Mike Reynolds

Creating a highly innovative digital culture is hard

23 Jul 2020   |   Collaboration Culture

Mike Reynolds

Creating a highly innovative digital culture is hard

23 Jul 2020   |   Collaboration Culture

Mike Reynold’s entire business is based on talent and innovation. The pandemic hit both of those things hard for people who were used to being in an office.


Innovatemap’s product is its people

Innovatemap is a digital product company that helps organizations get their digital products to market. Mike describes the team as “Very senior people solving very difficult products.”

When the stay-at-home order came through, Mike wondered how his team would respond.

Retention is everything

Because Innovatemap doesn’t sell a product, retention is a huge focus. But how do you create a company where the top talent in the industry wants to stay when they can go anywhere?

Mike said, “Structure your culture around the ideal person you want on the team.” People who do best at Innovatemap are those who love tough challenges, but will eventually get bored with a project. They are the people who see problems as opportunities. So, Mike makes sure to offer a wide variety of opportunities for the people working there.

What comes first–the culture or the client?

Innovatemap has a big focus on meeting the needs of the client. But as they’ve transitioned to a digital workplace, they struggled to keep connections with team members. They scheduled team meetings, but people had to leave to meet with clients.

To solve this problem, they moved all of their internal meetings to before noon on Monday and after noon on Friday, allowing the majority of the week to serve the client.

What’s the digital equivalent of whiteboarding?

Innovatemap’s entire product and culture was built around brainstorming and innovative thinking. Their office had lots of natural light, whiteboards on every wall, and lots of time to collaborate. They have experimented with some tools, but haven’t found the perfect replacement to being in the same room.

They’ve also tried to find solutions for those instant interactions you can get in the office. But, instead of waiting for meetings, they encourage employees to give a quick call to a coworker to run through an idea.

Innovation requires a lot more intentionality when a distributed team model doesn’t naturally support it.

We also talked about idle time. When you are home and have time between tasks, you might take a walk, grab a snack, talk with your family, play with your kids, or lots of other things that improve your quality of life. Idle time at the office might be spent grabbing a coffee with a coworker and unconsciously working through a problem or building a stronger connection. Both things are good, but how should we spend our time in a digital workplace?

Then there’s the commute. Many people rightfully hate the commute, but it is a signal to the mind that you are entering into a different time (and a great chance to catch up on some podcasts!).

Leadership development

Another very difficult area to address is how to do the informal side of leadership development. So much happens by someone just observing a great leader, or a quick debrief as you walk to the car out of a client meeting. This doesn’t happen when all you have are video calls.

Mike says leaders have to be much more intentional. They must schedule post-meetings immediately after a call to review with mentees and share things as soon as they come to mind.

Building a hybrid approach

Mike has seen a lot of the advantages of being completely digital, but knows that his company can’t be 100% digital all the time. Some jobs are best done remotely and some are better done in person. Things like whiteboarding, offsites, and intensive meetings are hard to replace.

Mike said a lot of it depends on the calendar for the day. If most of the tasks involve heads-down work, then being at home is probably a better option. However, if teams are stuck with a problem, it’s best to call everyone into the office.


Oh, and Mike officially christened 2019 and before “The Old World”. 🙂




Today on the show, we have Mike Reynolds. Mike is the CEO of Innovatemap. Hi, Mike. How are you today?


Feel good. Great to be here.



I’m excited to talk with you about these topics. We’re going to talk about what it means to be digital, how you’re getting into it. But first, I want you to give us a little bit of background about Innovatemap and your career there.


Neil, thanks. So we describe ourselves we’re a digital product agency. I’ll unpack what that means. We’ve been around for about seven years, and we will help companies dream, design, and deliver to market winning digital products or strategies. What I mean by a digital product, it’s a web experience, e-commerce, SAS application, mobile app, we are laser focused on that experience being very marketable, it sells valuable, it solves the problem you want it to solve and usable. It’s designed the way people want to use it. We will partner with tech teams, we will partner with executive teams, but we’re really laser focus, our team is really full of people focused on strategy and design. So our value prop is you’re going to build the right thing, and it resonates with the buyer and it resonates with the user.



So I love what you guys are doing. And we’ve talked before and it seems like what you’re really selling to people about the services you’re offering is not so much you don’t offer a product. You’re offering really the people and the brilliance behind them and people who are able to think about these things and strategize in a very digital world, right?


Perfectly said. Yes, we’re a professional service. Our team, when we get engaged and we’re operating at a C level or executive level. These are very seasoned product professionals. They are product managers, UX designers, product marketers, and we are being hired to hit very important digital outcomes. They’re amazing. My team is the best product professionals I’ve ever been around. We’re typically engaged to solve real hard problems, like no one’s using my product, I need people to adopt it, or I think I built a great thing, but I need to sell more of it. Those are typically the things that our service will then get hired to help with.



So you have a lot of talented experienced people on your team that I’m assuming could find a job about anywhere that they want to go. So most of what your job as the CEO is to create the culture where they want to stay and where they enjoy the work. I want to have that be the frame for this conversation. But let’s just start off with that topic of retention, like what is the way that you as a digital company yourself, making digital products, how do you focus on those retention topics? How do you keep people engaged?


We hit on it brilliantly, which is, I mean, for us being a service and even a premium service where retention, our product is our team. To your point, it is everything for us. We are not a consultancy. We are not a body shop. We are not rotating or hiring staff to fill a project. That’s very intentional when we bring the company in agency. People are hiring us. They know the product professionals, the experts they’re going to get by name, meaning I want that person helping me, I understand their background. So our team at this point, they may have entered the Innovatemap team, being a very seasoned and outstanding product professional at a company. But then when they join the team, then they start to get more at bats, so like, instead of just like doing product marketing for one software company, we might have a product marketing expert doing it for three to four clients at a time, maybe 12 to 15 over the course of the year and then you start to compound that over years. They truly are the expert. That from a perspective where I sit as an owner CEO, I can’t lose that. What that means, I really mean in our nature that our product is our people. So retention is everything. So we have to focus on culture growth, opportunities where this continues to be a place that they want to be. We’re always thinking about that to keep them happy, to be very blunt.



Give us a few specifics. What are some things that you’ve tried? What are some things that have been successful in terms of really keeping this top tier talent invested in your brand?


One thing for us is variety. So variety of opportunities, but also variety of clients. If I think about, like if you’re a UX designer, and you could probably, to your point earlier, get hired by any software company to be their UX designer. Why Innovatemap? A lot of what’s a good fit for an outstanding designer here is that variety. Not just one project in a year, but I might literally each month be tasked with a new UX opportunity to solve. That variety is intentional. You can as a partner graduate from Innovatemap. That was a call I had to make business model wise very early on. Are we going to try to have people staffed at the client on site 40 hours a week for years, and for what we wanted to do in retaining the team, I wanted to allow them to get new clients. We’ve got partnerships that we’ve been in for a long time that have some of our team members retained and that’s great, we love those. But if I’m a team member at Innovatemap, I always like someone to have some semblance or some ability to be taking on new work always and that keeps them happy. A lot of our team members, the reason they’re here is they get to flex their product or strategy design muscles often and that keeps them sharp. So that variety is definitely one thing that comes top of mind.



Can you give us an idea about demographics here? Are we talking like age wise, where do the people come from?


Yeah, I would say equity diversity is a very strong core value of our company. And we get hired for our innovation, our ideas, our new thinking. And those ideas are fantastic because of the diversity of the team, I’ll just say we’ve got all different backgrounds, all different ages. We’ve got very seasoned senior strategists, probably more middle aged. We’ve got very young emerging excellent, younger talent and the collaboration that we might do internally on behalf of the company, honestly, our ideas are strategically on point from maybe some of the more seasoned professionals but they’re definitely of cutting edge relevance, complemented by some of our more new thinking team members. So pretty diverse in terms of the makeup of the team. I’ll just say just for the context to listeners. We’re a team of 21. We’re an agency of 21 professionals, all different backgrounds. And the ideas and the recommendations are all the stronger for our clients.



It almost seems like the way you’re structuring your culture is not so much around an age or a demographic or anything. It’s about that mindset. If somebody comes in with their product mindset, and somebody who’s like that often likes to work on a large variety of products, so you’re catering to their needs as a personality.


Yeah, and if you think about it, so one of our hiring, actually, what I really aspire for is elite, elite character and elite skills. And I’ll speak to the character, they’re going to be put in front of a client. That is our brand, that experience, that expertise, that advice, they’ve got to be able to interact but they’ve also got to be the best at what they do. And if you think about someone who is of such strong character and skills, they want more, they want to sharpen that, and they always want to be getting better. So to some degree, the challenge on us is to always be feeding that, where I don’t have a team that’s like, this is what I want to do every day, clock in, mail it in. These are really very motivated winning, our team embraces change, they see problems as opportunities, and scrambled in a sense of culture, but that’s really what makes them a good fit for what we do. And just honing in on that always is probably our company challenge.



Mike, give us some honest feedback here. What are some things you’ve tried that you thought were going to be good ideas in terms of improving the culture in a digital organization but just didn’t work out the way you wanted it to?


Definitely some things they’re happening right now. Let me cut to some best practices or failures in the past week. A lot of times we’ll want to do team things or cultural things, but our world is dominated by a calendar. So one thing that we failed on very early on was trying to have those compete. We might have like a fun team lunch and team members were like, Hey, I’m at odds with that, because I’ve got a core client meeting and what’s more important. If you’ve got a team member that’s trying to balance, Hey, I got to be available for three clients, but I also understand my responsibility back to the company and to participate in some of these team building cultural things. We struggled that. We messed up on that many times. And I’ll just say where we maybe arrived a couple years ago was putting a little more structure on that. Because our business being an agency in servicing, we basically have a concept which is noon on Monday to noon on Friday, everything in between that timeframe, the client comes first. And we book during the week focused on Innovatemap and your team. So the team knows, we’ll literally allow people the flexibility to be there for their clients during the week. But like we literally have like all team stand up, clients stand ups, our internal marketing meetings or business developing meetings, any team building things will really be bookended. And that is then fixed to what was a failure in terms of how do we balance our calendars and these two priorities?



Yeah, that’s great. Mike, let’s shift a little bit. When you’re talking about making products, you immediately imagine a room filled with whiteboards. Everyone’s just standing around brainstorming what’s going to happen, which is awesome. Hopefully, we can get back to that one day. But right now, people are so remote, everything’s focused on being separate. How have you overcome that struggle? Or have you and where are you in that in terms of finding the digital equivalent of that off site or that brainstorming meeting?


First of all, I’m going to acknowledge that the challenge is real. If you were to see, if you were to ever walk into the Innovatemap office, it is completely orientated and optimized around free thinking and collaboration. Unbelievable natural light, totally open environment. Every room is a whiteboard wall. If you were to ever be here during the week, pre March, the energy is incredible. One plus one is five with people collaborating. Candidly, we get paid to be strategic forward thinking and innovative. That is a core essence of how our business operates. Admittedly, that’s been top of mind as we’ve now been mowed. My one tip I want to share with you is, as we’re remote, you can execute work very well. Work that is executable has almost been flawless with our team. I’m very proud of that during this. But we’ve really had to work hard on how we’re going to collaborate, and do those internal meetings, and I’m proud of the team. They’re doing great, but you sit here in my seat and you’re like, we haven’t fully arrived there. Those challenges aren’t solved. You’re not hearing from me right now, oh, we totally figured that out. We do that easy. No, you have to be a lot more intentional. A lot of awesome conversations and ideas that may have happened in the office would have happened serendipitously, or with an accidental conversation or in idle time when someone’s thinking about something and just reaches out and says, Hey, I need a thought partner on this for a minute. That stuff, one thing that we had to do is acknowledge that that is a gap. And so we’ve had to be way more intentional about it as a team. If you have a thought, we use Slack, direct Slack call somebody and get it out. Because what I started to see during the early stages of this is people wouldn’t collaborate unless they had a pre scheduled meeting to do so. And so what we started seeing us lose is this, I got something on my mind. I want to talk about it right now. And unless there’s a meeting, you had no one to talk about it with. And so we’ve been really, certainly as a leadership team, encouraging the recurring standups to just maybe force that if you have it. For example, if a thought partner of mine in the company, another executive, in the office might have been brainstorming or knowing what I’m thinking, every hour on the hour, we maybe have 12 accidental conversations in the office, that’s hard to repeat. At least it’s been hard for us to repeat. So you just have to be intentional. I will randomly connect with people during the day and said, Hey, you got a second? This is on my mind. And not be beholden to remote life. We haven’t figured it out. Challenge is real. We’re doing our best, but you’re spot on with that question.



If you can look forward, any technology improvement you want, you got it. Any kind of physical limitation improvement, you got it. What is the perfect way to solve this problem? Is there any technology solution, digital solution that actually covers this or is it there’s nothing that replaces that physical aspect?


I won’t be as extreme as to say there’s nothing that will replace it. But there is an element that is challenged there, and I’m going to come back. By the way, there’s probably people who listen and be like, baloney, Mike, you guys haven’t figured it out yet, or we’ve been doing this forever. But I’ll just say for our business what was so core to what we did, this is something upon us. I started to make in my head, there’s definitely a difference between execution of known work versus ideation and mobilization of new ill defined things. So let me pause on that. Things that we do, like when we get a client, and we’re solving a problem that we’ve been solving for seven years and solve 25 times a year. It’s great. I’m very proud to say that client delivery of what we’ve been hired to do has been flawless. Our team has done such a great job figuring out how to do that remotely. Honestly, not all of our clients are local. So we’ve been doing remote client delivery for about three years. So for us what’s actually been the challenge is how do we operate as a team now remotely when this company and this team leans so heavily on being together. And if I think about the ideal state, I’m starting to compartmentalize types of work and jobs to be done and seeing some of these things are executed if not better remotely, and may want to lean into that. But there’s so many of these things that are just challenged, and we’ve got to either intentionally do better or it might be the select things that do draw us back to the office or back together. It’s just very honest. I’ll speak to one in particular, not to be so vague, but say an executive off site meeting, where the whole purpose is not executing known work, but actually strategizing and collaborating and dealing with unknown and that kind of thing is on our mind right now. I’ll share another one. That’s an all day thing. If you’ve ever done an off site, a deep strategic thinking summit, eight hours in front of a Zoom screen is not always the most energetic. One person talking at a time, no whiteboard. So we’re doing our best. I’ve seen a lot of companies, if I look sideways and out in the market, I’ve seen a lot of companies really make this distinction between like, hey, executive work, strategy work, maybe some core business operations work, like business development, we got to be close to what the business is going through, maybe marketing, those are the maybe things that need to be done at headquarters, like delivery, execution, there are other roles that are done maybe even more efficiently well remote. That’s what’s upon us right now where we might have been, I’ll just be honest, for our business, remember our businesses, this is a very core piece to it, innovating, collaborating, that’s what you paid for. We were all in person. And now we had to go all remote, and I do the vision, if we’re sitting here January of 2021, it’s a hybrid of the two. I do think there are some elements of the business for them to perform at the best, in person is just irreplaceable. But I have also had my eyes opened that there are also elements of this business that are done exceptionally well remotely, exceptionally well. And I’d be foolish to lean into that, or to not lean into that and just rewind or unwind that progress.



You used the term idle time before, which I think is something that’s really interesting to think about. Now, if you’re at home, you have this in between time between tasks you’re working on, you need to take a little break. Typically, what you’re going to do is maybe you’re going to go outside and take a walk, or if you have family at home, if you have kids at home, maybe hang out with them for a while, or go out with a partner or something like that, which is an incredibly rich quality of life thing to be able to participate in. When you’re at the office, when you have the idle time, it’s a similar thing. You connect with coworkers, maybe you have some innovative thought that either goes into that big stewpot of innovation that comes up later. So do you feel like it’s that same thing where we need to have a blend of both. We want people to have that full, rich home life as well as a rich work life. Is there any way to get both those things together?


First of all, you’re completely on it again. I’ll just speak to that. When I’m at home, I’m a father of five, there’s five kids. I’ll just tell you, in our line of business, context switching is one of the most challenging things. You go from a client meeting to a sales meeting to an internal marketing meeting to another client meeting. And that context switching is challenge enough, but in that instance, I’m always in the work headspace. I typically would have used my commute to transition from work headspace to personal headspace. It’s healthy. When I’ve been home, it’s jarring. Like I might leave a work meeting and have to go get a drink of water and I might pass two or three kids that asked me a question. And what it does for me, it’s a rapid like jarring transition from professional headspace to personal headspace. That’s a professional challenge. I’ll be honest. Like for me, and I’m speaking personally, because everyone is going to have different experiences, but I think working from home had a tremendous amount of personal benefit. The walk, the idle time, I’d be at lunch with my wife or something like that, that was great. The professional benefits for someone in my role, CEO, were tough. There were times that like I really want to stay in a work headspace. My solution to those problems has been like focus, like blocks. But yeah, in my role as CEO, seeking that consistent stay in the work headspace versus breaking up is something that we’re still trying to work on. So you have to balance. There’s professional benefits of staying in a work headspace but there’s personal benefits of being able to have that flexibility. I once again feel like that the ideal stay for certainly someone who’s a leader in a company, it’s probably a hybrid again. It may be, Hey, we need you if you’re an executive in the company, at some point when it’s right to come back to the office, because that has its advantages, but working from home certainly had its advantages too. So maybe we as a company decide to offer that as a flexibility. That’s another perk. Hey, one day a week, everybody work from home or everyone has that as a perk, I feel like we’re going to find the right balance. And I do think it’s role based as well just like we got designers incredibly efficient executing design. I honestly don’t know if they’ve even missed a beat, if not more efficient. I think that might resonate as people think about their company that there are certain roles that are probably performing exceptionally well. And there’s certain ones that although performing the work well, you have to be more intentional about doing the things that are challenge remotely.



It’s almost like you can even look at your calendar for the day and if you see, man, I got client meeting, client meeting, strategic meeting coming up, like three or four of those in a day. You’re realizing home is not the best place for me to be today. I need to be in the office, but you look another day and it’s pretty blank, and you’ve got time to shift around and do different things. You can stay home that day, too.


Yeah. And that’s where I’m leaning. And I said, I’m sorting through all this working on myself. We are even as a leadership team as a company, like what’s it going to be. We’re starting to see some semblance of what the world being settling, but you’re right. I think it’s very dated. That’s why if you’re offering, I’ve seen a lot of CEOs do this, which is, there were positive elements of it that we’re going to keep going with. I think it’s, just like you said, it’s very calendar based, like you wake up and you’re like, oh, this day, I’m going to be better served handling this in the office. There are some heavy topics I need access to other people. And then you might have another day and be like, you know what? This is going to be a perfect day for me to execute all this stuff at home. I got my heads down work, maybe I got a checklist I want to plow through in two or three hours, where I’m not going to be collaborating with other people on that. This day is maybe well suited for me to be more efficient if you can stay home.



Mike, one last question for you, a topic to deal with about raising up new talent, new leadership development, especially when you think about the role of, you have some apprentice relationship. So much of that learning happens not because you’re sitting down, talking with somebody telling them what they need to do, but because they’re observing you, they’re watching what you do, they’re sitting in a meeting with you and just listening in. In a digital workplace, especially in a remote environment, those opportunities are often limited, because they’re just not invited to that meeting, or they don’t get to see those things. Or it’s strange to have somebody else on a Zoom call, just like watching in on things. So I’m not assuming you’ve cracked this one either. But what are your thoughts on that? How can we continue to have that kind of people learning just by watching and still maintain this digital flow?


I haven’t cracked the code on that. But I will just tell you, what you’re talking about is extremely important to how Innovatemap develops leaders. And so it is very top of mind. I’ll just tell you personally, I’m a lead by example. So I’m extra challenged by this. I’m a very fast moving thoughts sharing real time, if you go like three, five days without connecting with me, my thought process for the business has advanced pretty fast in that time. It probably to a detriment to the team where it’s like, yeah, you just need to be around Mike. It’s almost like in front of us right now. Like there are people that I’m trying to grow that aren’t by my side all day. They aren’t an apprentice model. And that’s why I say, we’ve had to be more intentional. I’ve had to reach out. I’ve asked them to reach out. Honestly, daily standups have happened a little bit. My personality isn’t the type to, at the end of the day, document everything I did. That’s not going to solve the thing we’re talking about right now. So that’s a challenge. And for us in particular big time because that is a key piece of how we develop leaders is the mentor apprentice model. In the absence, the best thing I think we’ve seen, or at least somewhat work for us is to be in dialogue often. Identify those two or three people that you know are learning that way and make sure you are connecting with them multiple times in the day. You might not have a prescribed or predefined meeting or reason to meet with them. But acknowledge that your reason to meet with them is they just need to be knowing what’s on your mind. One thing that we would realize, let’s just say in the old world, you would have driven to a client meeting with a client with your apprentice.



I like how you call it the old world, too.


After that client meeting or the sales meeting, you get in the car with them. What are you doing in that car ride? You are decompressing what happened. You are to this young apprentice sharing, that went well, man. I bet they’re not going to do this. They’re going to get your thoughts fresh. That wasn’t happening the first two months of this and we realized that gap. And so let me give you a good example. Let’s just say we had the exact same sales meeting, and the Zoom call ends, and you get up and you go out to your kitchen and you run into your kids, that wonderful moment of reflection in the real time was missed. And so what we started doing was scheduling more 45 or 50-minute meetings, and literally preserving that recap time for internal dialogue. So like, we would complete a meeting in 50 minutes, and literally after the meeting, we’re direct Slack calling each other. So, what’d you think? And they’re getting that moment. So I think with all of this, I think it’s an acknowledgement of the gap. And you have to be intentional about how to fill it in a moment you’re not able to. And that example, I’m glad it came because it’s very real where that after meeting reflection amongst a leader and a young apprentice who wants to learn from that experience, it’s so easy to just drop that Zoom call and go to the next call. And then that brilliance, that experience just vanished away. That’s not productive for the development. Got to find a way to make that happen.



Absolutely. Yeah, those after meeting conversations are the walk out to the parking lot. That’s where that real leadership development happens.


I agree. I agree.



Cool. Mike, I think we’ve hit on all the issues and we’ve solved none of them. So thanks for being on the show.


Glad I could help.



We appreciate you coming on and sharing where you’re at right now and being honest with the things that are there. I really like how you guys are in the middle of it struggling trying to find solutions not giving up. So thanks for your part in that and we look forward to connecting with you again soon.


Sounds awesome. Thanks for the time.


Mike has been ideating and delivering digital products to market for over 20 years. He is an expert in product management, user experience, and product marketing. Mike believes there is a digital solution to every problem.

With a passion for great product and helping other companies achieve it, Mike founded Innovatemap in 2014. Mike brings a fresh perspective on product strategy and guides clients to find the right product market fit.

Mike leads an exceptional roster of product professionals and can’t wait to help you make the next great product.

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