For Brian Zubert, Director at Thomson Reuters Labs, true innovation begins with asking why; and then, co-creating the how with their customers. We caught up with Brian to find out what the Labs are up to, and how their approach to innovation consistently yields results above and beyond those of a typical large organization.
What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on at the moment?
This summer, eight of our data scientists from four global labs worked on a Thomson Reuters product called World-Check. It’s a database that helps companies understand who they are doing business with to ensure they are not inadvertently conducting business with: known or suspected money launderers, known or suspected human traffickers, people with ties to corruption or to criminal organizations, that sort of thing.
So how does this project fit into the broader innovation philosophy?
It’s the way in which the project was delivered. I always tell people that what we build is not nearly as interesting as how we build it. The how is the real star of this project. We focused on proper scoping and problem exploration, understanding the target users and what their needs and concerns and goals were. That allowed us to stay on schedule, to take complex tasks and break them down into a series of smaller ones.
Would this project have been ‘impossible’ in a more typical organization?
No, but it would have been longer, involved more people, and been more expensive. You’re dealing with a problem of volume of data that’s been escalating year over year. Traditional methods of development might result in multi-year, million dollar projects. By going lean, we’re dealing with a few months and just tens of thousands of dollars. Hard to argue with that.
It comes down to understanding why the client needs you. What gap are you filling that’s not being filled? So that means understanding the strengths of the product development organization and of the research and development organization, and asking: what lies in between? That’s exactly the gap that we’re filling. We’re either shortening a longer timeline or finding new applications for near term opportunities. We’re able to capitalize on opportunities that existing organizations aren’t designed to do, due to their objectives and the way they’re measured.
What sorts of results have you seen for the lab, and for the clients you work with?
A typical VC fund would hope that about 5% of the portfolio is successful. At Thomson Reuters Labs we aim for almost 10 times that, with success measured by projects that make it to market or land on the product roadmap. We’ve been fortunate so far to hit that mark each year.
But our major metric is making sure the local business units we’re serving are satisfied with the results. It’s their customers that we’re engaging with, after all, and if their customers aren’t happy then the business unit’s not happy, and we’re not meeting the objective of why the business needs us in the first place.
So how did you get to this point, where your customers are comfortable taking risks with you?
Everyone’s assuming you’re trying to sell something. Well, what if I’m not trying to sell something to you, what if I actually want to build something with you? When you’re into the conversation of co-creation, it suddenly becomes a very different conversation. Our customers stop viewing us as a vendor, and they start viewing us as a partner. That’s exactly what we want to do – solve legitimate problems together, and not just the problems we can solve with our current offerings. We approach everything asking: how are we stronger together? How could we do things better together than we could apart?
How far is the rest of Thomson Reuters in reaching that point where lean and other methodologies are par for the course?
Our Toronto Tech Centre that’s being rolled out – the hires going on and the approach they’re taking are fantastic, they’re really taking the customer methodology to heart. There are groups all over the place in the company now doing extensive user studies. Empathy maps and journey maps, user personas are standard practice. That’s what I didn’t appreciate when I first came to Thomson Reuters, how good the culture is here.
Historically in Canada, we haven’t done many engagements with startups, instead preferring to deal with later stage companies. Now? There have been four partnerships executed in the last 18 months. There’s a willingness now to get involved with companies at earlier stages and grow together.
Sounds like an exciting place to work as an innovator.
It is. My biggest concern at first was that I was joining a technology laggard, based on experiences with other innovation labs here – many exist because they’re dealing with mass amounts of software legacy. But at Thomson Reuters I was blown away to discover that their first products that leveraged machine learning, for instance, were rolled out almost a decade ago.
It’s really interesting to see how the company as a whole has changed its mindset and methodology. Now, we really focus on letting our customers know that we’re on the same tech journey that they are – and we don’t need to go it alone, we can do it together.