Tech Talk: Building a Culture of Innovation at Intuit

Technology creative idea.Concept of idea and innovation

Bharath Kadaba, Chief Innovation Officer at Intuit, recently appeared on the Digiday Tearsheet podcast for an in-depth interview on “Making Innovation Core to What you Do.” A digital pioneer since the formative years of distributed computing and the Internet, Bharath shared with Digiday his views on the culture of innovation at Intuit: how it helps the company solve customer problems, how Intuit employees are empowered to take risks, and what’s on the horizon. The following excerpts are adapted from the interview.

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Making innovation a key part of Intuit’s identity and culture

“At Intuit, we think of ourselves as a 34-year-old startup. As one of only eight software companies founded in the early 1980s to survive to the present day, we’ve succeeded by staying at the leading edge of technological transformation, from our transition from DOS to Windows in our early years, to our rapid embrace of web and mobile channels. We’re now doing fascinating work in the areas of AI, machine learning, and network ecosystems such as Blockchain. It’s my job as chief innovation officer to make sure that this history is ingrained across our 8,000-member organization, and that our employees understand that innovation is everyone’s job. That includes training every employee in two interrelated frameworks: CDI, for customer-driven innovation, and D4D, which means design for delight.

“Our success depends on leaning into disruption and delivering next-generation products. We’ve experienced steady growth for several decades running, and a big reason for that is that we’ve never had a downturn due to missing out on a technology wave. Our culture of innovation helps us ensure that our products are always relevant to the market.”

From promising idea to product feature

“Innovation is as much about new ideas as new technologies. For example, we embraced Eric Ries’s Lean Startup model as a complement to our Design for Delight philosophy. By rapidly iterating new products or features with actual customers, we can be confident that we’re solving real problems that people care about.

“From a technology perspective, we’re always evaluating emerging external trends for their possible relevance to our customers. By the time conversational user interfaces hit the mainstream in 2014 with Echo and Google Home, we’d already been working in this area for three years. Our introduction of QuickBooks Assistant in 2016, and more recently TurboTax Assistant, have brought a truly advanced conversational capability to our products. Customers can now ask QuickBooks a question as simple and natural as, ‘Hey, who owes me money?’ For a small business owner with an eye on cash flow, that’s a lot better than having to navigate ten different screens to find that list of outstanding accounts.

“And we don’t stop with the first generation but keep pushing the leading edge. We’re now running experiments around emotion—a key part of many financial experiences. As our customers navigate experiences from worrying about making payroll to discovering that their tax refund will be larger than expected, how do we understand what they’re feeling and respond in an empathetic way?”

Willingness to experiment and fail

“While there are decentralized innovation teams in every part of Intuit, I also have a team of about 70 expert technologists dedicated to studying problems deeply, then running experiments to discover the breakthrough point where we can deliver something for the business unit to take on. This kind of advanced work calls for a fearless mindset and an environment that’s not about success or failure, but rather learning. It’s perfectly okay for only three out ten of my group’s ideas to make it into a product. While our business units are challenged with clear metrics around customer acquisition, revenue, and so on, my group’s performance is based on working on hard problems and filing patents. At the same time, we do want to see a decent fraction of the work we’re doing get transferred into our business units.”

What’s on the horizon

“One of the most interesting areas we’re working in is what we call humanizing technologies or ambient computing. In our view, the long-established two-dimensional interface based on looking at a computer, iPhone, or iPad is going to fundamentally change. The voice of the computer will be everywhere, and in the background, and experiences will become extremely immersive. We’ve been working with conversational user interfaces since 2011, and with AR, VR, and MR for the past two years. The concept of mixed reality is very promising, making it possible to superimpose virtual information on real-world scenes to augment the experience of a consumer or small business owner using our products. Finance can be difficult to understand; by making information available contextually at the right time and place, we can help people navigate their finances more effectively. We’ve also built prototypes where financial information is presented in a three-dimensional space that people can explore in a more immersive way.

“While innovations like mixed reality and multidimensional display are still at the research and experimentation stage, our conversational interfaces are on the market today—but we’re still working to take them to the next level. With today’s voice assistants, the questions you can ask are limited to specific topics. Our job is to make sure that over time, we can answer pretty much any of a customer’s financial questions in a natural way. That’s the research that we’re doing right now.”

To hear the full interview, including why Bharath thinks Blockchain isn’t yet ready for prime time, you can find the podcast here.

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