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When it comes to impactful innovation, putting the right team in place is key

October 12, 2021, 8:34 PM UTC

When it comes to technology, there’s always another bright, new, shiny thing that’s getting a ton of attention. But it’s not enough. Companies need to take a hard look at the teams behind these products, as well as the customers they are aiming to serve, experts explained on Tuesday during a panel at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. 

There are things technology can do and things it can’t. At the end of the day, it’s critically important that companies understand an organization’s people, culture, and processes are just as important as whatever product they’re bringing to market. 

“When we talk about innovation and talk about how we’re embracing different strategies for technical changes, there’s so much focused on the technology, and there’s not enough focus on the people behind the technology, the people building the technology, and the people that we’re serving ultimately,” said Emily Chiu, head of business, strategy, and operations at Square TBD.

The types of problems that companies and individuals even choose to solve are a direct function of who they are as people and their lived experiences, Chiu added. For instance, Chiu noted her mother was an immigrant, and to this day she doesn’t have the right birthday or spelling of her name on her passport.

Yet oftentimes, the people who are actually building and innovating don’t always reflect the people whose problems really need to be solved, such as bringing financial services to the unbanked or making it easier for immigrants and migrants worldwide to access credit. 

At Square, Chiu noted, that’s part of the company’s founding philosophy, adding that TBD has an all-female crypto engineering team—a composition that’s “kind of unheard of in this space.” 

“Unless as innovators we reflect the people that we’re trying to solve for, you’re just going to be building kind of the next high-frequency trading platform, as opposed to the thing that’s going to really bring down the cost of remittances for the unbanked, or the thing that’s going to bring financial access and inclusion to that 1.7 billion people around the world who need it,” she said.

That, of course, goes beyond just building a diverse technology or engineering team. Companies need to have diverse perspectives throughout the chain—from business leaders who will support innovation to marketing teams. 

Susan Chapman-Hughes, a global C-level business and digital transformation consultant, said she’s been involved with companies where the marketing team’s approach could be interpreted as a bit tone-deaf. “I’m like, ‘You might want to rethink a couple of messages that are coming from the marketing, because I don’t think that’s going to land the way you think it’s gonna land,’” she said. 

Other times, it’s about making sure that the messaging actually translates to people using the product. “I worked for the company that every time we rolled out a new technology, we’d buy all the bells and whistles for the new technology,” said Chapman-Hughes, who currently sits on the boards of the J.M. Smucker Co. and Toast. But then nobody would actually use it. “Nobody’s using it because you never taught them how to use it.” 

A good example of smart marketing is Cash App’s campaign featuring hip-hop artists talking about saving, Chapman-Hughes said. “That was a huge pickup for the kids in certain communities that had never talked about money because they never learned [about] it. They then were able to take their Cash App and say, ‘Oh, well, okay, this is actually pretty simple. Let me use it,’” she said. 

“It was a really great example of a product, mixing it with marketing, and using the marketing to teach them how to actually use the thing,” Chapman-Hughes said.

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