#WomenInTech: Driving a Culture of Innovation with Chenny Xia of The Moment
As an Innovation Leader at The Moment, Chenny Xia is the one who business leaders come to when they need to revamp the status quo. Chenny chatted to us about how to make lasting changes in an organization, the importance of human-centric design, and why it’s essential that Canadian businesses adopt a culture of innovation.
Menaka: What drew you to design, and how did design lead to your work with innovation for businesses?
Chenny: Initially, I studied film. I fell in love with the power of storytelling. To pay my way through university I looked for freelance gigs, but ones related to film were few and far apart. I saw a ton of design ads and thought to myself, “hmm, I know how to use Photoshop and Illustrator.”
That’s when I discovered design through my first gig: a $400 website design as a means to pay for rent. I realized the power of design — not only did it have the potential to change how someone viewed or felt about something, it actually had the potential to change how something works.
When I was 18, I started my first company, Pixelbot Studios, a user experience consultancy. We took a human-centric approach and focused on addressing the gap between client offerings and customer needs. After three or so years, I realized that a lot of the work we did had a shelf-life. If organizations didn’t continue the iterate on the design work after we left, it stopped being useful. So I decided I wanted to empower them to be able to do this work themselves. I didn’t know it at the time, but turns out that’s called innovation management.
Challenges for Innovation in Corporate Culture
Menaka: You work with large organizations to help them adopt a culture of innovation – from what you’ve seen, what is their biggest challenge in achieving this?
Chenny: Often, we think of innovation as simply “radical ideas”. But the greatest challenge with innovation is not in finding the right ideas — it’s in creating an environment where they can thrive and scale. Today’s leaders need to recognize that to foster a culture of innovation, they must have the courage to embrace failure, inspire collaboration, and empower their most creative employees.
Additionally, unwilling supporters, unforeseen constraints, and misaligned incentives can grind innovation projects to a halt. This challenge persists even within innovation labs, many of which are isolated teams far removed from the rest of the organization. If innovation projects get stuck in bureaucracy limbo, they are at high risk of dying a slow and painful death. We’ve seen simple IT requests take weeks to complete, and access to customers for product testing being flat-out denied.
Menaka: Why do startups and smaller businesses like Nudge.ai and The Moment innovate more naturally?
Chenny: I think it comes down to survival. With startups, it can be life and death every month, so their incentive to change is much greater. If the thing that they’re building isn’t working, they need to try something different in order to still be here tomorrow.
With a large organization though, you have so much momentum, you’re making money with the way you do things now, so it’s really hard to steer the ship. And changing the way you do things takes time. Many organizations wait until the last minute to change, and by then it might be too late.
Changing Roles and Making An Impact
Menaka: You’ve just gone from running your own company, JourneyCX, to joining The Moment. Why the change?
Chenny: As the primary face of Journey, there were a lot of things I couldn’t do. I sometimes felt like I had three marks against me: I’m a visible minority, female, and young. Of course that’s empowering for certain things, like people want to have lunch with you because you’re a woman, and being young is great when people want a ‘millennial view.’ So you can get the meeting no problem. But what happens after the meeting is hard.
Companies make consensus decisions, so they have to agree on things. And it’s really hard to get everyone on board to trust a young, female Asian to help drive their innovation work. You might convince two people, three people, but it’s hard to win everyone over. And of course we can say no, that’s not okay, but also we have to acknowledge that this is still the world we live in – and if we want to change it, we need to find ways to participate.
So I had to think about how I might be able to make a greater impact, how I could truly be more successful in what I’m doing. It wasn’t essential that I have my own company. It made sense to join forces with someone.
One of my favourite stories is about Frances Perkins, an amazing woman, one of the first women to hold public office in the U.S. In order to have a seat at the table and make sure she was heard, she dressed up like the moms of the men she worked with. She figured that even if they didn’t respect most women, they respected their moms. And it worked. So for me, that’s kind of what it’s like. I believe in what I do and I really want to see it happen – so I’m willing to let go of certain things. I’ve made that decision.
Innovation in Canada
Menaka: How will adopting a culture of innovation help Canadian businesses be successful?
Chenny: A lot of stuff is happening quickly, and everything is becoming interdependent. Even things that we don’t think are going to affect us can have an impact. What happens when self-driving trucks are the primary form of delivery? How does that impact other industries, and how many of us are going to get displaced? How many of us need to adopt new skills, and how quickly is that going to happen? It takes time for people to learn.
There’s no secret to innovation. I think sometimes we just put blinders on, because it’s scary to deal with, it’s hard to change the way we work. But the world is changing all the time now, and the businesses that change with it are the ones that will succeed. Businesses have to keep asking themselves how they’re helping their teams embrace the future, to be ready when things are different. They have to make sure they’re building resilience.