Head of Open Innovation at General Motors and author of The Uber of Everything, Ted Graham shares his perspective with Highline BETA on how big corporations can continue to win in a time where transportation as we know it is changing forever.
The Ted Graham Elevator Pitch
I am the Head of Open Innovation at General Motors (GM). I’m the guy with the crazy title at a big Fortune 50 company trying to innovate faster than not only our traditional competitors, but also Silicon Valley as the world moves toward self driving cars.
The Road Less Traveled
I started my journey toward a career in innovation with a job at the global PR consultancy, Hill+Knowlton Strategies U.S. as the Global Head of Knowledge Management. My job was to answer the question: When we do good work for a particular client, how do we spread the knowledge of the work that we have done? At that time PR companies used to represent themselves by the thickness of their book of clippings. You knew you had a good PR agency when your book thumped on the desk with a really heavy sound.
I had just gotten my MBA at Queen’s and thought that there has got to be a better way of measuring this success. I decided to use my quantitative skills to better measure the spread of ideas. I ended up creating something called the Influencer Network Analysis that was focused on how ideas get spread to the wider world. To do this I needed to understand each person’s influence style. As an example, some people respond best to “Hey, your boss needs this exact thing” whereas others relate more to the statement “Hey, the impact of you working on this project could save the world.”
Every day is an application of this theory that I was learning and applying in the late 90s at Hilton+Knowlton. I used it at PwC and at McKinsey Global Inst where the FBI hired us to map their intelligence division and criminal division to help them better collaborate together. I use these same techniques now in my work at GM. For instance, if I find a great startup who’s building the future of fast battery recharging without losing cycle time for vehicles, I know who I need to introduce them to and in what sequence with what kind of problem statement for them to succeed.
Collaboration is Key
Back in the professional services world, you were more open to collaboration and support from your network as you needed to get utilization, you needed to let people know about your talents, you needed to create a personal brand for yourself, and you also needed to create followership if you wanted to work on new clients because they have some choice in the market.
Switching from professional services to a product company like GM has meant that I deal with a lot of great smart engineers, but it isn’t necessarily in their DNA to say “Hey! Did you know what I’m working on? I really don’t know the answer to this, but I’d love you to collaborate on it.” A lot of them are people who have gotten to where they are today by being right. There is great dialogue now about the focus being not so much about the solution, but rather it’s about solving the right problem.
I like the idea of intrapreneurs. Entrepreneurial leaders within large companies have a natural curiosity and are more focused on the problem than the solution. A big part of fostering intrapreneurship at GM has been a reframing around the idea that the customer has changed drastically and we need to understand what this new customer wants. I often talk about the research that we did asking 16 year olds if they would rather give up wifi or their driver’s licences. Our team members were stunned to hear that the most common answer was driver’s licenses. When you’ve worked 30 years in a car company that shocks the hell out of you. Nowadays when people are looking at cars they want to know if it pairs with their phone. They care a lot about the infotainment stack and less about the horse power.
There is an increasing need to understand what the customer wants beyond the car itself. We need to know when they will use their own car, when will they share one, and when will they dispense from owning all together. So it’s critical that we help our engineers understand what modern urban life looks like.
The Empathy Challenge
By the year 2030, 60% of the world’s population will live in big cities. What does that mean for our customers as more and more of them move to cities? Statistics like this help our engineers come from a better place when they use some of these Lean methods.
Last week we had what I would describe as an ‘Empathy Challenge.’ We took 40 of the company’s leading engineers and placed them in an Amazing Race type challenge. The engineers had to commute through downtown Toronto while taking 3 different forms of transportation that had nothing to do with their own vehicles. You could ride-share, hop on public transit, or walk. The teams experienced what is it like for our customers to travel in an urban centre. We saw how few of them had ride hailing apps on their phones and some learned that TTC drivers don’t make change for a 20. The experience showed them that we need to go beyond our own daily commute to work in order to understand our customer’s needs. It’s about getting out of the building and focusing on the problem, not the solution.
Innovator by Day, UberX Driver by Night
Why did I become an UberX driver? To get out of the building and experience the competition and the needs of our customers for myself. It all started when I had been named Innovation Leader in the spring of 2014 at PwC. I took over from a guy who was near retirement. Shortly thereafter I was selected to do a speech.
What was I going to do for this speech? I wanted to inspire people to build a culture where they could go out themselves and discover what are customers’ problems really were. This was right around the time that Uber was launching UberX in Toronto. I thought okay, maybe I’ll do this as an experiment where I can present what this changing world of transportation looks like from the inside. I decided I’d be an UberX driver.
I ended up doing 99 rides over the course of 14 months. All throughout I published pieces and ended up doing a TedX talk at Queens. I also tell the story in my book, The Uber of Everything: How the Freed Market Economy is disrupting regulated industries and delighting customers. I learned so much from conversations I had with regular passengers or drivers because I knew their language. I could find out what was going on with Uber in a way that most people couldn’t, not even Uber employees as they’re forbidden from becoming drivers themselves.
This may seem crazy, but this is the kind of thing I was asking my colleagues to do, to get out of their comfort zones and find out what’s happening in the industries that we serve.
What Ted Graham Wanted to Be When He Grew Up
I wanted to be the publisher at the next Time Magazine. As a kid I read the bio of Henry Luce, who was the first publisher of Time and I thought, yeah publishing a news magazine would be great. I ended up starting a volleyball magazine when I was 21 years old. It didn’t work out in terms of the topic of course, but I credit a lot of my success to that entrepreneurial experience. It was about bringing talent in from many different independent people. I collaborated with designers, photographers and writers to weave together a story. This collaboration is still key to my work at GM today. I do need brilliant engineers, but I also need brilliant designers, I need people who understand addressable markets and people who understand branding. When I brought that networking piece in from my past work at Hilton+Knowlton, it felt like I was able to use it in combination with my entrepreneurial empathy to tap into these new worlds.