In conversation with Darren Thayre – Head of Innovation, Global Strategic Initiatives, Google | Advisor to G20 | Professor of Digital Innovation
What a treat you are in for! Darren joins Sam and Vic to share his vast experience and learnings through the transformations he advises on. The breadth of content on this podcast is everything from learning how to be the best version of yourself, through to implementing Geoffrey Moore’s Zones model. The underlying message throughout is no matter how much change technology drives, the human element is your critical success factor.
Happiness = Personal Growth = Business Growth. Listen to the podcast here.
Helping organisations transform
Darren’s career has been incredible. Now at Google, along with some great team talent, he helps organisations address problems in two key areas:
- A focus on new revenue growth or innovation
- The talent and culture organisational models need in place for ideas to flourish
Darren points out that,
“It will be the talent behind the ideas that will help you to sink or swim.”
If an organisation is going to undertake a transformation, the first thing to realise is that they are a grind – they create too much work, they are complex, and they need leaders to show that we’re in this for the long-term otherwise it’s demoralising.
“Within the transformation there are elements that will fail and that’s ok.”
The power of people
When speaking about business transformation, Darren stresses the importance of simplifying and tells us three common focus areas within organisations:
- A firm that needs to adapt to stay competitive, whether it’s products and/or profitability.
- A firm that needs to embrace technology opportunities at that point in time.
And thirdly, Darren’s favourite area to help with:
- A firm that wants to lean-in to new ways of working. Looking at how they can help their teams to be more efficient, more successful, and more engaged.
“A happy engaged workforce can do incredible things.”
Vicky was particularly interested in this last point, “When we think about transformations in the tech industry, we think it’s about the tech and forget the people bit. Can I hear your thoughts around it?”
Darren quickly responded,
“There are virtually no companies that I can think of that aren’t driven by people. No matter how much we’ve automated it, it still needs humans to drive it. We underestimate the importance of people.”
At the Amplified Group we say the tech industry is powered by people, but as Vicky points out, this seems to have been lost.
Lessons learnt for the C-Suite
Sam poses a blinder of a question. “What if a change in the business model all goes wrong?” Something every leadership team must fear.
Darren works with CEOs and boards to help solve the business challenges and tells us that standing still isn’t an option.
“I think it’s dangerous to become complacent … A moment in time can provide a leadership opportunity. If you stand still, you’ll lose it. Many firms have disappeared as they stood still.”
It’s interesting to hear Darren talk about CEO personal development. He tells us that only 10% of CEOs acknowledge the need to go on a personal change journey themselves, and that this is the number one reason for failed transformations.
We agree when Darren says,
“If you’re going to fundamentally pivot your company, you’re going to need to learn some new skills. You’re going to need to unlearn some skills along the way and just deliver leadership in a different manner. If you don’t do that, you‘re saying, ‘I’ll sign the cheques and over to you lot to transform’.”
Darren encourages leaders and executive teams to think about the things they need to be working on:
- What are the hard skills that we need to learn? E.g. Agile, design thinking.
- What’s a good model to run innovation through?
- Crowd source ideas from the bottom and make decisions based on the best idea, regardless of where or who it came from.
- How do we get comfortable with failure?
Darren tells us that,
“we need to accept that failure goes hand in hand with new products and so how can we get comfortable with that? There’re hard and soft changes to be made.”
The discussion moves onto the importance of combining the business areas with putting people at the front of these programmes to drastically improve your odds for a successful transformation.
It was interesting to hear Darren’s example of a tech organisation that went through a successful transformation.
“One of the best firms to take you through a transformation journey is Adobe. In 2008 they were crushed – they stood still. The CEO Shantanu Narayen didn’t blame anybody. Instead he said we need to own this and we need to put mechanisms in place to transform. Fast forward to today they are an incredible company. They’re doing better than ever. They leaned in and owned the personal change requirements themselves. The message to everyone in the company was ‘we’re going to be in it together’.”
Let the best idea win
Thinking about ideas bubbling up to the top, our recent Tech Leader Survey highlighted that ‘Trust and belief that the best idea wins’ had dropped by 10% in two years, since 2019. Vicky pointed out that it feels like we’re going in the opposite direction.
Darren truly believes that leaders must embrace the younger generation coming into the industry. “Why wouldn’t leaders create a junior board and learn from these people who know what they want from a firm and knows what inspires them?”
This sounds like a lesson to all of us to make a conscious and deliberate effort to ensure great ideas are able to bubble up.
Vicky and Darren discuss Geoffrey Moore’s Zone to Win framework. As Darren says,
“It’s so effective and looks at it through a lens of innovation. The lazy innovators will tell you to build some new things. You need some of this, but you need to lean into the existing part of the business. Think of innovation as a balance sheet. The existing part of business – what deserves to stay? But equally let’s make the hard decision of what doesn’t deserve to stay in our future.”
When shutting down an area of the business, Darren refers to it as ‘sunsetting services.’ Rather than thinking of the task like a poison chalice, Google see it as a hero task as you’re freeing up resources, focus, and funding for other parts of the business.
Leading a successful transformation
I think we can all agree that Simon Sinek has done a great job ensuring people understand the ‘why.’ Darren finds that the companies that want to transform have a genuine reason why.
“The best transformations I’ve seen is where the CEO has said ‘we’re going to need to put some things right. Here’s where we stand today. And so there’s some things we need to fix. We’re going on this journey together.’ Engage the people at the beginning.”
Successful transformations bring in teams and people along the way.
Simplicity is key
“I would also say simplicity is key. There’s an excellent book around this based on the DHL journey which is all about radical simplicity (also the name of the book). It talks about their journey to shred the complications of the business.”
Noted! Already added to our Amazon shopping baskets.
Simplicity is key for successful transformations.
Darren provides us with some important points to consider:
- Start with a really good why
- Get people engaged on the journey with you
- Communicate constantly and at a personal level. Be authentic and remember to talk about what’s not working
- Try and simplify across every area – great products, great teams, great experience for customers
What would you tell your younger self?
Darren talks about his career in two halves.
“The consulting half was really corporate and it was the world I grew up in. In my 20’s I became a real people pleaser and I had this need to create a persona that I thought people needed to see … but I changed. My advice would be, just believe that you are enough. Be authentic and embrace that. You are going to be a better than that fake version of yourself.”
Over time, Darren was able to shed his corporate persona.
“If the place you’re in doesn’t celebrate who you are, I can guarantee someone else will. If you are inauthentic you start to hide the brilliant parts of yourself. It’s tough on wellbeing. You’re not always bringing your best self to work. Have the confidence to say I‘m different.”
Covid has allowed us to vocalise these things more than ever. Don’t let the moment go.
Three key takeaways
- Happiness = personal growth. Markets go in cycles. I mean this in terms of jobs and careers but also in life and your personal brand. Always be looking to disrupt yourself.
- Lean into innovation. I hate the myth that innovation is saved for a few. Think of it as a muscle that needs to be developed
- You are the best asset you can invest in. I like the quote from Warren Buffet [shortened here] “If you only had one car your whole life, you would look after it.” Look after your body, look after yourself – not just physical health but social and mental health.
What would be your book recommendation?
Darren provided us with two great book recommendations.
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath
Two other books were also referenced in the conversation:
Zone to Win by Geoffrey Moore
“When you focus on yourself, then you unlock business success.”
Thank you Darren. What an amazing conversation.
Happiness = Personal Growth = Business Growth – listen here