial part of my career was more focused on implementation, execution, and engineering.

Since 2008, I've been on the innovation side, working on a variety of roles focused on strategy, incubation, technology, business road mapping, investments, and acquisitions.

That enabled me to understand how other parts of an organization works together, such as finance, marketing, sales, legal, etc., that I didn’t interface with much during the first 15 years of my career.

That broader understanding and big picture thinking helped me to funnel and streamline initiatives that may have an impact or move the needle for an industry or a company. It’s all about maturing throughout my work life.

BK: What is your view of the state of innovation in the industry?

When you look at where we are today, there are lots of good things happening on the innovation front. The number of IPOs and the interest they're receiving, which is at the end of the innovation cycle, are all good signs, right? That market is hot.

I want to focus on the term “innovation”. It’s a term that's used very frequently and means different things to different people. It may mean product innovation to some, or technology innovation to others like me, but there's also business and marketing innovation, etc.

Inventions behind the innovation

I'm interested in innovations where there is a serious invention behind the innovation. When you have an invention that is dependent on serious research or created technology, that is defensible innovation that cannot be copied or replicated in the short term.

You'll probably reap the benefits of it for years or even decades. These kinds of innovations open new markets. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing a whole lot of innovations that are based on strong inventions.

This also reflects the short-term thinking around innovations. That's not a good trend.

Most of the innovations I see are in business, but not necessarily technology, invention-based innovations. When you come up with a technology-based invention, you'll probably come up with multiple solutions to a problem.

BK: What are the biggest challenges to innovation?

The way that question can be answered depends on your perspective. If I were to venture into the entrepreneurs’ domain, what’s probably keeping them up at night is raising capital, identifying the product market fit, and scaling the innovation.

Larger enterprises suffer from the fact that they have an incumbent business and a larger revenue basis. The thinking around, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” is a significant challenge.

In fact, when you're playing it safe, that is the biggest risk and hurdle against innovation. Because let's face it, innovation is inherently risky.

If you fail, you may face very negative consequences. This is exactly what an entrepreneur also faces, but they're always up for the game. The difference with the entrepreneur is you must remove the fear of failure.

Trying to control the failure to design a system that will never fail is a challenge.

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"We must remove the fear of failure as a challenge to innovation."

-Serhad Doken, Innovation and Product Realization, Verizon

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BK: What are your suggestions for companies trying to foster a culture of innovation?

It's very important to be comfortable with change and risk. Innovation is related to the strategy, process, culture, and people.

We all think that innovation is just technology, when it really comes down to people at the end of the day. If people are courageous and not afraid of failure, then it can foster a culture of innovation. You must get people engaged in innovation.

Embracing change

A lot of people are afraid of change, and to be honest, none of us wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, I'm ready for change today.”

If you look at the venture capital industry, they have  a good approach. Maybe not 100% applicable to all corporations, but a lot of the basic framework is there.

Venture capitalists expect that most of their portfolio investments are going to fail and they're comfortable with that.

Investing in speculation

To innovate, you must embrace and invest in speculation. That doesn't mean, “Let's just throw darts on the wall and let's see what sticks.”

On the other side, that means not just paying lip service to innovation; you must be very pragmatic and measure the results. Sometimes things are about timing. Maybe your idea is ahead of the market, so your technology product is ready, but the market is not ready, or vice versa.

Investing in state of the art ideas

What’s important is to have a very tight connection around questions like, “What is state of the art?” Competitive analysis is very important. Which brings me back to inventions.

When we come up with something and we say, “Well, it's innovative.” I want to know where that innovation stands in comparison to others within the same domain or an ecosystem.

If I have the idea for the best thing since sliced bread, why am I the only one that came up with that idea? There are eight billion humans on this planet and many smart people among all of us.

You want to either be number one or number two in an industry. Otherwise, just get out; no need to kick the can down the road.

Cannibalizing the industry

The best way to succeed is to ensure that the innovations are based on defensible terms through the intellectual property you created. You must cannibalize your industry and even your company.

"You may have the best product in the market today, but you should always think about, 'Okay, is that going to be the best product in six months or in two or five years?'"

If the answer is no, you must start building the next version in a different way and replace your existing revenue stream with that new product, even though that means cannibalization.

There's a term that I heard recently about vitality, and I really liked it. What that means is you look at your revenue stream or your assets and see what percentage of those assets were generated recently.

Or what percentage of your product line has been launched during the last one to two years?

Are your assets, intellectual property, products, or your customers long in the tooth? Meaning, if they are the same customers, is it the same product or the same invention during the past 10 years, then you really don't have vitality.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

"You may have the best product in the market today, but you should always think about, "Okay, is that going to be the best product in six months or in two or five years?"

-Serhad Doken, Innovation and Product Realization, Verizon

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Fostering vitality

You must always consider adding more vitality, including a new product line and new assets to your inventory. Another way to foster innovation is to renew organizational boundaries and groupthink.

For instance, if you've been in an industry for a long time, you probably have some set ways of looking at a problem or a solution. But when you take a step back and look at it from different angles, you'll probably see different things.

Sometimes you must bring in people who have no set assumptions about your business or your product line. You can ask for their opinions about what is correct, what looks a bit odd, or what kinds of things appear a bit stale.

You can even take innovative people in your organization and put them into different rooms, reduce the communication, and see what they come up with, just to reduce groupthink.

New approaches to the same problem

I'm a big believer of ideas and people that come from different industries, from different points of perspective, rather than the incumbent idea set. Because if you want vitality, then you need new ways to approach the same problem.

To summarize, you must love what's new, have an addiction to risk, and reject any kind of bureaucracy. Organizations should innovate and not process engineer themselves. You must be bold, not sanitized.

This may also sound hard to believe, but innovation must make you feel uncomfortable if there's a chance that it will ever move the needle. If everybody is very comfortable, you probably have a cash cow business, but you still need to inject vitality into it.

Oracle Construction and Engineering, the global leader in construction management software and project portfolio management solutions, helps you connect your teams, processes, and data across the project and asset lifecycle. Drive efficiency and control in project delivery with proven solutions for project controls, construction scheduling, portfolio management, BIM/CDE, construction payment management, and more.

Read more Trailblazers articles here.

Corie Cheeseman

Corie Cheeseman is a senior content marketing manager for Oracle Construction and Engineering.


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