Corporate Explorers to Watch in 2021: Balaji Bondili, Head of Deloitte Pixel

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Balaji Bondili, Head of Deloitte Pixel

We have long equated groundbreaking innovation with the entrepreneurs and startups of Silicon Valley. But now, more than ever, large corporations are staking a claim in the innovation game. Driving this wave of corporate innovation are Corporate Explorers: the leaders actively pursuing bold, exploratory business ideas beyond their firm’s core.

This article is the second in a series featuring Corporate Explorers to Watch in 2021. Sometimes, Corporate Explorers are managers given license to create new businesses, operate outside established corporate rules, and use the assets of the firm to convert the organization’s financial lead over startups into disruptive growth opportunities. At other times, Corporate Explorers are CEOs, personally leading the charge to innovate. Regardless of their position within a firm, Corporate Explorers are typically insiders willing to stand out from the crowd, act with independence, and break the firm’s taboos to commercialize disruptive ideas. They are purpose-driven individuals on a mission to transform the status quo.

Corporate Explorer to Watch: Balaji Bondili
Role: Head of Deloitte Pixel
Organization: Deloitte

Many firms only become serious about innovation when faced with the imminent threat of disruption. In the absence of this proverbial “burning platform,” they tend to resist innovation, seeing it as a threat to a status quo that is good enough for their bottom line in the short-term. The story of Deloitte Pixel and its Head, Balaji Bondili, demonstrates how disruptive innovation can be practiced inside an established firm, even if it means challenging the professional identities and industry culture at its core.

Reinventing Consulting

In 2013, Bondili met with several leaders of Deloitte Consulting to have a conversation about the possibility of using the open talent approach to bring one-off digital capabilities to client projects. The following year, Bondili launched Deloitte Pixel, whose purpose was to use on-demand talent to support client engagement at Deloitte in areas such as data science and analytics, market research, and prototype design.

At first, Bondili’s bold idea to engage external pools of talent for Deloitte’s clients raised the eyebrows of colleagues at his firm and industry peers alike. However, despite facing skepticism and uncertainty about whether this idea would take hold within Deloitte, Bondili believed that he was onto something that had the potential to revolutionize the consulting industry. To get the company’s leadership on board, Bondili had to prove that their customers would want to use open talent, were willing to pay for it, and that the approach would work as well as intended.

Testing Desirability

To start, Bondili had to identify the customer problem that sourcing open talent would solve.

The customer pain-point was clear: clients needed to hire data scientists whose demand far exceeded supply. To make things worse, many digital natives preferred not to commit to a full-time, long-term employment at a single organization. From this conundrum Bondili’s idea to source open talent emerged. He reasoned that open talent networks could give Deloitte and its clients access to hundreds if not thousands of experts on a project-to-project basis. If it worked, not only Deloitte and its clients could find exactly the talent they needed at a given moment, but they could also regulate (increase or decrease) their latent capacity as needed, without having to commit to a particular expert or expertise in the long-term.

Bondili, Deloitte, and their clients faced a very real problem and there was an urgency and desire to solve it. Open talent promised to do just that.

Testing Feasibility and Viability

The next question Bondili needed to answer was, will this work and will it be profitable?

To prove that sourcing open talent was a viable approach for Deloitte’s clients, Bondili validated his assumptions with several short business experiments. One experiment involved a client seeking to redesign one of their printers. While Deloitte and the client went about the redesign in the traditional way, with the client strategy team leading the work, Bondili, in parallel, sourced the job to an external crowd. This enabled him to test the feasibility of the open talent approach and compare the outcomes of the two approaches.

After defining the parameters of the printer challenge, Bondili and the Pixel team made it available to thousands of industrial designers via a hardware-design crowdsourcing marketplace. Within six months, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional in-house R&D, the winning design submission went from concept to prototype, a process that had historically been a multi-year process for this client.  Not only was using open talent feasible and viable, but it was also faster too.

What About Quality?

Using open talent could clearly save Deloitte and its clients time and money. However, Bondili also needed to demonstrate to colleagues and senior leaders that the work product of open talent was consistently as good as, or superior, to that of Deloitte’s in-house teams. To prove this, Pixel approached the leaders of a few internal teams and asked them if Pixel could run some projects in parallel to theirs. It soon became apparent that Pixel was able to complete a project using open talent with outcomes that were equivalent to or better in quality, as well as faster and more cost effective, than those produced in-house.

These business experiments validated Bondili’s assumptions and gave him the data he needed to prove that the advantages of sourcing open talent were more than a theory. Additionally, by running experiments, Bondili was able to identify what worked and what needed to be improved about the approach, enabling him to tweak it for future implementation.

Facing Internal Headwinds

Despite Pixel’s proven success—and millions of dollars of delivered value as a result—the application of its methods remains limited. While some teams have embraced Pixel’s approach, many do not see a need to abandon what has long been tried, tested, and true. Others see the use of open talent in client engagement as a threat to their professional identity as consultants, who take pride in their long-honed skills and expertise, as well as in developing these traits within the firm.

As Michael Tushman, Change Logic’s co-founder, reminds us, no amount of fashionable business techniques can substitute for a lack of emotion. One needs to spark the fire of the imagination in the team to drive innovation. People are the most important part of successful innovation culture and they should be at the center of attention. The biggest challenge for Bondili—and any other Corporate Explorer—is not creating a successful product or solution, but rather changing the hearts and minds of his leaders and colleagues at Deloitte Consulting.

The story of Deloitte Pixel is still being written. Its success will likely rest on Bondili and the Pixel team’s ability to address emotional sources of resistance within the firm. If Pixel succeeds and is widely adopted within Deloitte Consulting, it may well change the future of work at Deloitte Consulting and within consulting industry-at-large.

To learn more about the Pixel experiment, read the Harvard Business Review case study, “Deloitte’s Pixel (A): Consulting with Open Talent,” by Prof. Michael Tushman and his colleagues.