The Data Chief: ThoughtSpot’s Ajeet Singh on design thinking and disruption

At this point, we can pretty confidently project that the cloud isn’t going anywhere. In the last few years, we’ve seen critical production workloads move to the cloud en masse—and that’s only going to continue. Now that the shift has occurred, other companies will need to get on board as well. The question is no longer if a company should adopt cloud but when and how. 

Ajeet Singh, ThoughtSpot’s Co-founder and Executive Chairman, is no stranger to embracing change. He’s successfully built two multi-billion dollar companies from the ground up by leaning into risk and being open-minded and curious about customer needs. 

On a recent episode of The Data Chief, Singh shared five things he’s learned along the way about change management, organizational culture, and how to develop impactful talent.

1. Commitment must come from the top and be steadfast

In order for significant change to occur, it must start with an absolute commitment from the top of the organization. To put it bluntly: Risk will be involved, and people must be empowered. It’s easy to create new C-level positions and feel that you’ve shaken things up, but real innovation starts with giving leaders the necessary mandates and resources to transform their teams and in turn the company.

For example, when ThoughtSpot customer Capital One developed its cloud adoption plan, it was non-negotiable that the entire company had to move to the cloud within a certain time frame. Everything else moved to accommodate that deadline, and thanks to that strong stance, the overall project was successful.

Companies that take the opposite approach and try to make the shift piecemeal tend to achieve more widely varying degrees of success. That’s because at some point you have to make a firm decision and move away from the old structures of doing things.

2. You may have to hire externally in order to make change happen

It’s no secret that finding technical talent is hard. As you source skilled staff, there are a few different models you can consider. Maybe you’re in a position where you already have a solid technical team with expertise. This was certainly the case for ThoughtSpot customer Walmart when they started their e-commerce business several years ago. Building on existing talent gave them a leg up on other companies that had to start from scratch.

And if you don’t have the right people in-house already, you might consider a merger or acquisition. When Walmart acquired it brought a completely new energy into the company. While other retailers struggled to face off against Amazon, Walmart found success by investing in existing talent and bringing in complimentary talent from Jet. Together, the two companies have created a dynamic synergy. 

Whether you’re looking at investing in your current talent pool or bringing in fresh skills and perspectives from outside the company, focus on developing a structure that helps the entire team work together. And remember, your end goal should always connect back to driving a new business opportunity or use case. 

3. Change has to be grounded in people’s best interests

There’s no way to get around the fact that people don’t like change. We want to do what we know, and it’s not natural for us to seek change and transformation. If we’re going through a transformation, we must have deep empathy for the people who are going to be affected. 

For example, if you’re a CDO and you want business stakeholders to become more data-driven or do things in the cloud, the change must be grounded in the reality of those people’s lives. Do you understand their pain? Their aspirations? Can you clearly communicate why the changes might be good for them?

People will act with full force when the good of the company and themselves are aligned. The job of the leader is to align all of the small, moving magnets so that overall, there’s a huge magnetic force of change. That might look like shifting people into different roles or jobs if there isn’t a good fit between where you are and where you’re going. 

You also have to be transparent about what the end state looks like. If people will have more responsibilities or more people to manage—or less—you want them to be aware and prepared. 

Finally, you want people to have a sense of belonging. As more people on a team are inspired to change, that will influence others. Change will become natural, and resistance will lessen.

4. Build your culture thoughtfully

We’ve learned from our thought leaders events that culture can be a major barrier to moving digital transformation projects forward. Every organization inherently has a culture, and it’s important for leaders to be aware of their own so they can proactively nurture and improve it. Being deliberate about culture helps create space for individuals, teams, and transformational projects to thrive. If you treat culture as you would any other business initiative — with care, intention, and purpose — you’re more likely to see the results you want.

The true test of this work won’t be a team survey or meeting. It’ll be day-to-day, in the way people do business. If your culture is strong, people will know how to respond to hard situations and feel empowered and motivated to do the right thing. But this can only happen if you as a leader are paying attention and setting the example from the top.

5. Bring lessons from the pandemic forward into the future

2020 taught businesses so much about how the world operates and uncovered many lessons that will be valuable in the years ahead. Everything has fundamentally changed—from the way we buy groceries, to the way children go to school, to advancements in healthcare. 

As we approach returning to “normal,” leaders should keep the good things they’ve learned top of mind. Don’t fall back into old ways of doing things, even if it’s easy. Keep challenging the status quo and think about creating a better “normal” for everyone.  

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