Christopher Stubbs is the manager of brand strategy and innovation at Virgin Australia, whose role it is to help develop and nurture a sustainable internal innovation culture that drives overall guest satisfaction, brand innovation reputation and colleague empowerment.

After his talk at Creative³ last week, Christopher sat down with APDL to talk about innovation, branding, customer behaviour and implementing new ideas.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I did not take the traditional university route to start my career but instead completed an apprenticeship programme combining study with work placements within the operational departments of British Airways. Here I discovered my real passion for brand, innovation and driving customer centric change through a business and was able to make the move from operations to marketing. Following nearly 12 years at BA, I changed industries to explore the world of telecommunications before moving to Australia to take up my current position at Virgin Australia.

What have been some of your most memorable projects from the past 10 years, and how do you think your approach is different today?

One shines out above all the rest and that has to be the creation of British Airways Club World London City service, the airlines all business class service from London City Airport to New York. It was a true blank sheet of paper. “We will order 2 Airbus A318s that we are going to fly between the two business capitals. What is the brand and customer proposition we are going to sell?”. It was a project that invoked an excitement and determination I had not seen or felt before and brought together pretty much every discipline of the company to create the future. I saw the power of true cross functional thinking driving towards a common goal, void of any internal politics. It was a truly incredible experience and one I hold close to my heart and think of often.

BA’s Club World Sleep Service was also an interesting journey. I was not in brand at the time but working on translating the brand vision into operational delivery. Taking food off the aircraft and delivering it in the lounge prior to departure on late evening red eye flights was unfamiliar territory for international business class at the time. When sharing the company’s plans with different working groups there was, not surprisingly, many a raised eyebrow. The richness of the contextual scan prior to the new service launch drawing out a new solution to delivering exceptional premium service whilst at the same time delivering the longest sleep across the Atlantic proposition paid off. What learning do I take from this… take time to understand and seek to identify the changing needs of your customers, not those you originally build your proposition around and dare to try.

Can you talk a little of the Virgin Australia philosophy in relation to your role in brand strategy and innovation?

We are so lucky as an airline, to now be in a position to offer our guests a viable full service alternative in the Australian market place. My role now is very much focused on ensuring innovation is not something that is seen as something that just happens in brand and marketing, but is a critical suite of tools and a mindset that everyone in our company can adopt to help them achieve the Virgin Vision 2017 plan John Borghetti recently announced.

What principles inform your work?

The power of the brand purpose and brand principles for which you are working, are critical to ensuring you are looking at a challenge through a lens that enables you to craft a solution that cannot be owned by any other company.

Equally driving a thirst to share learning is critical to any company’s success and desire to become more innovative. There is so much learning that happens every day in an organisation but how can you capture and share that learning to ensure a company moves forward and does not duplicate learning or at worst make the same mistakes in different silos.

Oh and how can I forget, the most important element, failing cheaply and quickly is a journey to success, daring to try in the first place is real failure.

Why would I want to work in brand strategy and innovation?

Many people say that they have the best job in a company but I honestly believe I do! Being part of small team that focuses on developing and nurturing a sustainable internal innovation culture, means that we can strive to ensure the customer is at the heart of change and most importantly democratise innovation to all colleagues within a business. Why would you not want to work in brand strategy and innovation?

Do you do anything to encourage collaboration and interaction between the people you work with?

I have the fortunate role that enables me to bring together talent within my current company and helps them use the diversity of their experience to tackle business challenges and find new solutions to familiar problems. We are also currently in the process of recruiting ‘Innovation Champions’ who will be spread across all areas of our business who will help local teams work on unlocking business opportunities and sharing their learning and seek to help nurture cross-functional collaboration and learning.

Have you ever had to change your approach to meet the demands of your clients (i.e British Airways, Virgin)? Or have they responded to your own developments in management style?

I had an amazing maths teacher at school who I remember coming into class one morning and telling us we had all done abysmally in our homework. She then said to us “I have failed to help you understand. It is not a problem, I too found maths really hard at school and there are many ways of leaning to master it. I will try another way and see if that better helps you see the solution.”

Equally when I was at BA and EE, I completed a lot of leadership development which helped me see how others perceive me and what my impact can be when dealing with those like and those less like me. I use the learning every day and will continue to learn how to adapt my style to best bring out the best in others.

Do you have any tips for getting your ideas off the ground?

Prototype! So many people build business cases based on untested leaps of faith. If your idea is failing to get off the ground have a think about how you can build a minimum viable product to test your assumptions on which you are basing your success projections. Equally I would add, never be wedded to your original idea. It is very likely your original idea success hypothesis is totally flawed. Instead be wedded to capturing the learning from experimentation which will lead you to the most powerful solution to implement.

What are your observations of design-led thinking today?

The pace of change in our world today is accelerating. What is cutting edge design-led thinking today, so quickly becomes “what was”. Smart teams are aware of this, however, and have the boundless energy to keep asking “what if”.

Equally I have seen things launched to market, internally and externally that seek to find a problem to solve. True design led thinking spends time ensuring what is created solves a problem ‘customers’ have. Customers may not be able to articulate their problem but that is where the true skill of innovative thinking kicks in; identifying those hidden problems customers subconsciously are seeking a resolve.

Where did you see your industry headed?

Our industry is one of the most exciting industries I think you can work in. The speed of change for any business is getting faster and faster and we are seeing technology transform the way we do things. I firmly believe that face-to-face connections are programmed into our human DNA as being the most powerful ways of communicating and building relationships. The opportunity for airlines will be the way they weld together the power of human face-to-face connections whilst at the same time taking advantage of the new ways technology can keep people connected around the world and providing a relevant service for the business and leisure traveller in the future.

Should design education and industry work more closely to achieve design-led innovation?

My innovation leaning has taught me the power and critical element of including ‘externals’ in the innovation process. In a best practice environment “externals” should help innovative and stimulate innovation in an organisation. A design education is an external to a company and a company external to a design education. Harnessing a relationship that stimulates and drives innovation in both parties is a no brainer to me. You may have seen Unilever’s “challenges and wants” webpage. Their challenges stimulate externals to discover new solutions to the opportunities they propose and in turn they capture and tap into a diversity that extends well beyond the boundaries of its company.

Looking forward, where do you hope to be in the next 10 years? How do you hope to develop?

I can honestly say I do not know where my journey will have led me in 10 years’ time.

I hope if we were to sit down together in 10 years’ time, I would very much hope that you will be able to talk to individuals and teams who I have helped stimulate and inspire and that I can unveil learning to challenges and opportunities that I currently do not even know exist.

Most importantly I hope if you ask me the same question in 10 years my answer will be exactly the same.

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