Yoeri Roels On How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Rinse and Repeat

This is a continuous cycle. With each leap forward in technology, more jobs will join the treadmill list. It’s crystal clear that digital transformations will just keep piling up, so you’ve got to keep rethinking things, constantly reevaluating the roles within your company. The name of the game is to get as many folks out exploring new ideas as you can, while the machines handle the routine stuff — it’s about ensuring that as many employees as possible are in the wilderness, while machines are on the treadmills.

Digital transformation has become a crucial component for businesses striving to stay competitive and relevant in today’s rapidly evolving landscape. As technology continues to shape industries and redefine business models, companies must adapt and leverage digital tools and strategies to unlock new opportunities for growth and innovation. In this interview series, we aim to explore various aspects of digital transformation, including best practices, challenges, success stories, and expert insights. We are talking to thought leaders, industry experts, entrepreneurs, technology innovators, and executives who have firsthand experience in driving digital transformation initiatives within their organizations. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Yoeri Roels.

Yoeri Roels is the founder and CEO of Yambla, a leading idea management software vendor transforming how companies innovate collaboratively. He is deeply passionate about the transformative potential of crowdsourced innovation, simplicity, and exceptional design.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Thank you for having me!

Certainly! Since the age of 14, I’ve been deeply passionate about computer programming, spending countless hours behind a computer screen developing small-scale video games. What drew me to programming was the incredible freedom it offered; with just a computer, I could bring any idea to life. That, to me, was pure magic.

This passion led me to pursue a degree in Computer Science and eventually start a career as a software engineer. As an ideas person, what immediately struck me working in a multitude of companies, was the stark contrast between how small and large companies approach innovation. Smaller companies typically fostered an ideas-centric culture, with every employee playing a pivotal role in shaping the direction of the company. In contrast, I couldn’t help but notice the innovation-stifling operations-centric approach of larger corporations — innovation was often confined to specialized departments, leading to stifled creativity, often also leading to a lack of engagement among employees.

After five years on the job, it had become crystal clear to me that there was a fundamental misalignment between my innate drive for creativity and the corporate environment I was often immersed in. This realization spurred me to not just start a company, but to establish one specifically aimed at addressing the fundamental issue of larger corporations losing their ideas-centric way of working. This resulted in the founding of Yambla, a provider of idea management software, helping companies implement and scale collaborative innovation. Today, more than a decade later, our solution is deployed at companies worldwide, leading not only to more innovative companies but also to happier and more fulfilled employees. And that, ultimately, brings me immense joy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Between my corporate job and starting my own business, there was this twilight period when I was juggling both responsibilities, working on my business as a side-gig. I remember attending a networking event for entrepreneurs, deeply engrossed in designing a prototype of our application, when a reporter approached me, asking if he could mention my name in an article he was writing. Lost in my work, I absentmindedly said “sure” without much thought.

As soon as the article was published, somehow, word made its way back to my boss, who wasted no time summoning me for a tête-à-tête. As I sit across the table from him, he jumps right into inquiring about if I was planning to resign and if I intended to poach any colleagues, particularly one close colleague who had recently requested a meeting with his boss. “Just him,” I replied.

Back then, it was neither a knee-slapper nor a shining example of professionalism, but in hindsight, it’s transformed into the kind of laugh-out-loud story we can’t help but reminisce about during coffee breaks.

My key takeaway from this experience is the importance of considering the broader context before diving headfirst into new endeavors. It’s crucial to remain transparent with others and maintain clear communication to prevent misunderstandings and uphold trust. Honestly, even though I continue to work on it diligently, communication still trips me up sometimes.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My two co-founders, Jordan and Wendy.

Both were facing significant life changes when they decided to join the company. Wendy was in the midst of a substantial promotion, while Jordan had just taken out a loan to buy a house together with his partner. Despite these risks, they both jumped on board, and the company — along with myself — owes all of its success to these two amazing individuals.

They say, “don’t do business with friends,” but I don’t think that’s foolproof advice. For us, it’s worked out brilliantly, and we’ve even become closer friends over the years. Running a business together, with complete trust in each other, creates a unique bond. We’ve shared some of the most intense moments of our lives, and that’s forged an incredibly special relationship.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There’s a handful that come to mind, but one that stands out is ‘Her,’ a 2013 film that proves increasingly relevant, and that actually ties in very well with the overarching theme of this interview.

Without giving too much away, ‘Her’ dives into the idea of human-technology relationships, particularly romantic involvement with artificial intelligence. By portraying a love story between a man and an AI, it raises profound questions about where to draw the line between genuine connection and artificial simulation in our tech-driven world.

What struck me most about the film is how our reality is getting closer and closer to the film’s portrayal of the near future. In the decade since its release, what once felt like pure science fiction has become easier to imagine as part of our everyday lives — not only in terms of technological advancements, but also in terms of the sociological impact caused by these advancements.

We’re witnessing a significant decline in genuineness and authenticity. Nowadays, it’s common to see friends buried in their phones, checking social media when hanging out. This behavior has become so routine that it suggests some people might prefer artificial connections over real ones, or at least find them equally appealing. With the recent rise of AI-generated content, this trend towards non-authenticity is poised to ascend to unprecedented levels.

I think it’s crucial to figure out how to ensure that AI — and technology as a whole — enhances our humanity, rather than diminishes it. It’s an existential question the movie explores in-depth, and it has profoundly influenced how I look at the relationship between humans and technology.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Yambla has my full attention right now, and that’s not changing anytime soon. What we’re doing is more relevant today than ever before, and it’s only going to become even more crucial.

As AI takes on a larger role as the ultimate ‘doer,’ our human strengths — creativity and ideas — are becoming increasingly important differentiators. As a provider of idea management software, we’re leading the charge. By enabling companies to scale collaborative innovation, we’re helping them transition from an operations-centric approach to an ideas-centric one, ultimately preparing them for what I like to call the ‘Age of Ideas’ and the ‘Commoditization of Execution.’ Our solution will play a significant role in facilitating this transition to a new reality.

Regarding how this benefits people, I believe this transition will lead to a substantial increase in employee happiness and engagement. I strongly believe that humans are inherently creative beings. With the growing digitalization and the emergence of AI, mundane, time-consuming tasks will gradually become less prominent, allowing humans to return to their natural element. Currently, employee engagement is at an all-time low, and I see this transition as the catalyst for reversing the trend.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. Digital transformation can mean many things to many people, from your perspective, how do you define digital transformation in your industry?

We have identified three perspectives for defining digital transformation within our company.

First, as a SaaS business, we are inherently operating in the domain of digital transformation, both as consumers of digital technologies and providers of digital solutions. SaaS businesses, probably more than other industries, are unquestionably expected to incorporate new trends and technologies in their own solution, and bring the benefits of these technologies to whichever specific area they are working in. It is almost a given that you are an early adopter of new technologies. For example, with the rise of AI, people expect us to have AI features in our solutions, and they’ve basically expected so from the day AI saw the light. Other industries are a bit more ‘off the hook’ — we aren’t really expecting our dishwashers or dentists to apply AI in their solutions, yet.

Second, in our specific area of expertise as an idea management software provider, it is our job to help our customers be better, faster, and more efficient in their collaborative innovation efforts. We continuously evaluate new technologies in the market to enhance the value we deliver to our customers by integrating them into our solution. Currently, a significant focus is on integrating and optimizing AI technology. For example, we’re integrating AI to assist users in crafting business pitches and aiding innovation managers in identifying and clustering promising ideas. This signifies the beginning of a comprehensive product strategy where idea management, and innovation management as a whole, are transitioning into new areas of enrichment and automation.

Third, from an operations perspective, the rise of AI is enabling us to refocus on our core mission as we increasingly utilize AI to handle some of the heavy lifting in execution, such as fine-tuning designs, generating code, and crafting copy. This offloading of tasks once considered creative but now increasingly classified as mundane, allows us to dedicate more time to value creation for our customers. It has liberated resources for deeper customer engagement, strategic product direction, and ideation to propel both the product and the company forward. I believe this effect can, and eventually must, be leveraged across industries. While some industries are better positioned to leverage AI’s current capabilities than others, it’s only a matter of time before the vast majority of industries find themselves swept up in the waves of execution commoditization. The impending ‘Age of Ideas’ will mark the pinnacle of ideas-centric operations, providing a significant advantage for companies operating in this manner. I’m incredibly excited about that prospect.

All that being said, it remains very important to not lose sight of the universal goal of digital transformation: deliver more value to customers while becoming more efficient in delivering that value. Using AI, or any other digital emergence, just for the sake of it is a common pitfall. It always comes down to “how can this technology significantly increase the value we are delivering to our customers” instead of “everyone is jumping on AI, we need to too!” — well, yes, you probably should, but it has to make sense and meaningful impact, it can’t be just a gimmick.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Digital Transformation is a universal thing and ultimately benefits all companies, if deployed correctly. Companies need to ask themselves “how can we benefit most from digital transformation”, and maybe more importantly “what does digital transformation mean for us, in the context of our industry, company culture and digital maturity”.

As to try and actually answer the question, I would say that companies that might benefit most are those of whom it is expected most. Such as SaaS businesses and other businesses inherently relying on technology. But then again, those not already relying on technology might actually make the biggest gains and create bigger competitive advantages. It’s a very difficult question.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

It has absolutely been challenging for a lot of companies, and much of the challenge stems from a lack of expertise. Companies are staffed to fulfill existing needs, and with the advent of digital transformation, entirely new profiles became necessary — such as programmers, mobile developers, and designers. This shift forced many companies into unfamiliar territory, posing significant difficulties for many.

The transformation isn’t over yet, and it probably never will be. Mastering digital transformation today and in the future will be about ensuring your company is value-driven as opposed to operations-driven, and continuously evaluates whether current operations align with the ever-expanding array of available tools. Value-driven companies are much better equipped to adapt to transformations, viewing them as an opportunity to enhance value delivery, unlike operations-centric companies that often embed a specific way of doing things in their core, perceiving transformation as a threat and ultimately being pushed into irrelevance.

We’re all familiar with Blockbuster’s fate, and their mission statement served as a sign of what was to come. Their mission was to “Provide access to media entertainment through stores, online rental services, and kiosks” — essentially, “we rent out physical disks.” This wording was very specific to their operations, anchoring them to a particular method and era, and hinting at their eventual irrelevance.

In contrast, Netflix’s mission statement is “Deliver joy to people around the globe through stories that matter.” Notice how this mission statement is much more value-driven and doesn’t mention the operational aspect of being a streaming service. It is precisely this value-driven vision that has led Netflix to venture into creating their own content. It became evident that their mission statement could not be realized solely by being the digitally transformed Blockbuster given the increasing competition in the streaming services market. Streaming services have become a commodity rather quickly, illustrating that digital transformation in itself, is typically not a differentiator, or at least not a long-lasting one.

However, Netflix’s future remains uncertain, as it has yet to prove if its content can compete against the Disneys of this world — for them, digital transformation is just a necessary enabler, not the differentiator. This really emphasizes how ideas are the heartbeat of companies, and digital transformation should be looked upon as a fundamental enabler.

Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”?

I’d like to approach this question from the perspective of how to capitalize on the upcoming wave of digital transformation, which I like to call the ‘Age of Ideas,’ by outlining five steps to move your company towards this new frontier.

1 . Kill Treadmill Jobs

The way I see it, jobs fall into two categories I’d like to call Treadmill Jobs and Wilderness-Hike Jobs. Treadmill Jobs are the repetitive, mundane tasks that keep the wheels turning but don’t propel the company forward. Wilderness-Hike Jobs, on the other hand, are the jobs that demand creativity, ambition, and drive progress from point A to point B.

In every past wave of digital transformation, one of the most significant ways to capitalize on it was by eliminating treadmill jobs and replacing them with technology, and that won’t be different this time around. Moreover, it will likely occur on an unprecedented scale. Identify treadmill jobs early and devise a plan to phase them out. Leaders shouldn’t wait for external pressures to act. Taking a proactive approach will be crucial to leveraging this new wave of transformation instead of being overwhelmed by it.

To illustrate the magnitude, DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg predicts that AI will replace 90 percent of animation artists within three years. This highlights a stark reality: much of what was once considered creative work is now being classified as mundane. It’s not just about rolling out Microsoft Teams or embracing mobile anymore, we’re way past that.

Capitalizing on this next wave of digital transformation will require a fundamental reevaluation of roles within your company, as was the case in all previous waves of digital transformation. For some industries, it’s already five to twelve.

2 . Create Wilderness-Hike Jobs

When replacing treadmill jobs with technology, it doesn’t have to involve firing people, quite the contrary. Instead of showing people the exit, show them the wilderness, and give them the tools to tame it.

Digital transformation gives companies the opportunity to shift employees from mundane tasks to more creative ones. By tapping into their employees’ know-how, companies can place them in roles focused on innovation — areas where humans excel without needing extensive training. Instead of resorting to layoffs, it’s wise to develop a plan to strategically reassign people, allowing you to maximize your workforce’s potential. The impending ‘Age of Ideas’ presents an ideal time for this transition — thanks to increasingly accessible tools for executing ideas, such as generating computer code based on natural language input, running your company based on ideas has become more feasible than ever. Consequently, the expertise gap that posed challenges in previous waves of digital transformation may not be as significant this time around. As we step into this new era, it’s essential for leaders to recognize that ideas will be the engine powering progress like never before. Moreover, the potential for reassigning employees on a larger scale is highlighted by the fact that often, the most profound ideas are elegantly simple, requiring no specialized expertise to implement.

Look at the Nintendo Switch for example. While the gaming industry is obsessed with delivering cutting-edge technology chasing higher-resolution graphics and smoother framerates, Nintendo is breaking sales records with a console utilizing seven-year-old hardware. As the Nintendo Switch is on its way to becoming the best-selling console of all time, it serves as a prime example of the power of innovative ideas, strategic positioning, and authentic execution. They’re essentially taming the wilderness, while the others are working the treadmill.

This next wave of digital transformation will offer companies a pathway to unlock their workforce’s full potential and take things to a whole new level with ideas that excite the world. Moreover, these ideas can now increasingly be realized without specialized skills through the democratized access to skills through AI.

3 . Diversify the Hikers

Once your employees are in the wilderness, it might be a good idea to have them joined by some of your friends to strengthen the party. Think customers, partners, universities, startups — basically, every entity that can bring value to your expedition.

Every single day, people engage with companies in various roles — as employees, partners, customers, or other ways. They’re the ones who truly understand the company’s pulse. Employees know the hurdles in their workflows, partners see where interactions can level up, and customers feel the highs and lows of products and services. Their collective experiences shape the company’s destiny. When a company successfully brings all these voices together to fuel its innovation engine, it positions itself for long-term success. With the array of tools available today, companies can easily expand their innovation circle beyond internal teams to include customers, partners, and other external collaborators, supercharging creativity and driving progress at an exhilarating pace.

LEGO Ideas is a prime example of this concept in action. Here, LEGO fans get to unleash their creativity by pitching their own ideas for new sets. If an idea catches fire within the community, LEGO will consider producing it as an official set. This platform not only fosters creativity and engagement among fans, but also demonstrates the power of crowdsourcing and the readiness of the world to contribute to the companies they care about. Furthermore, an increasing number of tools, once exclusive to large companies, are now becoming more accessible to all. In the LEGO example, tasks such as generating building instructions and designing packaging art can now be accomplished using readily available tools, leaving only the creative aspect to be tackled.

Digital transformation increasingly allows companies to shift from being driven by operations to being driven by ideas. This shift opens up new opportunities for engaging with external stakeholders, taking engagement to new heights. By involving more voices in the process, companies become more inclusive and attuned to the world around them, resulting in better products and increased value for everyone involved.

4 . Upgrade Your Hiking Gear

As more companies send more people on a hike in the wilderness, the ones with the slickest gear are going to have the upper hand. In the impending ‘Age of Ideas,’ it’s all about fine-tuning that ideas machine. Through automation and AI, you can supercharge every step of your innovation game, from coming up with wild ideas to making them happen.

By optimizing your ideas machine, you’re not just surviving in the jungle — you’re thriving. You’re adaptable, ready to tackle whatever the market throws your way. And as you keep innovating, growing, and evolving, you’re not just keeping up with the times — you’re shaping them. It’s like having a secret weapon that propels you forward, no matter what challenges come your way. In this new ‘Age of Ideas’, that’s the kind of edge you need to stay ahead of the game.

5 . Rinse and Repeat

This is a continuous cycle. With each leap forward in technology, more jobs will join the treadmill list. It’s crystal clear that digital transformations will just keep piling up, so you’ve got to keep rethinking things, constantly reevaluating the roles within your company. The name of the game is to get as many folks out exploring new ideas as you can, while the machines handle the routine stuff — it’s about ensuring that as many employees as possible are in the wilderness, while machines are on the treadmills.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

I firmly believe that the cornerstone of a ‘culture of innovation’ is establishing your company as a powerhouse of ideas. It’s essential to recognize that such a culture revolves around people and ideas above all else. Technology and digital transformation serve merely as enablers. It’s about answering the question “how do we organize and empower individuals to generate competitive advantages consistently, regardless of industry changes”.

I often envision a company as a team of wilderness explorers. It’s not just about charting a path to one destination; it’s about having a group who can blaze a trail, navigate it, and then enhance it to reach even more remote territories. Like wilderness explorers, a company’s success isn’t solely about forging the path (the technology), but about nurturing a team (the people) capable of continuously refining and adapting to explore new frontiers.

Furthermore, it’s essential to recognize that innovation extends beyond internal employees to include partners, customers, and other stakeholders. Their diverse experiences and perspectives are invaluable for long-term success. By fostering connections and empowering all stakeholders, organizations can ensure relevance in a constantly evolving landscape. This collaborative approach shifts the focus from operational concerns to idea generation, enabling companies to adapt effectively to changing environments.

I believe it’s imperative for companies to establish their ideas engine as soon as possible. Given the rapid pace of technological advancement and industry disruption, waiting to prioritize innovation may result in missed opportunities and competitive disadvantage. Just as digital transformation has become a necessity in today’s business landscape, building idea engines will soon follow suit, shaping the future of successful organizations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The first quote that comes to mind is from the film Dead Poets Society: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

In today’s busy world, it’s easy to get caught up in our careers and other demands and distractions, and lose sight of the present moment. We’re all at risk of not fully experiencing life as it happens. This quote serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of living in the moment and finding joy in it. It also reinforces the idea of pursuing what you love.

Additionally, I’ve always found this quote loaded with authenticity and personality. I love that.

How can our readers further follow your work?

People can follow Yambla on LinkedIn, or subscribe to our Idea Management Blog. I’m also always happy to connect on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Thank you!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.