One of the most important things I’ve learned in my career is how little I know.
I’ve worked in creative roles for over 25 years, so I bring a lot of experience to the table when it comes to setting a brand strategy and driving innovation. But I’ve learned, over and over again, that you have to come in every day and start fresh. Erase what you learned yesterday, and take a new look. That’s where you find innovation — in the things you realize you don’t know.
The enemy of innovation is the old narrative — statements like “We’ve already tried that” or “We always do it this way.” All the innovation that I’ve seen happen at Salesforce, especially in our marketing department, has come from someone stopping and saying, “It’s time to take a fresh look at this.”
Of course, truly changing your own perspective isn’t easy to do. For me, it’s the product of a long career with a lot of mistakes made along the way. When you’re shaken to your core and your deepest beliefs are challenged or you make a really stupid mistake, you learn the kinds of lessons that enable you to develop new perspectives. You learn to be able to say, “There’s a better way to think about this.”
Which mistakes taught me the most? It’s hard to say. As a creative professional, your early career depends on your ability to build a great portfolio. That is, in essence, a selfish endeavor: You’re holding ideas in rather than sharing them. It’s the right thing to do for a while, but if you don’t let that go, you become someone who can’t lead or manage people because you’re always focused on your own work.
It happened to me: I found myself in a position where I was leading people, but it wasn’t going well because I kept trying to impose my will on their idea. They kept pushing back until one day, it hit me: They had a really great idea, and I was destroying it by trying to make it my thing. Now, I really try to inspire people without imposing my own views — even letting them make their own mistakes, which isn’t easy. The great thing about Salesforce is that if you have a great idea or a fresh perspective, you’re able to act on it. I’ve never seen a great idea get shot down here.
When it comes to innovation, though, great ideas are only half of the equation. The other half — the half that’s infinitely harder to achieve — is turning ideas into reality. And, surprisingly, your ability to get something made usually isn’t about your budget or internal authority. While these are important, the secret to successful innovation is much simpler, and much more difficult to achieve. It is patience.
The more transformative your idea is, the more patience you’ll need to make it happen. People are creatures of habit; disrupting those habits can be a long, slow, sometimes painful process. And bringing your vision to life — so vividly that others buy into its power to transform — is often just as painstaking.
When I first joined Salesforce in 2010, we did not tell our brand story the way that I thought we could (and should) tell it. You would go to Dreamforce, and there were customers, admins, these fiercely loyal superfans beyond anything I had seen at any other company. But that story wasn’t making it out of the building. I had a vision for how I wanted to tell that story, but turning my vision into reality was a serious challenge. It took a long time talking, convincing, putting presentations together, tinkering, and occasionally being willing to fight for what I believed.
At times, it was discouraging. When you have a vision you believe in, it can be difficult to understand why others don’t jump on board. But you have to have empathy; you have to try to see what unique experiences and convictions the other person brings to the table. In my case, each obstacle only made me more certain of my vision to change the way this company told stories. And ultimately, I did. I’m proud to say that our customer films have redefined the way Salesforce tells its brand story, largely by letting those superfans help tell our story for us.
So how did I keep going despite the doubters, naysayers, and incremental failures? One of the best tactics is to develop multilevel plans that align with your vision. I’ll have an end goal, which may be one or five years down the road, but I’ll also have plenty of short-term milestones along the way. This helps me focus on incremental change while keeping the big picture in mind. If I meet a short-term obstacle, I’m less easily discouraged; I can tell myself, “OK, that’s a five-year thing. I have to let that go. I’m not going to change the company this week.”
But, of course, that doesn’t stop me from doing everything I can to create the kind of change that will make a profound difference eventually.
This blog post first appeared on the Salesforce blog. The “What I’ve Learned” series features interviews with top Salesforce executives on what they’ve learned about business, success, and life. Keep your eyes peeled for more insights from top Salesforce executives, coming soon on the Salesforce Blog. https://www.salesforce.com/blog/2016/04/what-ive-learned-about-innovation-john-zissimos.html