Interview with Jannie van Zyl - Executive Head: Innovation at Vodacom



I recently interviewed Jannie van Zyl with the intention of finding out about their Idea Management process but also found out a great deal around innovation and how Vodacom does innovation.

Jannie van Zyl is the Executive Head of Innovation at Vodacom, a position that he has held since 2013. Jannie has been with Vodacom for 16 years interrupted by a short period where he was Group CEO at WBS/iBurst.

What is innovation?

Jannie says that innovation is a very widely defined word and breaks it down into the following areas:

  • Incoming disruption: Another industry will innovate in some way and become a threat to Vodacom itself or its business models and technology based services.We analyse how we should respond to these incoming disruptions and come up with alternate solutions.

  • Outgoing disruption: In this case, Vodacom uses its assets to disrupt other companies and industries.How do we use our unique capabilities, e.g., our unique network, our very loyal customer base and that they have smart phones in the hands of around 18 million customers and 20 million customers using older (“unsmart”) phones?

  • Core innovation: Core innovation is something that companies should be doing on a day-to-day basis to just become a little bit better.

  • Adjacent innovation: Vodacom also looks at adjacent innovation - how can we make a change in one asset to open up new markets.For example, Vodacom could build a new product, that isn’t a traditional product, and sell to their existing customer base.Jannie calls this adjacent innovation because it is not disrupting other companies or markets.

The innovation team runs across all the divisions of Vodacom

Vodacom looks at the above four areas of innovation not just from a strategic level to come up with concepts and plans, but Jannie’s team also executes some of these innovations. Vodacom is a typical corporate in that if you look at a specific business unit they can be extremely good at what they do inside their business unit but the moment they must work outside their own defined boundaries it becomes more difficult for them to understand exactly what needs to be done. Therefore, it is unusual for a unit to be able to operate across all divisions, because the moment you work on a concept that spans multiple business units you are likely to run into some challenges, especially around ownership. This is not unique to Vodacom, but rather how corporates are structured and is not inherently a bad idea, just something to be aware of and to find ways to work in such a structure. These same BUs still pay the electricity bill so it’s important to not cause too much distraction for them.

The other example is when multiple units must work together to deliver something. It sounds relatively simple, but the way targets are created, it becomes difficult to execute projects that run across multiple business units. This is where the innovation team helps as they will often own these projects right through to the commercial benefit of those projects.

So Jannie’s innovation team looks both at the strategic opportunities and the execution of some of them.

Ideation programs at Vodacom

The Vodacom innovation team also runs two ideation programs. The first is for the internal Vodacom staff called “Innovate!” and another where non-employees can make suggestions to Vodacom.

The internal Innovate! program is a very proactive internal campaign where they run hackathons and challenges. Vodacom currently has over 1,600 ideas in that program and it has delivered some very real tangible results. It is a classic “Million Rand” type of program where an idea is ideated, goes through a vetting process, a pitching process and then the business picks up the idea and executes it. The original idea creator is credited with the idea and is the one that stands to win a prize. Idea Originators are expected to help drive the idea to completion.

Jannie is very proud of the program and he believes it is one of the best ones he has seen in South Africa. HE sys they made sure the human element id foremost in all interactions. Systems cannot substitute humans when it comes to meaningful ideation so everything we do is on a one-on-one communication.

The other ideation program is for people who make unsolicited proposals that could have an impact on Vodacom – external people (customers) and third parties (partners, suppliers, etc.). Vodacom doesn’t run proactive hackathons and challenges for this program and doesn’t actively ask for ideas from the public but if people think that they have a great idea then they can contact Vodacom and the team will always look at these ideas.

Business support

The innovation team also does quite a bit of business support because they are the one division that is very well connected with other divisions. Jannie has close to a hundred people that are innovation champions. These innovation champions sit in various divisions across the organisation who help Vodacom manage and execute innovation ideas. Jannie has an extensive network that spans the entire organisation and because they run with projects that are not related to the day-to-day operations; business often comes to the innovation team with requirements to do something different. This might not be innovation but just help with lateral thinking. Jannie calls this business support, and can range between going to talk to a Vodacom customer, to writing a proposal; looking at the lead technology design, to previewing the business model; enhancing a business process and a number of other things.

What does Jannie believe are key elements of an ideation program?

There are a few things that are critical to Jannie that makes the Vodacom ideation program very efficient and well respected within the organisation.

Steer away from software solutions

Firstly, Jannie says they stay away from software solutions as much as possible because he has seen too many ideation intentions fail in large organisations because they think they are going to buy a huge big crowdsourcing solution. There are a number of solutions on the market that call themselves Innovation Management platforms but these systems often do nothing more than capturing and gathering ideas and maybe include some voting or gamification – they typically won’t extend into execution. When Vodacom started the ideation program – about 3 to 4 years ago – Jannie said that he wasn’t going to spend money on a tool. The power of the program is in the communication and not a tool. So, while tools and platforms have their place, they never substitute human interaction.

An excellent communication plan

Secondly, build a real communication plan and put a real human behind it. When someone submits a plan to the innovation team or has queries, they talk to each other on the phone and every email is personalised. Jannie has full-time people running the ideation program and they communicate on a one-to-one very personal basis. The reason that this is so important is that Vodacom wanted to open up the ideation process to everyone in the organisation, from the most junior person in the farthest region to the most senior people in the organisation. But everyone must be treated eqully. What can happen in a large organisation is that there is a very rigid hierarchical management structure where if I have an idea I have to tell my boss, and he has to tell his boss until a decision on the idea is made. Even though Vodacom has one of the most open and trusted cultures, it wanted to make sure that this could not happen and thus built a program where in a trusted environment people could submit their ideas. Staff needed to have the confidence that all ideas would be evaluated equally and with a high amount of respect. Vodacom says things like “No idea is too small”, “No idea is stupid” and that the CEO’s idea is no better than a call centre agent’s idea. In fact, some of the winners of the program have been very junior people who have come up with great ideas, which when executed have added great value to the organisation.

Treat everyone with respect

Treat humans like humans and everyone with respect. Sometimes people don’t quite understand their own idea fully, so once an idea is submitted, someone will sit with them or call them and explore their idea in detail.

Well formulated ideas

Ideas needs to be properly formulated to solve a particular problem. You can’t just say “Everyone should be happy” – rather an idea needs to say that they have seen a specific problem and the idea is to solve the identified problem.

The power of ideation is in the process itself – how you bring people in, how you communicate and most importantly how you treat them.

What successes has Jannie seen from the Innovate idea management program?

Vodacom has had lots of successes. People think that innovation must be invention – to have a lab with people doing research and writing lots of code but Jannie says that isn’t innovation. Innovation is not invention. Innovation is when you take a problem and you solve it by putting elements together that have been well known before to solve the problem. It is about taking old stuff and using it in a new way that no one has thought of before. Normally when someone presents an innovation the first reaction is often that the idea is not new or clever and then the question is asked why it has not been done before. That is the true definition of innovation; that no one thought of it before but when it is verbalised, it is obvious.

An example of a ‘cool’ solution

One example of a great innovation success story at Vodacom came from an employee, Dirkie, in the Western Cape who looks after the Vodacom base stations. These base stations have equipment that generates heat and so air conditioners are used at each base station. If something had to happen to an air conditioner then the equipment would overheat and start failing. Now inside the base station half of the equipment generates heat and needs to be cooled down, but the other half absorbs the heat and therefore also needs to be cooled down. The engineer looked at this situation and suggested that the equipment that generated heat needed to be separated from the rest of the equipment and then you only have to cool down half the area. Part of the problem is then Vodacom would need to redo the base stations to have a hot section and a cold section. To solve this the engineer went to a hardware store, bought a shower curtain and put it up between the two sections and now the aircon only cooled down the section with the equipment that produced heat. It cost almost nothing to put the shower curtain in but made a huge amount of difference in the reliability and energy savings. This for Jannie is the classic example of innovation. The engineer won second prize for the best innovation of the year.

What future plans does he have for the innovation team?

Continuous process

Innovation is a process and it is a continuous process. For most of an organisation the innovation process can look disruptive to the organisation itself. People often believe that they don’t need to think and see things differently and this is understandable when you have a day job keeping the business running. Companies fail because they believe they are doing well at what they are doing and they are normally correct! This creates an innovation dilemma where companies’ success and ability becomes their own disability. Vodacom is currently very successful and – by definition - is therefore at risk of potential disruption.

It is thus critical to constantly be aware of this and drive incoming and outgoing disruptions. This is done by engaging the company at all levels and continuously sensitise it to these disruptions and then to build offensive and defensive strategies and solutions.

For the innovation function itself, next steps will be to Digitalise the process and to ensure a fully functional “innovation Framework” that spans from Ideation to Acceleration and investment.

Innovate for a successful future

Jannie gives a talk within Vodacom in which he says that half the people in the company won’t have a job in 10 years’ time. This is not to paint the picture of doom and gloom but to make people think that you must assume that change is inevitable and, at any given point, a company can fail. Bill Gates used to say that Microsoft is 18 months to 3 years away from total failure.

While it is important to have this type of mentality and ask how we innovate, it can also be difficult because people are very busy with their day jobs. Innovation therefore needs to be run independently of the business yet is dependant of the business for execution. It is thus critical to form a symbiotic relationship with the business.

Innovation is both big strategies and small steps

Innovation can be the big innovations that have huge effects on a company but normally it is the incremental changes that come with core and adjacent innovation and then to build the big strategies that either defend or attack. These big strategies won’t often make money initially but are rather the seeds that once planted will make money in five to ten years’ time.

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