“If You Ain’t First, You’re Last”: What Innovators Can Learn From Uber’s Approach to Innovation

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Barbara Rybicka

Updated May 17, 2024 • 11 min read
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Remember the famous words of Ricky Bobby, “if you ain’t first, you’re last.” This is a true statement when it comes to innovation. The question is, how do you become first?

The way I see it, in the last decade, one company that stood out as a leading disruptor has been Uber. With its transformative impact on everything from daily commutes to entrepreneurial aspirations, Uber has not only revolutionized transportation but also reshaped the very fabric of urban life.

In a recent episode of our Disruption Talks series, we hosted Stefania Colombo, a Product Manager at Uber. Drawing from her experience, Stefania offered insights into the company's innovative approach, the defining characteristics of high-growth enterprises, and the art of achieving goals under pressure.

From what I gathered, at the heart of Uber's success lies its commitment to flexibility, agility and taking risks.

In the words of Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber's current CEO, “Uber didn't just disrupt the transportation industry; it redefined it. We took an age-old service and made it smarter, safer, and more convenient.”

While I dive deeper into the insights of Uber's innovative abilities and dissect the key drivers behind the success of disruptive innovation, one thing becomes clear: the ability to embrace change is not just a competitive advantage but a prerequisite for survival.

As Stefania Colombo puts it, "What all high-growth businesses have in common, regardless of size, is flexibility. They operate in a constant state of change, so agility is the fundamental operational principle of these companies."

Through firsthand accounts and expert insights, let’s explore the lessons we can learn from Uber, one ride at a time.

The force behind an innovative disruptor

Among the many challenges businesses face today, one constant remains: the need for innovation and adaptation. While I read into Bold Narratives' Leadership Identity Framework, it becomes increasingly clear how pivotal disruption is in shaping an organization's trajectory. From challenging the status quo to embracing calculated risks, the journey of disruption is filled with challenges and rewards alike.

The Disruptor: Being a catalyst of change

One of the characteristics outlined by the Bold Narratives' framework is The Disruptor, an archetype embodying the transformative spirit that propels organizations forward.

Companies like Uber exemplify this ethos. As Stefania Colombo puts it, success in innovation hinges on two critical qualities: risk-taking and agility.

Uber's rise is a testament to this, as the company navigated the complex regulatory landscapes and consumer preferences, demonstrating a remarkable ability to thrive as a disruptor.

The power of agility and flexibility

Agility and flexibility emerge as indispensable assets for organizations striving to stay at the top. Agility encompasses the ability to swiftly respond to changing circumstances, while flexibility enables adaptation to evolving market dynamics.

From launching new services like UberX and UberEats to pivoting its business model in response to shifting consumer preferences, Uber's journey exemplifies the impact of these attributes while seizing opportunities amidst the uncertainty of innovations.

Similarly, I believe flexibility is also found at the core of Uber's strategic approach, enabling the company to iterate and refine its offerings in real time.

By adopting an iterative approach to product development and decision-making, Uber leveraged market feedback to drive continuous improvement and ensure its relevance in a rapidly changing industry.

When agility is treated as a guiding principle, it can lead to significant business gains. Take it from Amerisure, a century-old commercial insurance provider, further exemplifies the importance of agility by transitioning its traditional practices to embrace organizational flexibility. Through the establishment of an Agile Practice Group, Amerisure aimed to enhance innovation, delivery processes, and customer satisfaction.

The results of this focus led the company to achieve notable results, including a 30% reduction in time-to-market, improved Net Promoter Scores, establishment of new businesses, industry awards, increased productivity, and growing employee engagement.

The role of risk-taking in innovation

Risk-taking is another pillar of disruptive innovation, separating successful companies from the rest. Whether it's launching new products or entering new markets, calculated risks are inherent to entrepreneurial endeavors.

Famously said by Emil Michael, "You're not punished for failing, you're punished for not trying."

Uber’s success is partly attributed to its willingness to experiment. The company initially started as a high-end black car service but soon expanded into various segments like UberX, UberPOOL, and UberEATS. By experimenting with different offerings and learning from user feedback, Uber refined its services to cater to a broader customer base and maximize growth potential.

Netflix also stands out as a prime example of a company that embraced risk-taking in product innovation and had remarkable success. During its formative years, Netflix revolutionized the conventional DVD rental market by introducing a subscription-based model. This strategic shift was a considerable risk, changing from the established pay-per-rental business model.

Nonetheless, by daring to take this risk, Netflix capitalized on a growing market of consumers craving convenience and variety. Now, similarly to Uber in its respective industry, Netflix is a force in the streaming industry, persistently taking risks to maintain its leading position. As seen in a 2023 investor letter, "Netflix remains far ahead of all streaming peers in subscribers, revenue, content spend and cash flow generation." This showcases Netflix ability to fall short and rebound emerging on top again, as they did between 2022 ans 2023.

One way for companies to take calculated risks is by rapid prototyping. Crucial questions about projects arise early on, which answers can be given only by presenting a tangible product to future users. Rapid prototyping provides this immediate real-user testing.

I think it’s also important to keep in mind that when it comes to experimentation and risk-taking, empowerment from managers is essential for employees to feel encouraged to push boundaries.

As Stefania Colombo mentioned, “Another common trait among high growth companies is their willingness to experiment and test new ideas, what I refer to as a ‘failure approach.’ Failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow…Your manager plays a pivotal role in achieving success by encouraging you to step out of your comfort zone and embrace trial and error methodologies in your career. There should be no culture of punishment.”

Precision in goal setting to navigate complexity

In disruptive markets, precision in goal setting is essential, especially with complex interdependencies.

Stefania Colombo commented on this by saying that “In larger companies, dependencies across teams often increase. The more dependencies there are, the more complex it becomes to synchronize efforts, necessitating precision in deliverables. In smaller companies, each team is responsible for their own “garden” products, acting as owners of their own destiny.”

Uber's experience in China serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of aligning expectations with strategic objectives.

Uber's failure to conquer the Chinese market stemmed from a misalignment between its premium service focus and the market demands. As competition intensified, Uber faltered in clarifying its strategic direction, ultimately conceding to its rival, DiDi Chuxing.

The way I see it, this clearly underscores the significance of setting the right goals and aligning them with market realities.

Diversity: The engine of innovation

There’s a bonus pearl of knowledge I would like to add. Beyond risk-taking and goal-setting, diversity emerges as an integral part of innovation.

Research indicates that diverse and inclusive teams foster creativity and unlock new perspectives, driving higher rates of innovation and revenue growth. A study conducted in 2020 by the World Economic Forum found that companies that successfully implemented diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging were more innovative and realized more revenue from innovation than the market average.

Stefania Colombo supported this statement by saying: “When everyone thinks alike, there's limited innovation and generation of new ideas. Diversity fosters creativity and innovation.”

Uber's current CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, further echoed this sentiment when saying “Diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords; they are essential for creating a truly successful and forward-thinking company.”

Diversity unlocks innovation by creating an environment where ‘outside the box’ ideas are heard. Employees of firms with greater diversity are 45% likelier to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) is another company that truly exemplifies a diverse workforce with 48% female employees and 51% non-white employees.

P&G's commitment to diverse perspectives led to the creation of Pantene’s Gold Series line, catering to women with curly hair. This line has become so popular, it boasted 20% year-on-year growth and earned the prestigious Allure Best of Beauty Award.

This further demonstrates how diversity isn't just a moral imperative but also a strategic advantage for companies like P&G which leverage it to develop groundbreaking products and expand their market share.

Keep flexible and move on

Navigating innovation during times of digital acceleration requires a multifaceted approach encompassing agility, flexibility, risk-taking, and diversity. As organizations embrace these principles, they position themselves not just to survive but to thrive in an ever-changing market.

The lessons learned from Uber's approach to innovation offer invaluable insights for all businesses that want to thrive in the future.

From setting precise goals aligned with market realities to fostering diversity and inclusion as engines of innovation, Uber's story serves as a blueprint for success in an era defined by change.

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Barbara Rybicka

Commercial Director | Retail at Netguru
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