An NGMR Interview with Innovator and Nomad Urvi Bhandari
Innovation is one of the most often mentioned concepts everywhere these days. It may mean slightly different things to different people, but at its core it’s about revolution and upheaval.
Innovation at start-ups is a given, but how do some of the largest companies in the world, companies that are very process oriented and therefore resistant to revolution and upheaval innovate? Some of them hire risk taking revolutionaries that can’t help but think out of the box, or so I learned at the Insights Associations’ CEO Summit a few months ago when I met Urvi Bhandari.
Urvi is not your common corporate soldier, she is quite the rebel. She’s also very future focused and one of her interests is the idea of being a “Nomad”. In an age where telecommuting is at least technically so easy, and countries are more connected than ever before, then why shouldn’t people be able to travel the world instead of being locked down to once city day in and day out.
Join me today as I talk to Urvi about innovation and thinking out of the box.
Q&A with Urvi Bhandari
THCA: Hi Urvi, You and I met at the recent CEO Summit where you spoke on innovation at Walmart. Your most recent title at Walmart was Emerging Technologies Innovation Catalyst & Story Teller. Sorry, but when I think of big companies that compete based on price and scale like Walmart, including those that do so in tech like IBM, I may think Big, and Marketing muscle, but I usually do not think Innovative. Am I wrong on this?
UB: Yes it was my role to find the hidden stories of where the future of retail was going through research and emerging technologies. Internally, our team lead ideation sessions with different business units to help them see the future and convince executives of important changes in the marketplace and how it affects their business.
Externally, we tell the story of what the future of shopping will look like at Walmart using innovative technologies such as AR/VR at events like SXSW. Additionally, we began to build relationships with companies in the startup community who are disrupting retail.
You are partly correct that many large companies and I’ve worked for a few (Walmart, AT&T, IBM, Coca-Cola) are all about scale. However, you find small pockets of teams that will focus on visualizing the future. One thing you have to remember, is that these big companies wouldn’t still be Fortune 20 companies if they didn’t actually move with the times and adopt new technologies and ways of working that fit with the cultural paradigm shifts that are happening in the world. A large corporation doesn’t have to be the leader in making the change to be successful – hence they don’t have to be the company that is innovative. They can wait till others in their industry are making the change successfully and then provide the same changes to their consumer on scale. They however do still need to keep their ear to the ground very closely as when something does resonate with the market they will need to scale it pretty fast.
THCA: Great point, I can see how you may not need to be a leader, if you’re a fast follower.
You strike me very, very differently than the normal “corporate” type. I understand that’s at least partly why Wal-Mart hired you as an innovator. Can you tell us a bit about that, and how you from your unique POV see the corporate hierarchy and process?
UB: Yes I am not your normal “corporate” type though I did spend 17 years thinking I was the “corporate” girl before I jumped from the corporate world the first time in 2014.
Today, the value I can bring to a corporation is that I understand how it works. When you have a large company, there needs to be process and operations to make sure you can scale and everyone is on the same brand path to give the end user the same experience. Otherwise, we all know that when a large corporation doesn’t have policies and rules in place, there can be chaos.
So when they hire people like me – we understand the rules but also know how to define the rules to make people think differently and take a business forward. We see the possibility because we are not motivated by the same things as most employees. We come in to make changes and impact. We come in to rock the boat and make people find solutions to problems. We enjoy impacting both people and the process. We know which things we need to have the right data to support our thinking and which ideas we are going to have to do a lot of relationship building to make them happen.
A big part of someone like me in a big corporate role is building relationships to make others think about the possibilities of what they can do to succeed in their role which in turn helps the company.
THCA: Communicating new ideas, heck not just communicating, but convincing, is what many of us involved in any aspect of innovation need to do. Can you talk a bit about how you think this can be done more effectively whether you are internal and working for the company, or you are a vendor? What would you recommend in each case?
UB: I would use the word influencing, it’s what we need to do today when we talk about innovation. A lot of large companies don’t want to be the first mover because it can be costly, it requires a cultural and mental mind shift change within their employees, its different, it’s no longer stable.
When you are facing these types of challenges, it really is about influencing and convincing that something different or new or a step change will in fact make things better for the company but also the group and down to the individual level.
Many folks in innovation talk about how something will affect the company but don’t really get to the point of bringing the human element to motivate and engage the people who are making the change. The company is made up of humans who each have their own lives and motivations on why they are coming into work every day. Innovation can’t be done in a vacuum by people like me who want to create the future and try to put the pieces of the future together. It has to be set out in vision by folks like me with strong operational teams that can execute the vision and bring it to life over a period of time. Since innovation doesn’t happen overnight it’s up to the leader to motivate and engage the team over the time it will take to make something come to fruition.
In regard to whether this influence is better done internally or externally it depends on the company and the individuals. Overall, I think it needs to be a double play. As I have seen organizations try to embody the innovation mindset it can be a struggle when you are internal because even though you are hired to disrupt and innovate – you are a company employee and need to follow the rules.
Since you are a company employee, there can be a lot of political nuances that you deal with day in and day out because your “job” depends on it. However, being internal allows you to get to know the teams much better and have almost full access to the data and thinking within the company.
As an external consultant you don’t have to worry about the politics as much since you are being paid to come in and provide thought leadership and insights on how something should be done.
Many times you can work across a company and not be stifled by being in a particular group. However, many times you may not get access to all the info you need. You need to have a champion internally who wants to engage and make a difference but would rather be in a stable environment working along with an external consultant who can bring the outside world in and bring a company forward.
THCA. What role do you think data and analytics play in innovation?
UB: Data and analytics is key to innovation.
We think of data and analytics as what we use to make decisions. This is key. However, when I hear data and analytics today I think Big Data. I think IoT. How do we use the data and analytics to personalize or customize products, shopping, experiences to the end user or a company.
The biggest problem I see with data and analytics is that it isn’t used enough by the business users. There are many large organizations that have teams of people who can work with the data and analytics. However, the folks making business decisions don’t really understand how to the use the data or even what to ask for.
The data and analytic teams just churn out reports but don’t push the business managers to make decisions based on them. Data and analytics from a past perspective can show the evolution of a product, service, demographic etc. This in turn can be used for forecasting.
It’s also a great place to start “Reading” the story of what changes are happening. Understanding data and analytics actually can help business managers over time develop an innovation mindset as they begin to see how patterns in the past are creating today’s stories. If we can get more business folks who can start reading those stories then we will have more folks who can then predict and create the future stories.
THCA. I know you’re involved in some pretty innovative and dare I say eccentric new ventures that involve diverse industries from hospitality and travel to fashion and digital including a cool “nomadic” lifestyle.
I assume trend watching plays a big role in this. What are your thoughts and tips on this and futurism in general?
UB: I had to laugh when you said the words “eccentric new ventures.” I have never had them called that but I love it!
I guess the easiest way to paint the picture is to go way in the future and then come to today. For me personally, I would say trend watching was just a factor in what I see to the future.
A lot of change in our society and culture is happening because individuals are becoming more aware of what they really want versus the box we have been told to be in. They are becoming self-aware and creating streams of businesses and industries that cater to their needs and wants. They are becoming successful at it because they see others want the same things they are creating. It’s also a lot easier to start a small business or startup today than it ever was!
So if we go into the future 20 years from now, my nomadic way of living will not be strange or hacked together because the infrastructure is not there. In the future, people living a nomadic lifestyle with minimal things, being successful and exploring the world along the way – while they are still young / healthy etc. – is going to be a lifestyle and way of living.
There will be communities of people living like this and creating social structures that are different than what we see today. This nomadic way of living can and will have infrastructure & more importantly community, on land and water to make it easier to go from place to place, do business and live life.
So my 20 year project is working on building floating cities – cities on ships that go around the world so nomads like me can have a “home” that goes with them. It’s still a seed idea that I have been talking with a partner for 4 years now. So while that is germinating lets come back 10 years.
In the next 10 years we will have additional channels that are going to be enhancing our lives besides our monitors and phone screens. Clothing is going to integrate into our lives in such a way that we can’t fathom right now.
As a nomad, I like to travel light! A bag pack and my carry on. However, I do love my fashion, jewelry and boots! It’s a little hard to travel with everything I want. So, imagine I can take a few pieces of clothing that can change color, change style, self-clean and look like different outfits while I travel but be the same cloth. Maybe computerized nanotechnology came make that happen. However, additionally the clothing could regulate your temperature no matter if you were in a hot or cold location so you don’t have to worry about layers (matching those layers). The best part which is already coming out in the market is that clothing will help enhance your life through sensing your biometrics and other aspects of our life. It could tell us when we are dehydrated. If someone had health issues, it could remind them to take medicines. These things would not happen on a screen but through some type of vibrations, sounds and lights on our clothing. Let’s take the color aspect to a whole new level. We all know that color can affect our mood. Imagine clothing changing color to either visually let others know what our mood is but also creating the right color dynamic in situations – arguments, negotiations, happy moments etc. This will all happen in the next ten years and some of it is already happening in the athletic apparel market.
The saying the world is your oyster has never been truer than it is today. As people become self-aware and think of things they want – they are going to start creating them. If one person on this world has an idea there are probably many more who want to avail of a product or service or idea. Large companies need to be ready for this massive shift on what the masses will want in the future. There are going to be many companies that are still on the fortune 100 that will not be here in 5, 10 and definitely 20 years unless they change now. However, when you are a major corporation built of humans who want to either have stability or go up the corporate ladder it’s a little hard to make those shifts.
THCA: What are some trends you see increasing, and conversely, what are some (perhaps that people wouldn’t expect if any) that are on the decline?
UB: The sharing economy is a trend that we have obviously been seeing for quite a few years now. However, how it will continue to manifest is still in the works. This leads into more of minimalism and larger amounts of people becoming more nomadic. There is a continuum on how people want to live. People can be anywhere in this range. Either extreme or somewhere in between.
Static —— Traveler —— Nomad
Someone at the extreme static lifestyle wants to have a home, stays at home, has the home for years and will continue to have the home as their one and only base. They are most likely to be homebodies and don’t really care about what other people think.
The extreme nomad is someone who doesn’t care to have a home and never wants to have a home base. They can’t imagine buying / renting a home and then filling it up. They are absolute minimalist. They most likely won’t even have a storage unit to put stuff in or like old school gypsy’s they may carry everything with them – via a vehicle if they have one.
Someone who is a traveler will have a home base but also need to travel and see the world. They most likely will want to be able to come back to their bed after a period of traveling. They are truly in between the nomad and static lifestyles.
I am closer to a nomad but not quite a nomad. I have a storage room and love my clothes, jewelry and boots. More than that I don’t need other stuff besides my triathlon gear. (which if I could get that stuff anywhere that is exactly my size etc. – then I wouldn’t have to store that either)! I don’t care to pay rent or buy a living abode. I love to travel constantly and I don’t need to have the stability of a day to day relationships. My life is set up in a way that I constantly have support and my relationships are not based on being around day in and day out.
Another trend that comes from this is the aspect of community. The internet allowed people to connect across the world with like-minded or hobbyist that are like them. People started being behind their devices and a whole generation doesn’t know how to communicate in real life. We will start seeing a shift for the younger generation wanting to meet people in their own communities as retailers or new retailers will create communities in their spaces. Retail is dying in its traditional form and retailers are trying to figure out how to make people come to their physical locations instead of just going online. Retailers are starting to innovate incorporating both technology and building community in their spaces.
Bitcoin is something that is finally coming up on the surface right now. Many people do not understand it and until more companies are built using bitcoin as a platform it’s not going to pick up. However, within 2 years it will be something that everyone will be using in some form or another.
AR and VR are two very different things. AR is here to stay but VR is something that may not stay around. Unless someone can figure out another way to engage with VR (using external glasses doesn’t work) people will not use them. It’s almost like Google glass which was also way ahead of its time.
Additionally, there is the convergence of fashion and tech. Many athletic companies are already incorporating biometrics into clothing. However, in the next couple of years – more fashionable clothes will include biometrics that could tell you if you are dehydrated. For people with health issues, the clothing will monitor vitals and even be able to contact doctors or emergency staff is necessary. This will happen through the clothing and not on our screens. So we will be moving away from all notifications being on a screen. Additionally, clothing will start keeping us hot and cool based on what our own temperature ranges are. (An added benefit to this is that buildings could save on heating and cooling expenses since individuals would be controlling their own temperatures). You wouldn’t have to wear layers in the cool/cold and you wouldn’t be sweating in hot temperatures. Normal clothing would also deal with sweat wicking etc. Our everyday clothing will be more customized at prices that we have now. So people can get clothes “tailored” to their size and style that fits them on any day. Right now this is a costly expense but again this all feeds into individualization which can happen through fashion and tech. Let’s now go almost 5+ years in the future where clothing is so incorporated with technology it can change colors. It can either be done manually or happen due to emotions which others can see that will affect how people are engage with each other. This is just an example. A lot has to happen in technology and in the supply chain for this to all come to life.
THCA: For those of us who need some motivation when it comes to innovation and tech, are there any interesting resources you would suggest checking out?
UB: Interestingly enough, this is the hardest question for me. My resources are the people I engage with on a day to day basis. The more you talk with people who don’t think like you the more you find innovation. Innovation can be simplified to finding a solution for anything. It doesn’t have to be a tried and true solution but innovation is something that gives you a solution to a problem. A couple of places to look for innovation is venture capital newsletters, reading about industries that you have no idea about, taking online courses on subjects that you have a little interest but don’t know in depth.
Thanks for reading and thank you to Urvi for her interesting ideas. What do YOU think?
PS. Who would you like hear from next? Send me your suggestions for NGMR interviews!
About Tom H. C. Anderson
Tom H. C. Anderson is the founder and managing partner of OdinText, a venture-backed firm based in Stamford, CT whose patented SAS platform is used by Fortune 500 companies like Disney, Coca-Cola and Shell Oil to mine insights from complex, unstructured and mixed data. A recognized authority and pioneer in the field of text analytics with more than two decades of experience in market research, Anderson is the recipient of numerous awards for innovation from industry associations such as CASRO, ESOMAR and the ARF. He was named one of the “Four under 40” market research leaders by the American Marketing Association in 2010. He is also founder and moderator of Next Gen Market Research (NGMR), a professional networking group for consumer insights practitioners, as well as the editor of the NGMR blog. He tweets under the handle @tomhcanderson.