5 insights from innovators in big businesses

Creative agency Albion hosted a panel discussion with the aim of finding out how innovation can work in big corporates. On the panel was Telefonica director of insights and innovation Gav Thompson, Aviva-owned Quotemehappy.com’s trading director Henry Topham, King of Shaves founder Will King and James Bilefield, digital consultant for Conde Nast.

Each of the panellists is responsible for driving considerable bravery and innovation in environments that are normally risk averse. Thompson, for example, founded community-driven mobile operator GiffGaff from within Telefonica and Topham is leading an insurance business launched in direct response to comparison websites, something parent company Aviva would never do under its brand.

We selected five critical pieces of advice from the event which will help you innovate within your business.

1. The true innovators aren’t always hired or have innovation in their job title

Gav Thompson was brand director at O2 when he came up with the idea for GiffGaff, he also humbly puts it down to a mid-life crisis after buying a motor bike.

“Innovators are not always hired to be an innovator; the best ones that do it were not hired” he claimed, opening the discussion.

2. Don’t underestimate people’s capacity to innovate

James Bilefield has had a diverse career including working at Skype in its early days. He’s now helping publisher Conde Nast master digital innovation across titles such as Vogue and Wired. Bilefield said the people responding to the digital changes being made were not always the young and some older, traditional staff were incredibly fast at adapting and innovating along with him.

3. You can’t run an innovative start-up on same KPIs as the main business

The single most unifying point from the discussion was around the disparity between corporate and innovation KPIs. Thompson believes that success of GiffGaff is tied to Telefonica’s understanding that it had to run on different KPIs in the first instance.

The key problem making the disparity is that corporations optimise KPIs to quarterly reports, where start-ups need much longer-term KPIs.

4. Rewards for success need to be judged differently and support risk

Similarly to the KPI point, Quotemehappy’s Topham argued that success metrics and rewards needed to be changed as they do not encourage risk and bravery.

“The problem can be in leadership. You are told to budget for the year, ‘I want you to hit 100m’ and the tyranny is that if you hit it they’ll give you a big fat bonus. But what if do 99m? Or 110m? Or what if I build a legacy for future?” he said.

5. Innovation cannot be in a silo in the long-term

Telefonica, Aviva and Conde Nast all have schemes by which innovation is kept outside of the main business to ensure its success. This is partly to do with the advice above but also it’s necessary to attract talent and mitigate risk against customers and the main brand. Will King, as co-founder of King of Shaves, spoke from the point of view of a business that has never been a corporate and had always been a challenger brand. King said this was why it was able to take such a risk in launching a razor that doesn’t need shaving accompaniments such as foam, which are their bread and butter. Instead he’s investing in the future and it’s something the entire business buys into.

Telefonica had recently it has rolled its Telefonica digital business into the main business, although schemes such as its Wayra incubator still sits within a separate brand. Thompson said, “We don’t want to be R&D on the outskirts because people in the main business say ‘let’s not be innovative because they are doing it’.”

Final word of advice: There’s wisdom in naïvety.

Quotemehappy’s Topham said that when dealing with innovation at the board level, the wisest questions from the board often seem naïve. In a an industry which trades in complicated technology and theory, it’s an important thought for innovators to dwell on.

“There is actually a lot of knowledge in naive questions because the real experience they are bringing is from elsewhere,” he said.

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