Lean Innovation is a recent addition to the LexisNexis culture in our Raleigh office. The fundamentals of the movement – talk, learn, hack and experiment – are what led four dedicated employees to start a Lean Innovation program at LexisNexis. The program was created and led by the four: Loai Alsalti, Michael Etgen, Shell Zhu and Murali Naik.
I sat down with the group to get a better picture of what Lean Innovation means to them, and what they hope the program can help accomplish here at LexisNexis.
What is Lean Innovation?
Michael Etgen: Lean Innovation is about incorporating and really living out within our organization the idea of being much more experimental about how we approach our work. When we’re trying to solve problems for customers, it’s not just going with the most obvious and easiest solution. It’s tempting for everybody and sometimes you have to do that, but at least for us and our culture at LexisNexis and the things that are really important for the company and our products, an attitude of experimentation is what is going to get us ahead.
Shell Zhu: We introduced this program to encourage a new way for everyone to look at how quickly we can make things happen. It doesn’t have to be a fully baked and polished idea before you roll it out. Whether you fail or succeed, you can always learn lessons from it. By encouraging organization-wide cross-pollination and collaboration, we can hopefully establish a new perspective towards innovation: innovate quickly by continuously learning and improving.
Loai Alsalti: To me, it’s about doing something beyond work, doing something I enjoy that leaves a legacy and makes an impact.
Murali Naik: For me, it relates to the lean agile process we follow in our software development world: It’s a rapid development, fail-fast and learn-fast approach. We quickly access feedback from customers, adjust, and correct, making a positive impact on the final product that goes out to the customer.
What is your role in Lean Innovation?
Loai: I’m one of the co-founders of Lean Innovation at LexisNexis. We wanted to help people with their ideas and create a culture of innovation at the grassroots level. We want to change the DNA of our brand.
Murali: Besides enabling people to put their ideas at the forefront of innovation, I’ve been helping with the Hackathons. The Hackathons are part of the Lean Innovation program that provide a fertile breeding ground to nurture ideas and hopefully take off in the form of new features within our products.
Shell: I think overall we see ourselves not just as leaders, but more as facilitators for this program. Each one of us mainly spearheads one activity, while collaborating in the overall strategy and direction. I lead the Lean Innovation talks across the whole Raleigh site. LI Talks aims to provide a platform for free knowledge. We bring together the organization’s most influential thinkers, creators, makers and doers to create a community of curious folks. I identify and work with various guest speakers who want to share their new vision or findings in technology, product vision, design and other areas which can inspire and benefit the larger organization.
Michael: My role is to help enable people on the product teams across LexisNexis to both recognize when they have an opportunity to do lean experiments and to provide them with basic guidance and assistance in actually pulling off the experiments.
What do you find most challenging about Lean Innovation?
Murali: The general tendency when one comes up with an idea is that it’s not worth pursuing it or why should I do it. It is very important to encourage people and convince them that most ideas initially seem irrelevant and it takes a channeled effort to make it fruitful. One has to get into the water in order to learn to swim!
Shell: For me, the main challenge in leading and coordinating the Lean Innovation talks is acting as a curator and finding qualified speakers and content. From a participation side, we need to guarantee each topic is worthy of people’s time, so they will be willing to take half an hour out of their daily work to attend and hopefully continue to come back and recommend it to others.
Loai: Product development at LexisNexis is based on a very traditional process: create roadmaps, develop and release, rinse and repeat. This process does not always lend itself to innovation. In this cycle, people might not see the value of Lean Innovation or some of the activities we do. It really comes down to changing our DNA and start innovating.
Michael: Culture change is just hard and ultimately, that’s what we’re after: for individuals to change and the overall culture to change as a result. It’s easy to talk about being experimental and being innovative, but it can be difficult to actually practice that.
What do you wish others knew about Lean Innovation?
Murali: I think there is a misconception that this is some sort of magical process that will fix all issues. I think Lean Innovation only works well for specific problems.
Shell: I think nowadays when people hear anything innovation-related, they feel it’s all just buzzwords. We hear them all the time and it’s just another trend that will go away eventually. We really want to make a difference with this program through a culture change and people’s proactive participation: whether it’s to present, socialize, share the information or provide support. Whatever you need to do towards that innovative idea, at each step you have people who really care about it, give input and efforts and push it along with you.
Where do you see this program going in the next couple years?
Loai: I see this being a part of our culture, something we can’t live without. Right now, it’s a foreign concept. People come in and do their day-to-day tasks and go home, but we want this to be a part of their culture and something they can look forward to when they come to work. I want Lean Innovation to be a major factor in propelling LexisNexis to number one on the list of companies to work for.
Murali: We also have a few goals within Hackathon. There are two flavors: One involves internal employees only and the other involves students from universities around the Triangle area. The internal Hackathon should become a part of the company’s culture DNA. It should provide product owners and engineers a chance to kick-start their ideas and put them in motion. With student Hackathons, we want to reach a point where it becomes an intercollegiate competition, the Hackathon competition of the Raleigh/Durham area. Last year we had three schools: NC State, UNC, and Clemson. This year we plan to take it to the next level by cementing it as a traditional annual tech event and with more schools participating in it, where students and talent come to LexisNexis. We want this to be something they can identify our company by.
Michael: We have more people starting to do experiments and talks and Hackathons. We see a level of cross-teamwork, teams from different products being more engaged with each other and aware of what everyone is doing.
Shell: I understand that nothing will last forever. But through the existence of the Lean Innovation program, long or short, we hope that people will gradually realize the power of “get it done.” Our idea might not be perfect, but with the right attitude and method, and the spirit of perseverance, we can continuously improve and achieve the end goal.
The Faces Behind Lean Innovation
Meet Loai Alsalti:
The Senior Director of Product Development Software Engineering for InterAction and Small Law and a big fan of corny 80s horror movies, particularly “The Evil Dead.” When asked what motivates him, Loai says it’s his family. “I want to set an example. One of my things is being positive no matter what. I try to control my attitude and not let other things control it and I want to show that to my kids.” No surprise that some of his hidden talents happen to be mediating, conflict resolution, and bringing people together. One of Loai’s favorite foods is a T-bone. Fun fact: His nickname used to be T-Bone (does anyone know why? I’m curious!). When I asked if Loai could have dinner with anyone, who would it be, he said Richard Branson, “especially if it was on his island!” Loai says Branson understands at the executive level how people work and how to keep them motivated.
Meet Shell Zhu:
The Senior UX Designer for CounselLink and a master of cooking spare ribs. Shell says she cooks ribs just about every week. So, if you need any spare ribs tips, you know who to go to! Shell has a great appetite for food and says she would never say no to any dessert. And I’m right there with you, Shell! Something people may not know about Shell is that she grew up in a very small village in China. “It’s probably hard for people to imagine, but when I was 7 or 8 years old, we didn’t even have running water in our house. That was the lifestyle I was leading when I was a child. And that’s what motivates me, gives me perspective. Living in such a small village, a lot of my childhood friends are still in that village and they’ve never gotten the chance to step outside of that area. Now suddenly, I have a lot more opportunity and that motivates me. I have to achieve a lot more.” Very admirable.
Meet Michael Etgen:
The Product Manager for NARS Research Solutions. When he’s not practicing yoga, you can find Michael listening to one of many science-related podcasts. When asked who he would have dinner with if he had the opportunity, Michael chose Sean Carroll. “He is a cosmologist and theoretical astrophysicist. I’ve listened to several podcast interviews with him recently and for who he is and how intelligent he is, he’s probably one of the most conversational people you’ll ever meet, which is pretty rare.” It’s also no surprise that Michael’s favorite movie is “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He says it’s certainly science fiction, but the way the movie was created, it is pretty true to what being in space would really be like.
Meet Murali Naik:
The Manager for Product Development for Small Law and a big foodie, not to mention your go-to source for finding the best sweet corn chicken soup in the area. But don’t fret vegetarians – as a fellow foodie and vegetarian, I thought I was going to have to miss out – there is also a sweet corn soup! He highly recommends Inchin Bamboo Garden in Morrisville. Like Loai, Murali is a big fan of movies and not just 80s horror films. You name it, he’s probably seen it. He also has a fascination for bikes. Not bicycles, mind you, motorcycles. Sounds like Murali has got a wild hair in him! “I used to participate actively in rallies in India and organize them,” he told me. Although this was almost 20 years ago, I had to ask if Murali could still pull off a wheelie. He says it’s been awhile since he’s done one, but he’s confident.