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Dan Taylor: The Secrets of Big Business Innovation

Cover of  by Dan Taylor

Innovation can be found everywhere, but the road from idea to realisation is fraught with difficulty. Dan Taylor is the Managing Director of the New York office of innovation consultancy firm, Market Gravity. He talks to Global Innovation Magazine about the path to launch and what he has learned from other innovators along the way.

So tell us about your background, Dan.
I have been in innovation, all of my career I guess, on both the client and consulting sides. Most recently, I came out to the US to start up the New York office of Market Gravity.Originally, I grew up a country boy, down in Somerset in the southwest of the UK and then I went to Sheffield (UK) to study Spanish and Business Studies - a slightly weird combination. Part of the decision behind that degree choice was a desire to travel and do interesting things; studying Spanish you have a year abroad so I went to Latin America, which was fantastic. When I came out of university, I didn?t necessarily have an idea of where I would go, which is quite common I guess.I love variety, which made me think consulting could be a really good option, so I became a consultant in the late 1990?s around the time of the dotcom boom. My second or third project was building an incubator for a support services company and I just loved it. My career ever since has been focused around innovation products, growth, venture services and strategies, always in the context of big business. Startups have it hard, but I think that it?s far harder as an established corporation to launch new things. While you already have a customer base, brand and money, there are other challenges like bureaucracy, budgets and focus on the day-to-day running of the business. Launching new things in this environment is a great challenge and really rewarding.

It sounds like your work put you in a great position to come up with the idea for the book, lots of interesting exposure.

Absolutely. If you look around a bookshop to see what is available on innovation they typically tend to fall into one of three categories. Firstly, there are lots of books that focus on startups. Next, there are others that are really academic, but sometimes the practicality of corporate life just isn?t reflected. Then the third group is where a consultant has written a book, often pushing their own methodology and just advertising their business. So for me, having done this for however long, I wanted to do something more practical, objective and more case study-led. Something that?s interesting and alive. That was the idea behind the book.I interviewed between sixty and seventy innovation experts; everbody from consultants, those in customer insight, CEOs of a new venture sprung out of a big business, through to chief innovation officers and the guys on the ground delivering the projects. They all had a different angle, covering a wide range of industries, all of them big ? for instance, British Airways, Xerox, MasterCard, Barclays and Pizza Hut. They gave me real and specific examples as to how you overcome the challenges in a huge organisation to deliver your innovation.

What were the key stories that you remember? The key messages?
There are lots, but one, for me, is pretty relevant to innovators across the board. Some global companies presently are mirroring startup behaviour, by which I mean things like innovation labs and running hackathons, which is all very cool and those things have their uses. Fundamentally however, innovation works when you are trying to solve a customer problem, so understanding that problem is the biggest single thing and if you have clarity around that everything flows from there. I spoke to one of the guys who runs innovation at Heathrow airport. One of the challenges they had was getting people through security screening quickly where you have to take photos and those kind of things. The process can be really slow, particularly when you have families with young children, it causes bottlenecks, and leads to customer dissatisfaction. They had a really clear understanding of the business problem, so they talked to customers, staff and started observing behaviour. They spoke to a range of security guards, and one of them shared his insight on how to engage kids when he needed to take their photo. He put a picture of a plane on his camera and asked them to look at it. All the kids wanted to look at the plane and before you know it, all the kids are looking at the camera, standing still. They rolled this out, it shaved twenty to thirty seconds off the process and the solution was simply a piece of paper in the shape of an airplane, stuck to a camera. That was such a great example of understanding the customer and the problem, illustrating that often these really cool tech things are not needed.

That?s a great example, any others you can share?
Speed is a great challenge for large established companies. Everyone talks about how lean and agile startups can be, how they can pivot and adapt and so on. Quite the opposite of the traditional view of the corporate ?oil tanker?. The truth is, giant corporations have lots of governance to adhere to and questions that need answers, all of which slows things down when trying to deliver anything. Speed in innovation is about decision-making and the ability to structure that in a corporate way, so the ability to make decisions really fast is important. A great example of this is when Air Canada launched a low-cost option in a really short time frame. From the point of decision to lift off was something like eleven weeks, which includes design,branding, recruitment and pricing, all in a short space of time.

How was this possible?
Well, the CEO was simply pushing and leading the decision-making process, so every meeting turned into ?let?s get this done?. The biggest lesson to be taken away here is about having a single person with the mandate and belief to see the innovation through, rather than the big steering groups, which are always set up in good faith but they usually only slow down an innovation. Seeing Air Canada achieve this in such a time frame was really impressive.For me it?s a simple story: it?s far harder in big corporations - there area lot of entrepreneurs trying to get things done, but fundamentally, it?s hard. There are some relatively simple
techniques though, that big business can employ to ease the innovation process. Things like building prototypes, rather than massive IT systems and those sorts of things, and doing little pilots, etc., is really key. It?s the scale that people need to understand; to change the dial when a company already makes billions puts pressure on corporate innovators which really isn?t there - at least not to the same consistent degree - in the startup world.

The Secrets of Big Business Innovation by Dan Taylor is published by Harriman House and is out now

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