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Building an Innovation Habitat: An Interview with Vonage’s Zach Efrati

The most difficult innovation question for companies is not developing new technology, but building a creative culture that maximizes problem-solving capabilities and opportunities to discover new skills. Zach Efrati, Director of Innovation at Vonage, is faced with exactly this challenge at the telecommunications giant. We talked with Zach about his approach to innovation, his greatest obstacles and how he overcomes them.

What does it mean to be the “Director of Innovation”?
Behind any rainforest teeming with animal and plant life is a well balanced habitat that provides the right conditions for all that activity to survive and prosper. Fostering an innovative culture within an organization is similar—you need to build an environment that encourages to share ideas that align with the company’s vision, provide feedback, and take an active role in validating and pushing these ideas forward. I strive to contribute to this culture through a variety of initiatives that teach employees how to think creatively and to provide opportunities for them to be intrapreneurs. Again like in a natural habitat you can’t do just one thing; every ecosystem is different.

What does innovation mean to you?
Identifying opportunities stemming from emerging behaviors, needs and technologies and then distilling them into new ideas that you build and release to users in the form of a valuable service or product. Each company should come up with its own definition of innovation. That definition should resonate throughout an organization so that everyone understands what the company’s innovation vision means to them and what is expected from them.

You have a background in engineering, how did this affect your approach to innovation?
As a software engineer, I participated in many cutting-edge technology projects, but soon learned that success was never about technical skills. More crucial was creating an environment for the team to succeed. I took this same sensibility to my current role and am always excited to help people connect the dots in a new way to come up with something creative.

What is your biggest challenge?
Setting expectations across all levels of the company:

– Stakeholders should understand that innovation is like an exploratory journey. Nothing is guaranteed and there may by delays or even dead ends. Chances of success can, however, greatly improve by creating a common language, vision and strategy, and investing in an environment that is open to new ideas and change.

– Employees need to believe that the company’s vision is real and that actions match rhetoric or there is a risk of cynicism when confronted with an innovation initiative. As an innovation manager, one must “walk the talk” – explain constantly the innovation vision and how employees can be part of it.

– Others need help to manage conflicts between time spent innovating and doing their day-to-day work. Incentives are important, like linking innovation efforts into their yearly bonuses.

What is the greatest myth about innovation?
“We need more ideas!” The concept of success stemming from finding brilliant ideas is misleading. Coming up with ideas is easy. The real challenge is quick and frugal validation and execution of those ideas. There is also a tendency in companies, especially those threatened by change, to look for outside ideas. That overlooks your best asset—your own employees. You need to encourage them to speak their mind to improve the chances that whatever they come up with will be successfully executed. Again, it comes down to having the right habitat for them to thrive.

What is one thing you do to promote innovative thinking in your daily practice?
I try to talk to as many people as I can outside of my daily environment. Many people are under the misconception that creative insights just happen. There is a subconscious element, but you need to invest considerable pre-effort by leaving your desk and meeting different people and being open to outside elements.

What is your favorite innovation from the last decade?
The concept of “sharing economy” is amazing. Think about that for a minute—for a long time we encouraged people to completely own a resource and now we look at resources completely different. This is an incredible change in people’s perceptions. This again demonstrates why innovation is not only just about technology, but is just as much about changing someone’s beliefs and mindsets to be accepting of a new way of doing things.