Celebrating the innovators, risk-takers and change agents that are building the products of the future within large organizations.

Q & A With Ted Graham

Ted Graham is the first head of open innovation at GM, a company that’s more than 100 years old. Many more established companies will need to take a similar intrapreneurial path to stay competitive. For Ted, intrapreneurship always starts with defining a problem, before chasing solutions. The process of finding the best path forward involves understanding your customers’ diverse needs: it’s about what’s happening outside your walls. In this installment of The Intrapreneurs Alliance Journal, Ted walks us through how he innovates at one of the world’s most recognizable brands, in order to stay one step ahead of the future GM’s customers will be driving.

What does intrapreneurship mean to you? How would you define it?

At the beginning of my career, I had an opportunity to start a new business inside a large company, at an exponential scale, compared with what I was doing on my own. That’s what intrapreneurship really means for me: the potential to have massive impact from within. Intrapreneurs have a different risk profile from entrepreneurs, who take themselves out of a safe career path to realize their vision. Many more of us have a chance to become true intrapreneurs; the role still requires a balance of risk and reward. And we need many more people to take this path if we want our companies and our nation to be competitive.

Tell me about your day job: how do you do what you do? What motivates you to keep moving forward?

My formal title at GM is Head of Open Innovation; it’s a entirely new role within a company that’s more than 100 years old, which is certainly a milestone. My role involves working with outside partners to drive new products and services forward. This mean I’m working with startups, incubators, and academics to find emerging technology and business models.

Describe the latest, most interesting project you have worked on. What happened? What are the results of your work?

One of the more interesting projects I tackled was innovating how we measured public relations at Hill and Knowlton, where I worked as Chief Knowledge Officer. For a long time, all the PR agencies would put together books of clippings — the heavier the book the better. But by the mid-2000s, those of us working with sophisticated audiences and international clients thought there had to be a better way. We partnered with a startup working on natural language processing to see if we could improve how we measure the value of different types of media coverage — getting your ideas and brand story known versus just your name mentioned. This project formed the beginnings of influencer network analysis. In 2005-2006, it was nominated as one of the best PR products of the year by PRWeek. We radically changed what it meant to measure the spread of campaigns and ideas.

What would be, in your opinion, the top conditions for successful intrapreneurship in large organizations that can at times get caught up in established processes?

It usually starts with a well-articulated problem that urgently needs a solution — one that’s outside normal processes and channels. At the time, advertising and marketing was changing radically; PR firms had to drastically improve their measurement tools to stay in business.

In that situation, I spent a lot of time understanding the problem, and how things would look if we could solve it. And this of course leads to other things. We’ve talk about people finding purpose in their work. When they’re solving important problems, they get excited about the possibilities. I’ve been able to draw in people who have a sense of curiosity and creativity, the willingness of going beyond the typical scope to have that kind of impact. It’s always people who want to create products they can continue being proud of.

What are some of the skills and tools you rely on to succeed? When hiring, how do you identify that type of thinking?

I’m looking for a sense of a candidate’s lateral thinking skills. I want to see whether they’ve got the ability to bring in learnings from other industries and areas of life and apply them to problems. I want people I can talk to — people with curiosity about music, photography, what’s happening in genomics — really, anything and everything. It’s important to me that the people we hire have diverse networks. It’s good to know what’s in the rolodex of the people solving problems in today’s world; then you know they can understand the world beyond their own experience.

Which company / large organization in your mind is doing innovation well? Who do you look up to and feel inspired by? Who are you mentored by?

I’m a fan of organizations like 3M — they have this brand reputation of being inventive, constantly innovating. It’s a virtuous cycle that attracts great people to work with them and find new problems worth solving. 3M holds one of the highest pe-employee patent ratios, and they’re quite good at commercializing their innovations.

I also believe that intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs must evolve constantly — and the same holds true for your networks. I’ve been lucky to encounter some critical mentors who pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Karin Muchall who is the Learning and Development leader at PwC. She really encouraged me to go beyond the boundaries of my job there; everything I accomplished in those last 5 years at PwC was because she pushed me onto a path away from convention.

How do you create an environment and culture where innovation projects can move forward and ultimately thrive?

I always try to lead by example and see the world from different points of view, especially the customer’s. At GM, I’ve been on the phone with customers in our call centre; I’ve been at recruiting events talking to young people looking for their first job; I’ve been at automotive dealerships. I try to listen to people wherever I go, about cars, electric cars, bikes, mobility. And I try to spend as much time outside of GM as I spend inside, because there are lots of smart people outside our walls, too. So, for example, I’ll be picking up an electric car this Friday to really experience what it’s like to own and drive one. Really, I just want to understand what could be valuable to our customers.

What are the most common mistakes or pitfalls you have seen large organizations make in regards to intrapreneurship? How do you break through and overcome those barriers?

The pitfalls are all those cliches you hear at the worst brainstorming sessions – we tried it before and it didn’t work, and another favourite of mine, we better follow the path we’ve been on if we want to keep our jobs. I find in the corporate world, we also create barriers with opaque language, acronyms and terminology that make real dialogue difficult. I try to simplify. I make the problem statement as clear and impactful as possible, without internal jargon, so I can attract people inside and outside the organization to help solve it.

What’s your best advice for the intrapreneurs and companies interested in nurturing the culture of innovation?

Find a support network. I founded a self-help group amongst other intrapreneurs in organizations. It was very useful to have that inspiration from different industries — someone from insurance, someone from a brewery, who talk about their challenges. It can wear on you to keep challenging the status quo and hearing others’ stories is invaluable.

Nurturing innovation also comes down to having great sponsors within an organization. Their title doesn’t matter much — your sponsor just needs to be intellectually honest and willing to listen. They have trust in you and know when to give you feedback. And they’re open-minded and provide support for your business case. They understand the value you bring to the organization and help provide protection and the best advice for you in that role.

How do you keep on top of what’s coming next, that would influence the way you think and work?

I did well by marrying a fellow idea-holic. My wife and I had a TEDx-themed wedding — yes, really — because we’re so inspired by the search for new ideas with impact.

In a similar vein, I try to attend as many different conferences as I can — even ones that aren’t related to my industry. I’m hitting up events like SxSW, C2 Montreal, and Maker Faire. Changing things up is good. My goal is to meet the people at these events and find out more about how they’re approaching big ideas like AI and machine learning, and how their companies are radically transforming the way they work.