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Innovation Interview: Chris Varley, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company

In our Innovation Interview series, we recently caught up with Chris Varley, External Science & Technology Programs, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, about the biggest innovation challenges, why it’s important to embed innovation into every part of an organization, and how large corporations can act like nimble startups.

Here’s what he had to say:

Why is execution the most critical part of the innovation process?

Varley: Well, unless you’re able to execute all you have is an idea, not an innovation. What’s more, how you shape your innovation together with your customers ultimately determines how successful your innovation will be.

What is the biggest challenge of innovation?

Varley: Realizing that innovation is not the same thing as invention. Innovation involved a conversation with the market, with customers who either embrace or reject what you present to them. Listening to what customers say and incorporating what you learn from them into successive iterations of your product or service is where the real innovation happens.

What does it take to create a balanced portfolio that wins? 

Varley: You need lots of ideas, at various stages of development, targeting different aspects of your product (materials, form factor, UI/UX) and your customers’ needs – new customers in particular, ones that aren’t necessarily served by your current product mix. Yes, you want innovations that improve existing products/services for existing customers, but you also need to be thinking, “What potential customers am I not reaching? What would I need to do differently to turn them into customers?

How can we ensure buy-in of an idea across the entire organization?

Varley: It’s important that innovation not be thought of as being “owned” by one group, the “innovation team.” Some - in R&D, say - may more overtly or obviously be tasked with developing “the next new thing,” but since successful innovations engage and involve the company’s customers (both existing and new), bringing in supply chain, marketing, sales, etc. earlier rather than later gives everyone a sense of having some skin in the game, some ownership of the ultimate outcome.

Why is it important to drive and embed innovation into every part of the organizational culture?

Varley: Innovation is a conversation with your customers. You put something new out in the marketplace, and the market responds. If they hate it, you go back to the drawing board. But even if they love it, the “newness” will wear off eventually. The more closely you listen to and engage customers in a dialog as a core part of what your company does, the better you’ll be able to respond to (and deliver) what the market wants. If you don’t, someone else who does will wind up taking your customers away.

How can large corporate power-houses capture the spirit of a nimble startup? 

Varley: Large companies do large company things extremely well. They aren’t startups, nor should they try to be. But they can, through open innovation and through following trends and developments in interesting new market spaces, either find a way to directly take a new idea to market more quickly than they otherwise might or find a startup with complementary skills and then leverage the strengths of each: let the startup do what it does best, and let the established firm bring its strengths (supply chain, brand, customer base, testing and verification, distribution channels) to create something that benefits both companies.

How can you ensure a successful go to market strategy?

Varley: I’m not sure anyone can “ensure a successful go to market strategy,” but to the degree that you engage the market in a conversation, that you ask “what if?” not only of yourself but of the market you hope to reach, and, most importantly, that you view this “innovation conversation” as a continuous, ongoing dialog that informs/shapes/improves what you deliver to that market, you are far more likely to find success.

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