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HER take on Innovation: A conversation with ACT's Kacy Webster

Keeping up with the evolving priorities of teachers and parents requires constant innovation at ACT in Iowa City. That’s where Kacy Webster, who’s worked in higher education for over 25 years, comes in. To make sure ACT’s products continue to meet customers’ needs, she asks the scientists on her team questions that they might not always want to hear. “I’m the one that gets invited to meetings and asks questions like, ‘So what? Who cares?’” she said.

These frank questions are a check to make sure the company is creating solutions for real problems, not just innovating for the sake of innovating.

Webster has a relatable example of this common trap. At home, her husband installed a device to sync several home features together. But instead of solving a problem, “Now I can’t just go turn off a light switch,” she said.

She insists that innovation needs to go beyond just creating something new or cool; it should be a more rigorous process.

“Innovation should provide relevant and feasible solutions that deliver enhanced value to your customers within a viable business model for your business,” Webster said.

To determine the relevancy of an idea, the team at ACT stays on top of industry trends and supports their theories with market research. They also go directly to their customers for feedback.

“Immediately take your hypothesis and go to your customer,” she said.

In recent years, ACT has expanded its offerings beyond its signature test and test prep courses to develop products like ScootPad, an adaptive learning platform for Grades K-8. It also offers career readiness assessments for those entering the workforce or apprenticeship programs.

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In June, Webster spoke about common barriers to innovation at the Eastern Iowa EntreFest virtual conference. She said four common barriers that often impede innovation include culture, leadership, integration and investment. For example, a company has culture barriers if innovative behaviors aren’t rewarded, and employees aren’t free to take risks. To avoid this, a company should develop a shared vision that is aspirational, yet attainable, and promote collaboration.

In a similar way, a company’s leaders can unknowingly block innovation when they don’t articulate the company’s goals. “Leaders should communicate what they’re focused on and their strategic intents,” Webster said.

Innovation can also be impeded if a company fails to integrate new ideas or if it doesn’t have processes in place to execute ideas and can’t keep up with the rate of change in the market. “If you have a strategy but no execution, you don’t have a strategy,” Webster said. One solution might include re-allocating resources to support innovative efforts.

Finally, Investment barriers to innovation are perhaps the most straightforward and easy to understand. If a company doesn’t invest in innovation, it can’t grow. “If a company isn’t growing and evolving, it’s dying,” Webster said.

At EntreFest, just like in her team meetings, Webster asked the group a lot of questions. The questions were meant to help companies assess their innovation capabilities and check for these common obstacles. Questions included: Do employees know what the company is trying to accomplish, how, and by when? Do employees have the freedom to explore and take risks? Are we putting resources toward innovation or just paying it lip service?

Corridor companies who want to innovate must not only learn about their market, but also reflect on internal barriers that might impede their efforts.

“To be innovative you have to be willing to look in the mirror as an organization,” Webster said.

Quotes on innovation

“If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.” – Charles Kettering

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“The only way you survive is you continuously transform into something else. It’s this idea of continuous transformation that makes you an innovation company.” – Ginni Rometty

“The real competitive advantage will come to countries and companies who differentiate their offerings through education, innovation and productivity.” – Dinesh Paliwal

Books on innovation

“Evolve or Die: Lessons for World-Class Innovation & Creativity” by Thomas C. Triumph

“Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship from the Cotton Gin to Broadway’s Hamilton” by Eric B. Schultz

“The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity” by George Couros

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