Innovation Without Execution Is Only Ideation


I believe in networks. Fostering networks of intelligence and sharing information are two of the most important characteristics of those organisations that will survive this era of disruption. I also believe that connecting ideas with other innovation experts is one of the best ways to inspire new radical insights. That is why I want to share my conversation with one of the most notable chief innovation officers I know: Garry Lyons of
. Garry is responsible for developing and leading initiatives, programs and strategies to foster innovation throughout MasterCard. He also runs the company’s global R&D arm, MasterCard Labs, dedicated to bringing innovative payment solutions to market with greater speed than ever before. Garry is a technologist by training, with a B.Sc. in Computer Applications from Dublin City University, and he is one of those who can actually prove that infusing radical and sustainable innovation in traditional environments is possible. Because he did just that, together with his team. This interview aims to show you how they succeeded.

Garry Lyons, Chief Innovation Officer at MasterCard

Peter Hinssen: What is the best methodology to enable innovation in a large company? I think it is crucial for companies to function as a network in order to maintain the agility they need to innovate. What is your formula for speeding up innovation and staying nimble?

Garry Lyons: Sadly, the word “innovation” has become a bit of a buzz word these days, with some people thinking that all it takes is to put a few geeks in a room with whiteboards and red bull to brainstorm, and then expect almost magical results. This can work at times but it’s not suitable for all forms of innovation and it’s certainly not sustainable. You’ve got to be serious about innovation and foster a culture of innovation company-wide.

I always say that innovation is a repeatable process. It’s an art and a science. And like any science, you need structured techniques to get results. The first step should be a clearly defined problem statement. If you can’t clearly define the business challenge you’re attempting to solve for, then you’re wasting your time! But you also need to make sure that your innovation goals are largely aligned with your company’s strategy, otherwise it’s an exercise in futility. You should aim for 80% of your innovation objectives to be aligned with your company’s wider strategy and allow 20% to be a bit more out there.

The next step is to develop structured processes which can take you from ideation, through prototyping and user feedback, and (when ready) into commercialization. But at the same time you have to think lean and act agile. You need techniques and methodologies to improve all aspects of the product development lifecycle: from the quantity and (more importantly) quality of the ideas that you generate to the way that you prototype; the way you test and iterate; the way you pilot; and the way you scale. And remember that you should not scale until you have done sufficient user testing and know that you have something which people actually want (usually because it seamlessly solves a consumer pain-point or addresses a specific need).

At MasterCard Labs we say that innovation without execution is only ideation. That’s why we’ve created a suite of Innovation Programs which enable us to generate new ideas from a variety of sources, and fast-track the best ideas from concept to prototype and into market faster than ever before. When our most promising pilots are ready for commercialization, we move them into our “Incubation” team, where they are assigned dedicated resources who work like a lean startup to fast-track to market. Clear metrics are installed up front when projects are ready for pilot: number of users, number of transactions, etc. We never use revenue as a metric at the starting point, though. Revenue is a long term result when it comes to disruptive innovations.

The final point I want to make is that innovation should not be limited to the R&D department: it is everyone’s job. At MasterCard, we recognize that good ideas come from a variety of sources so we involve as many people as possible: from business units, employees as individuals, customers, partners, universities as well the developer community. You simply cannot innovate alone. You need to involve all stakeholders.

Peter: You seem to go about innovation in a very methodological manner.

Garry: Absolutely, and that’s why our suite of innovation programs and processes are so pivotal. But we’re on a journey – a continuous process of improvement. Every time we run an innovation program, we gain valuable new learnings. And that helps us to continually develop, iterate, tweak, hone and improve our processes, methodologies and techniques. There is no place for complacency.

Peter: Can you tell me about the “Innovation Express” program. I have read that it forces employees to come up with a market-ready product or service in 48 hours, complete with a promotional video. How does that work?

Garry: Innovation Express is one of our innovation programs, created to go from problem to solution very quickly. We present a group of teams across the company with a very specific business problem to solve for. Teams have just 48 hours to come up with an innovative but credible solution to the challenge and turn their best idea into a prototype product complete with business plan, video demonstration and go-to-market plan which they have to pitch to a select group. It works really well. Many of our most innovative products in market were born out of this process. By way of example, check out

Peter: I read that you are a technologist by training. Do you think such digital savviness is a necessary characteristic for a chief innovation officer?

Garry: The world is changing faster than at any other time in human history. There are now more mobile devices on this planet than there are people. This proliferation of smart devices is changing the way we live our lives and the way we pay for goods & services. As a result, peoples’ expectations from technology have never been higher. That’s why digital savviness is an essential characteristic, especially in our industry. I always look for smart, creative people who are passionate about how to use technology to solve real problems. But that doesn’t mean everybody has to be a computer engineer by trade, it’s important to get the right mix of complementary skill-sets. With people from different backgrounds, skill-sets and qualifications, you get different perspectives. However, even the non-technologists within MasterCard Labs are passionate about the power of technology – that’s important.

Having said all of that, we have a saying here that “Cool doesn’t cut it.” I.e., it doesn’t matter how shiny a technological innovation is, if it doesn’t solve a real problem, address a consumer pain-point or make a process more efficient, then we are simply wasting our time.

Peter: How do you organize your innovation teams? Are they fixed, or do you change them? And what kind of experience are you looking for?

Garry: MasterCard Labs runs projects across multiple geographies and hires people with a variety of skill-sets from a variety of cultures, backgrounds and disciplines. We change the composition of project teams regularly to ensure fresh thinking and we never innovate in a silo. We regularly supplement Labs resources with virtual teams to come up with better, more creative and smarter innovations. We involve employees from right across MasterCard and we collaborate with many groups outside of MasterCard who are helping to shape the business that we are in: customers, Merchants, other companies, universities, the startup community, etc.

Diversity is key if you want to achieve radical innovation. Cultural diversity; age diversity. gender diversity; diversity of skill sets, experiences and backgrounds – you need them all! Without diversity, you end up with a situation where everybody thinks along broadly similar lines. They come up with similar ideas, and they make similar mistakes. With different people you get different perspectives, different thought processes and better output.

Peter: As a large organisation, how difficult is it to keep competing with smaller, agile, disruptive newcomers with much smaller margins today?

Garry: There are benefits to being in a large established company with funding, a trusted brand and significant alternative revenue streams. Once you’ve got CEO support, the ability to move fast and operate like a start-up is actually not that difficult to do. We’ve learned a lot over the years and reached a point where we have a pretty good set of processes which do give us the ability to be nimble. However, one of the biggest challenges is prioritization as unlike startups, established companies that are publicly listed have to strike the right balance between revenue and profits today and in the future.

Peter: What was your proudest moment as a chief innovation officer?

Garry: I never like to dwell too much on victories, and having such a fantastic team here in MasterCard, along with the ability to innovate and collaborate with partners, startups, etc., we have ‘mini-victories’ all the time. But if I was forced to pick something, I’m very proud of the fact that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, due in part to our innovation capabilities and methodologies, chose to partner with us to launch MasterCard Labs for Financial Inclusion, a new financial inclusion focused innovation lab in Nairobi, Kenya, which will focus exclusively on developing solutions for people living without access to mainstream financial services – truly enabling us to live MasterCard’s “Doing well by doing good” mantra.

Peter: As a successful chief innovation officer at MasterCard, you have proven that fostering radical innovation in a large company is possible. What would you tell those nonbelievers who stubbornly claim that it is impossible for a large company to achieve radical innovation?

Garry: Firstly, I want to stress that sustainable innovation is as essential as radical innovation. We, in MasterCard, obviously do both. We’ve been around for almost 50 years and we’ve become relevant in payments for 4 reasons: the quality of our products, our people, our processes and our infrastructure. If you look at our processes, they’re highly documented, highly analytical, they have appropriate segregation of duties; our infrastructure is secure, scalable, reliable, fault tolerant, everything it needs to be to support 2.1 billion cards being used at 38 million merchants in 210 countries around the world in 150 different currencies. This rigor is critical for our core business but it doesn’t allow us to experiment and take risks with new technologies, hence the reason that we created MasterCard Labs about 4 years ago – we recognized the need for a complementary part of MasterCard whose sole purpose is to look at the future from a fresh perspective, take risks and move quickly.

In these fast moving times, with technology evolving at a phenomenal rate and new challengers surfacing in our markets almost every day, all organisations need to move beyond merely optimizing their products and services. They need to look to the future, focus on the implication of technological and consumer trends on their industry, and try radically new things. This is a completely different level of innovation: one that is much harder and which cannot afford to be bound by the usual infrastructure, rigor and processes of a large company running six sigma. This is the kind of innovation that only works with highly independent teams that enjoy full support from their management. Top down support is crucial, because the nature of disruptive innovation is such that there will inevitably be failures along the way to achieving success. When an innovation is going to fail, you need to fail smart – i.e., fail fast, fail cheap, and, most importantly, learn as much as possible from that failure so as not to make the same mistakes again. CEOs need to be aware that they are investing in the future and that looking at the future from a fresh perspective, while critical for every business, does not typically deliver short term revenue uplift, but it does generate short terms costs.

You can download a shareable PDF-version of this interview here.

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