Gus Balbontin on ‘Tackling Disruption’

In this keynote for the inaugural Navitas Learning and Teaching forum, Gus Balbontin explored what it means to be innovative and transformative in industries that demand disruptive innovation. Below we summarise just a few of the ideas introduced in a wide-ranging talk.

Gus on Gus

A former Executive Director and Chief Technology Officer at Lonely Planet, Gus kicked things off by talking us through the intriguing career path he has followed over the last 20 years or so.

Growing up in the remote Argentinian Patagonia, Gus was encouraged to do the usual thing of finishing school and going to university. Instead, a teenage Gus started and expanded his own cake business until it provided a ticket to move to Byron Bay in Australia. Later, he traveled back to Latin America and criss-crossed the region without any money. These travels opened a doorway into working at Lonely Planet, where he accelerated into leading innovation and strategy.  In addition to founding and advising start-ups himself, he developed strong innovation partnerships with companies like Nokia, Apple, Google and Fairfax. In a sense, his career has been all about start-ups, whether they start from nothing or run as major innovations within an established business.

Gus on how businesses get out of touch and become irrelevant

When Gus arrived at Lonely Planet, it was all about selling travel books.  But what happened to encouraging people to travel? Wasn’t that the ultimate problem?

The business wanted to sell books; the customer wanted great travels. If the business continued focusing on its own problem of selling more books, it would quickly become irrelevant. When you realise that you’re not meeting the needs of your customers, don’t create another department or another study to confirm what you already know they probably want. (The customer just wants to travel!).

gus quote innovate try things

Gus on Systems and Structure

After years of operations, big businesses can see their future ahead of them like a highway, because all their systems and practices have been diligently ‘cemented’ into place. This how traditional CFOs like to see things – invest money based on projected returns on investment, global-scale models and plans. So much planning and cementing goes into the path. Then, more planning and more cementing, until:

[We] optimised that machine for so long towards a particular goal that unpicking it is really hard. So we end up adding chunks to it, then we end up with this other issue that it doesn’t look like that [paved road] any more, it starts looking like Frankenstein. So you have a digital department, a blah department, a careers department, a job placement department, the other department. You end up with this really weird system that owns you. And every time you look back to try to change it you don’t even know where to start…

Gus implores, “You have to stop concreting things!”. In many big businesses innovation tends to find a problem, such as a bad system that you think is holding you back, and you end up digging the whole thing up only to concrete it again under a new initiative that someone else will unpick two years down the track. If you’re planning your future and it takes you longer to plan than to actually just do it, clearly you should stop!

Gus on Culture and People

Gus talked about getting close to your customers and understanding their problem (not your own business problem). There’s a good chance this could show you that whilst your system is perfectly optimised to do certain things, these may be completely different to what you need to be doing for your customers. Time to change! But not without the right attitudes, culture, team and structure.

The choice to innovate and iterate all the time requires three things: curiosity (to question things and come up with ideas), courage (to share your ideas, because most ideas will be bad and you will need to come up with lots and lots of them and iterate many times before something sticks) and resilience (to do it over and over again). Gus’s advice about not holding onto old ideas resonated particularly well with our audience:

Don’t wound your ideas, kill them […] Don’t have drawers of wounded ideas…

The last thought Gus left us with was a quote from Lily Tomlin, which summarised perfectly how to get things done and set the tone for the rest of the forum:

Lily Tomlin I am somebody

We know we can’t do justice to Gus’s personality and storytelling with this brief write-up, and the keynote talk is well worth watching in full. Navitas staff can access the full video through this Yammer post. You can also follow Gus on Twitter @GusBalbontin and find him on LinkedIn.