Finding your path to the future … through smart ideas and fast innovation … New interview!

May 26, 2017

My interview with a leading South American newspaper this week:

Describe your path to what you’re doing now. What led you to become who you are?

I started with a passion to understand the world. At school I loved sciences, the path of discovery, making sense, and exploring possibilities. I went on to study nuclear physics, the potential of the invisible world, and harnessing the smallest particles to innovate everything from nanotech healthcare to superfast travel.

But I wanted to progress faster. So I joined the world’s largest airline, entering the much more creative and human world of marketing, and by 28 years old I had my dream job – managing the supersonic Concorde brand.  I went on to work with all types of companies, with innovative brands and in markets all around the world.

Years later, when I wrote my first book, I wanted to find something personal to write about. When I started in business, people always gave me the analytical jobs because of my scientific background. But I loved people and the excitement of creativity much more. Then I realised the best people can do both – they have a left and right brain – they can be Einstein and Picasso at the same time.

I called it “genius” – to be creative and analytical, to be local and global, the yin and the yang, to create the future whilst also delivering today. My first book “Marketing Genius” was translated into 35 languages, and about how Einstein and Picasso would do business today. Since then I’ve written 7 books, most recently “Gamechangers”, about how you can think bigger and different, and have the potential to change your world.

What interests you outside your professional work and why?

My passion is running. I have run almost every day since I was 10 years old. I was inspired by the challenge of testing myself to run further and faster, but also by the love of feeling fit and healthy, and to run through the countryside or cities of the world and see everything at high speed.

I was inspired by the world’s great athletes, but also be legendary feats of endurance, like the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who are able to run hundreds of miles everyday. Today I can’t run quite as fast for the mile or marathon as I could in my youth. But I still love the freedom, the friendships and the feeling of wellness and achievement by starting each day with a run.

 What is your current field of research in innovation?

We live in the most incredible time. We will see more change in the next 10 years than we have in the last 30 years. Innovations like we could never imagine and at superfast speed. From autonomous cars to robotic pills that you can swallow to operate on your heart or brain in minutes.

Yet most of our innovation is wasted. The world spends around 3 trillion dollars on innovation every year. That’s equivalent to 30 “moonshots” (the Apollo space mission cost $137bn). Yet most of the innovation is focused on creating frivolous games like Pokemon Go, or smart socks that don’t smell.

We need to ensure that innovation is focused on the big challenges for our society – solving the big problems of poverty, environment, security and healthcare. Business should be a force for good, to create value that has a positive impact for customers and shareholders, but also society. This is a great incentive for bigger thinking in innovation.

As part of this I’m particularly interested in what drives “exponential” growth – why some companies can grow incredibly fast like WhatsApp $19bn in 3 years, Uber $60bn in 5 years, Alibaba $130bn in 11 years. At the heart of their success is that they think differently about business – they don’t believe in linear, transactional ways of making and selling, instead they think about two things – ideas and networks.

That’s really the secret of the most innovative businesses today – ideas that spread rapidly, because they are powerful, human and contagious – and networks that spread these ideas rapidly, with a multiplying impact.

Is being a game changer a gift with which you’re born or is it a skill that can be developed through experience?

Everybody has a brain. Anybody can challenge the status quo. You need to be bold and brace to do it. No, it’s not a gift you are born with, it’s a mindset. And increasingly it’s the smallest companies, with a youthful irreverence, and ambition to make life better that drive the most successful innovations. Immigrants trying to find their place in new countries, emerging markets where they want to find simple but better solutions.

Like Mahatma Ghandi said “be the change”, or as my book says “Be the Gamechanger”.

What is the essential difference between those who simply have good ideas and those who become game changers?

Gamechangers … change the game!

It sounds obvious, but what does it mean: well, what’s the game? In simple terms, your game is your market – you are in the game of fashion retailing, or online gaming, or fresh food delivered to your door. So how can you change your market?

Most innovation focuses on products and services. But these improvements tend to be incremental, they are based on the same assumptions as before, and they are quickly copied by others. Better innovation looks beyond the product – to the channel, the pricing, the way it is made, the ongoing support to customers. Best of all it innovating your market.

Change the way your market works. That’s what Gamechangers do. Or better still, create the future in your own vision. Don’t live in somebody else’s shadow, define the future you want to have, and shape it to your advantage.

Gamechangers think differently:

  1. Future back (Don’t look sideways or backwards) … Winners develop a vision of the future they want to create, to make sense if it better than others, to shape it to their advantage. GE, Tesla, Apple, for example, adopt a “future back” approach to strategy. They use “horizon planning” that is driven by a forward radar, whilst providing the strategic flexibility to choose different paths as the context keeps changing. They are not worried by competitors, being more concerned with being relevant than different. This contrast with the old incremental approach, that tries to hang on to past success- where companies took a steady state approach to strategy, ideally an extrapolation of the past, satisfied to be slightly better or cheaper than competitors, or even avoid change if things still seem to work.
  2. Outside in (Think like a customer, solve real problems) … It sounds obvious, but winners start from the customer perspective – rethinking the problem to solve, the opportunity to seize – rather than just of a product or service – enable them to do what they want to do better. Not just the customers of today, but looking for the outliers who are adopting new behaviours, thinking differently. These might be next generation demographically, or extreme users who need something more advanced than the mainstream. You don’t learn about these customers through average quantitative research, but through deep dives to find new insights and emergent behaviour.  Amazon, P&G, Nike are all driven by what they enable, not by what they do. They embrace deep insight (design thinking, collaboration etc) to develop solutions that are more human (empathetic design), more relevant (personalised, applied) and more inspiring (clear narrative).
  3. Change the game (Disrupt markets, innovate the model) … Winners don’t limit themselves to “the game” as it is currently played (market definition, audiences, rules, roles, conventions, behaviours etc). Instead they rethink markets in their own vision – they focus on “market innovation” if you like. Again this is not a one-off shift, but an ongoing task. Markets become morphous, as customer expectations and aspirations grow through peer to peer influence and cross-border experiences. Change the name of your market, fuse the best of different sectors together, and acquire and adapt the best ideas from anywhere. Airbnb and Uber are the obvious examples, although Netflix is better. They combine the vision and customer thinking (“how can we make life better”) with then commercial and practical implications (“how can we achieve this profitably”) to redefine, reinvent and reengage markets in new ways.
  4. Embrace networks (Be digital. Work the multipliers) … Winners harness the power of networks to work in non-linear ways, to embrace the big data and personal insights within them, and to unlock the potential multiplying impact of network-based business models (from peer to peer communities and social networks, to franchised and distributed models, influencer marketing and subscription revenues). Networks more than anything challenge the linear thinking, and transactional mindset of old. Of course short-term revenues are an obsession of most investors and leaders, so it takes the strong leader, or enlightened investor, to see things differently, to rethink the business model, and make the business case for driving more effective success, but in a different way. Alibaba, Spotify, FedEx are all examples, thinking in “multiplier” ways to drive more exponential growth potential.
  5. Be relentless (Don’t stop reinventing. Be fast and agile) … Winners build innovation into their business as usual (core skills but also dedicated teams), they build organisations strategically (directional but flexible, with metrics that drive and reward change), structurally (adaptive process, fluid organisation), culturally (in particular through the leadership mindset) that are highly adaptive, with a “growth mindset” and approach to markets (like Red Bull, or Coty Beauty, or Virgin). They combine the “lean” entrepreneurship and speed of a startup, with the discipline and impact of a larger company. Ecosystems of supply and distribution partners enhance this flexibility and credibility. Better still is to create an organisation of start-ups like Haier, the world’s leading white goods maker, who combines 10000 micro businesses all working entrepreneurially under one brand. They become “growth hackers” in the sense of constantly experimenting within the frame of a collective directions (inspired by purpose, but guided strategically). Growth is not a destination, but an enduring discipline.

Do you consider yourself a risk taker? What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career?

Everybody takes risks. The moment they ride a bike, travel to a new place, choose to learn a new subject, start a new job. We move forwards by doing new things, exploring new opportunities, things which are uncertain and we don’t know if they will work. We take risks throughout our lives.

But in business, we typically see risk as a negative thing. If we don’t take risks, we don’t progress. Too many businesses like to hang on to the model which made them successful, to keep stretching the old models of success. The challenge, is to let go of the old ways, and to create the new. What got you to where you, is unlikely to get you where you want to go.

So yes, I’m constantly taking risks. But I try to make them risks that a smart – things that I want, that I believe I can achieve, and am determined to find a way to make them succeed. The biggest one for me personally? Probably leaving the world of big companies, with the security of a job with insurance and pension, and starting my own business. But for me, and many, it’s the best risk you could take, because it enables you to progress, to achieve more, and go for your dream.

You say we should always expect failure in anything we do. What’s one point in your career when you failed and how did you move past it?

You cannot do everything you want, I learnt, despite how logical and committed you might be. Around 15 years ago I was CEO of a small company with around 500 employees. I deeply cared for its future, wanted to move it forwards, with new services, new locations and a new image. As a team, we were certain of our strategy, that it was right and that we could make a real difference to our world by delivering it.

But a group of stakeholders didn’t want to change. They liked the comfort of their existing, the benefits of their own positions, and preferred to keep things how they used to be. For almost two years we worked hard to engage, influence and work with them. On top of this, I discovered many financial irregularities in the old business that I inherited, and many of the same stakeholders were to blame. We had to fix the business, and also try to move it forwards.

I tried to create the future. But this was clearly not the place to do it. Eventually I decided that I had done all I could, that this job wasn’t for me, and I could put my time and passions to work better elsewhere. I left the challenge to other people, giving them my continued support and good wishes. Whilst for me, I found a better vocation, easier and faster to make a difference, both for me, and for the people I cared about most.

How do you motivate yourself to accomplish your goals even at times of despair?

Go for a run. Be with friends. Have a glass of wine. Smile. Remember what is good in the world. Then keep trying to make it better, for you and others.

What is your ultimate goal as a game changer?

I’m not really the Gamechanger … you are, or could be!

My goal is to help the billions of students, entrepreneurs and business leaders who are striving to create a better business, achieve their goal. And the best way I can help them is to think bigger, think bigger and to find smarter ways to make their ideas happen.

What would you want to be remembered for?

Inspiring people.

What is your life insight?

“Whatever you can do, or think you can do, begin it.

Because boldness has power, genius and magic in it.”

Which companies are your personal favorite game changers?

Wow … there are so many.

23andMe’s DNA profiling for $99 to transform your future health, Aeromobil’s flying cars from Slovakia now selling for $1.25m, Amazon’s relentless innovations of the last 25 years to transform so many industries, ARM outthinking and outperforming Intel with virtual microprocessor design, OneWeb soon to give the whole world free wifi, and Vice Media which talks in the language of millennials.

In emerging markets, you see even more dramatic change:  and you see even more Ctrip the world’s fastest growing travel company from China, Janicki Bioenergy turning human waste into drinking water, Dalian Wanda is the Walt Disney of Shanghai and the biggest investor in Hollywood, Ouarzazate solar power station creating anough energy to power a continent in Morocco, and Xiaomi which is the new Apple for the new world.

Just three examples of incredible businesses who are changing the world right now:

  • Hyperloop: From Elon Musk’s concept, Hyperloop One (H1) pounced on the opportunity for next-gen transit using vacuum tubes. H1’s first commercial project is a 99-mile system between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, aiming to reduce the two hour trip to a mere 12 minutes. Recently, a key investment from DP World Group, the world’s 3rd largest ports operator, points to high-speed cargo distribution, in addition to passenger transit. 
  • Magic Leap: Wired Magazine describes it as the world’s hottest (and most secretive) start-up”.  Their mind-bending “mixed reality” technology uses photonic wafer chips to manipulate light. It superimposes 3D generated images over real world objects, by projecting a digital light field into the user’s eye. Founder Rony Abovitz says “the best way to describe it, is like dreaming”, has attracted $1.4bn funding from Alibaba and Google, and is currently signed up contracts with leading movie studios and game makers.
  • AvaWinery: Mardonn Chua and Alex Lee claim they can “turn water into wine” in just 15 minutes, without using grapes. The San Francisco startup aims to disrupt high-end wines by offering bottles of chemically identical wine cheaper and more sustainably (lab-grown wine uses 50 to 100 times less water than traditional).

Actually, I have around 250 favourites – you can find them, and case studies of how they changed their games on my website – www.theGeniusWorks.com

Even more importantly, I want to learn about the best Gamechangers in Ecuador, and from across South America. I will be holding an online competition to discover, share and celebrate the best innovations of an incredibly exciting part of the world.

What are the big trends you see shaping business in 2017 and beyond?

I’m not a big fan of “trends” because they assume that the world is still a largely average and predictable place. It’s not. The drivers of change in one sector, the opportunities for growth, and the aspirations of customers, change by sector, geography and even individual. There is not algorithm for future success. Its about creating your own path. That comes by defining and redefining your own world, in your own vision, taking insights from your customers, and inspiration from other places.

If I was to try to capture some of the biggest themes of reinvention, they would be

  1. Virtual Experiences … Kevin Kelly observed that the maturing of VR, AR and mixed reality technologies heralds a fundamental shift: from an internet in which information is the basic unit of currency, to one in which experiences are. These digital experiences will quickly come to carry a status-weight equal to ‘real’ experiences, if not become more sought-after and prized. And yes, we know that’s a bold statement given most executives still consider digital experiences as more diverting than. Examples: 2016’s Singles’ Day saw Alibaba launch Buy+, a virtual reality shopping experience. The demo video shows how Chinese shoppers could be transported to – and shop in – Macy’s in New York. The platform also launched an augmented reality shopping game “Catch a Cat” or its TMall platform, similar to Pokémon Go. Experiences are also about creating – Google’s Tilt Brush is an app for the HTC Vive VR headset. The app allows the user to ‘paint’ in three dimensions, using a simple handheld control as the brush. And can transform industries – ABBA, one band that resisted the temptation to reform, have just announced their 2018 virtual tour dates.
  2. World’s Apart … Trump, Brexit, Syria, North Korea … we see the economic, social and cultural impacts of globalisation thrown into sharp relief.  This time, the narrative is framed by immigration, job automation, depressed wages, a deeply uneven recovery from the economic crisis, generational and racial divides, terrorism fears, the ongoing refugee crisis. One direction for brands wanting actionable ideas about how to actually respond to this trend in 2017: purposeful brands will find renewed opportunities in helping people understand their changing relationship to home – be that their nation, city or neighbourhood. People, and similarly brands, will turn outwards (more global), or inwards (more local). Its hard to be both. And that’s the polarisation. Examples: In June 2016, Copenhagen-based travel website Momondo posted a video that highlighted the hidden racial diversity that exists in all individuals, called The DNA Journey, showing people talking about their national pride, and then revealing to them their true multi-ethnic make up. Tiger Beer recently set up a pop-up store in New York’s Chinatown, seeking to redefine Asian stereotypes. The Tiger Trading Company store showcased products from the worlds of art, fashion, technology and design, representing over 700 artists from Asia.
  3. Incognito Individuals …  Anonymity makes a comeback. Brands recognise non-traditional yet more authentic demographic segments (last month, 17-year-old makeup artist James Charles became the first male face of Covergirl); at the same time new volumes and sources of data are also taking many businesses closer to the nirvana of catering to a ‘segment of one’ at a mass scale (think Spotify’s Discover Weekly, which sees over 40 million users receive a unique playlist every Monday). While customers will welcome the greater relevance that comes with both these approaches, true flexibility and fluidity means there will still be moments where everyone wants to break out and explore. Without any prejudice, constraints or repercussions. As customers hand over more control to algorithms (or perhaps as they become increasingly aware of just how much their lives are already being shaped by these invisible and unquestionable forces – witness the Facebook news ‘filter bubble’ awakening), the urge to step outside one’s personal data-straightjacket will only grow. Examples: Interviewing.io is a platform for engineers to practice technical job interviews, announced a feature that disguises both the interviewer’s and candidate’s voices. Using Twilio’s cloud communications technology and proprietary voice software, the service alters voices to sound androgynous, add synthetic elements or sound like animals to eliminate interview bias. Users can reveal their identities should they want the interview process to continue.  Antipersona simulates the experience of being signed into Twitter as another person. Users can choose to simulate any Twitter account, and see the same timeline and notifications – for follows, mentions and retweets – as that Twitter user for 24 hours.
  4. Capacity Capture …  The eco-friendliness of your products is now assumed. Meanwhile the sharing economy, peer-to-peer consumerism and the rise of access-over-ownership business models have radically recalibrated consumer expectations around utilization and waste. When you can pay to use cars by the minute, offices by the hour, eat food cooked by neighbours, then ‘traditional’ business processes suddenly start to look even more wasteful. Which is why smart brands will broaden their thinking around sustainability and turn their attention to finding and unlocking exciting new sources of value, or finding creative new ways to eliminate any wasted resource. Examples: Nissan launched a scheme allowing UK-based owners of the Nissan LEAF car and e-NV200 electric van models to sell back their vehicle battery’s stored energy to the National Grid. Created in partnership with power company Enel, the Vehicle-2-Grid (V2G) system will be available at 100 charging units across the country, where the transactions can take place. São Paulo-based food bank Banco de Alimentos launched Reverse Delivery, to harness the power of the thousands of delivery drivers that return empty-handed after dropping off food. Participating restaurants (there are currently more than 35 signed up) ask the customer if they want to donate any food. The driver then collects the items from the customer when they deliver the meal and takes it back to the restaurant, where it is picked up by Banco de Alimentos and distributed to those in need. 
  5. Big Brother Brands … Convenience. Seamlessness. Relevance. Customer expectations of basic factors will reach new heights in 2017. And while in George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother was a dystopian overlord, the relentless desire for magical levels of personalised service will meet new intelligent technologies and lead to a new generation of brands. But now we’ll willingly be watched. First, voice will replace touch as the primary interface. Baidu’s voice technology is now (three times) faster and more accurate than typing on a smartphone keyboard. Second, these intuitive interactions will converge with the rapidly improving capabilities of artificially intelligent assistants. One signal: users of digital virtual assistants are set to rise from 390 million in 2015 to 1.8 billion worldwide by 2021. Examples: Google Home is a voice-activated speaker powered by Google Assistant. Once permission is granted, the USD 129 ‘always-on’ device connects to the user’s Google accounts and scan emails, calendars and files and photos uploaded to Google to check appointments, create lists, add items to a shopping list and more. Beijing-based tech firm Roobo unveiled Domgy in June 2016: a canine-like home robot that uses proprietary AI and facial recognition to recognize family members, play their preferred entertainment, alert the family to intruders, and more. Domgy rolls around and can navigate normal obstacles in a home and shallow steps, and automatically goes back to its charging station when the battery is getting low.

What are your tips for anyone seeking to innovate and grow their business?

Go and spend time with your customers. Real people. Don’t ask them what they need or want. Ask them about their lives, how they work, what they are trying to do, how they want to be different, what stops them, and what they dream of. Then make it happen for them.

Most importantly, remember that we live in the most incredible time – more change in the next 10 years than the last 250 years. So how is your business changing? How are you?

Never stop reinventing … never stop thinking, never stop listening, never stop exploring, never stop changing, never stop innovating, never stop growing. Never stop believing in your own limitless potential.

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