Spring 2015
Select Page

Jabian Conversations

What does a beach in Tanzania have to do with lowering fuel costs for an airline? The answer lies inside the minds of the innovation team at Vodafone. Not what you’d expect from the world’s most complete communications company? Chris Brown, senior enterprise innovation manager at Vodafone, is on a mission to change that. He helps lead a global initiative from the communications giant that is redefining what a client partnership means. He shared with us what innovation means to Vodafone, how the company has turned customers into advocates, and why co-creation is changing the world.
Chris Brown
Senior Enterprise Innovation Manager, Vodafone Global Enterprise

Where do Vodafone and innovation collide?

Vodafone is a complete communications provider across the globe. We innovate in different ways across the entire enterprise. Our actions have to have the customer at the center. All of our focus is on creating customer value — not creating a gadget or new technology. Innovation will always have some form of ambiguity and discovery and recognizing when to stop and pivot has been the key to our success. We developed our own co-creation process that helps manage the ambiguity and discovery by having these check points. If we exit the process after an initial meeting and we have a plan, then it’s a great success. People think innovation requires answers. It really just requires action.

When we started this process three years ago, we did approximately 20 innovation workshops per year. Right now, we’re doing more than 100. Of those, about eight to 10 will make it entirely through the co-creation process. Sometimes customers want us to just help them brainstorm, and sometimes we end up with entirely new business models for them. That’s amazing growth, and it says that our customers and our own people see extreme value in the process.

What have you learned about Vodafone in all this?

It’s been a fantastic journey over the last three years. When you can put yourself in a position to have an open and honest conversation with your clients, you can achieve amazing things together. By putting our clients at the very center of what we do, and showing them that, we’re able to make much bigger strides than if we were seen as just a provider. We’ve learned about the power of storytelling during innovation. When we sit with people and tell them about the successes we’ve seen with our other clients, it starts conversations and leads to more ideas. We’re able to get them to think about more than one problem or issue and think about how to impact the entire enterprise or ecosystem.

We’ve also learned even at the tactical level that having the right physical environment makes a huge impact on how successful we can be during these innovation workshops and projects. Our innovation centers were designed specifically to address this. We established early on that we didn’t want to execute these meetings inside of boardrooms. We’ve worked in co-creation spaces, neutral sites, and some really unique settings. And when I say unique settings, I’m talking about everywhere from unique buildings in downtown London to outdoors on the coast of Tanzania. We also discovered that having a meet-and-greet dinner with the participants the night before adds such tremendous value to the process because people can talk openly prior to the “official” process. It really fast tracks the next day. We’re constantly learning, too. I don’t think it ever stops.

Sometimes success is defined by something completely unexpected.

What success have you seen from the program?

Sometimes success is defined by something completely unexpected. An example is work we did for an airline company. We completely transformed their in-flight entertainment systems. We were able to change what the overall experience was for their passengers by utilizing a more mobile, personalized approach to entertainment. That’s great, right? Not only did the experience change for the better, as an ancillary benefit, we lightened the payload of the aircraft by removing the standard seatback monitor and associated technology system on the plane. So it was a win for both parties, as the customer experience improved, and with a lighter plane the airline saw its fuel bills go down. So we accidentally created additional space and weight capabilities that didn’t exist before and have now become new assets. On the next round of innovation, we can focus on what we could do with this extra space and weight that wasn’t previously available. Lowering fuel costs and reducing payload isn’t exactly what you think about when you think of Vodafone, is it? But this is what we do.

Where do you want to see the company in three years?

Well, we started three years ago with 20 engagements per year and now we have more than 100. We’ve seen so many great successes and stories come out of these engagements. I would love to see that trend continue and have us keep driving value because the model is working. We’ve had countless customers come to us and ask, not just for their own projects, but ask us to teach them how to establish their own innovation centers and processes. We’re being seen as true global leaders in innovation because what we’re delivering has real value, and I want to see that continue.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

It’s not really advice, but I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career to work with people who demonstrated that with positivity and determination, together you can achieve really great things.

How about the worst advice?

I think people give advice with the best of intentions, so I’m not sure I could judge what’s been the worst. I think what makes it seem good or bad is if you take it or not and what the outcome is.

Share This