Category Archives: Blog

Traveller Insight

What Travelling Communities Can Tell Us About Belonging

We met up with Emma Williams – a photographer who spent extended periods documenting the lives of Irish travellers – to discuss what is happening with a private community which is increasingly being pushed to open up to the modern world.

Emma sought to shed some positive light on the unsettled community who are often unfairly judged by the outside world. In the words of Jane Doherty, a traveller Emma became close with at Bashley site, the community are “often branded as gyppos, pikeys, and unworthy of respect or common decency.”

Traveller Insight

“The traveller’s way of life may seem foregin to our own but it’s really not far from the life we used to live. Something I learnt was that the travellers’ very private community is a product of years of judgement from the ‘settled’ world – trying to push this group into extinction. This project sought to honestly document a community of welcoming people that are so commonly exploited by media channels.”

Closing off your immediate community comes with benefits that the modern world has been quick to forget. Emma experienced these during her time at Bashley site – located down a quiet road, separated from the rest of North West London. With years of little dilution from the surrounding environment, she noticed how many core values and traditions remained extremely strong.

Closing off your immediate community comes with benefits that the modern world has been quick to forget. Emma experienced these during her time at Bashley site – located down a quiet road, separated from the rest of North West London. With years of little dilution from the surrounding environment, she noticed how many core values and traditions remained extremely strong.

Close family ties were one of them. Little interaction with the outside community has meant that existing bonds have only strengthened over time. Most family members lived only “a stone’s throw” away and so extended family was seen on a daily basis – a rare event in the modern world. Emma spoke about the importance of family dinners and children helping out around the house.

“One of the ladies, Josie, had 24 siblings and many of them lived on site. Her mum had lived to 100 and had apparently held the record for the most children and grandchildren in the world at any one time. She spoke fondly about travelling in the cart with all of her siblings – and even though it sounds unimaginable – it seemed like the time she loved the most.”

In many ways, the modern world presents a less unified picture. Technology that has allowed us to open up our cultures and perspectives seems to threaten important core values that close knit communities are built on. Spending time with those we care about the most can be more of a challenge, with distance often creating a greater barrier. 

A recent study in the UK suggests that Briton’s sense of community and belonging is falling over time. Only 62% of people felt that they were a part of their local community in 2017-18, compared with 69% in 2014-15. Meanwhile, parents in the UK were less likely to give and receive help to family members who did not live with them in 2018 than in 2012, falling by 4 and 6 percentage points.

It might be that broadening our perspectives and geographically separating from our immediate relatives has somewhat dismantled our sense of solidarity. Though being a part of closed communities like the Irish travellers may come with less independence to make external relationships, it seems to benefit from a much greater sense of belonging.

Travel is another tradition that Emma highlighted as a still definitive aspect of the travellers’ lifestyle. Something they’ve preserved through their insularity. For the settled world, travel is seen as a privileged opportunity to broaden our global perspective and expand our social networks. For the traveling community, it is viewed in a different light. Rather, it is seen as a way to strengthen ties with like-minded individuals and stay closely connected. While travel for the settled community exposes us to a diversity of people and cultures, for closed communities it seems to reinforce their close community.

Common travels such as horse fairs and pilgrimages are events largely exclusive for their tribe and help build the traditions and beliefs that their community was founded on. Although travelling has evolved from its horse and cart form, horses were still kept on site and brought a lot of pride to the families. Emma spoke about how travel was not as easy as it used to be – something the community expressed concern about.

“Pilgrimages were a huge part of their culture. Those who I spoke to had been on at least 3 or 4. One woman, Tina, had been on over 30. Popular ones were Medjugorje in Bosnia and Lordes in France. A lot of the women said they’d seen miracles on these pilgrimages and I never felt like anything was being exaggerated or was ingenuine.”

That being said, closed communities are opening up to a degree. Emma and I spoke about the role of social media in helping these communities to interact with the outside world. For the older generation, the way in which they use technology still says a lot about their desire to remain closed.

“The oldest generation definitely didn’t use social media. The closest thing they used was a prayer Whatsapp group. Someone would send a voice note of a prayer they had written that night and everyone would listen. It united them. ”

Platforms used by the older generation were largely private, helping them to stay locally connected rather than opening up to the broader world. These privacy concerns are similarly being mirrored in modern society, with end to end encryption becoming more standardardised on most social platforms.

For the younger generation though, social media is offering these private individuals a window into lives outside the perimeter of their people. Through channels like Instagram and TikTok, they are connecting more globally than their parents did. Still, their communication was largely bounded within the wider travelling community. Emma spoke about the popularity of traveller meme accounts and Instagram Q&As with other travellers outside of the site.

Wider networks like these can come at the cost of more intimate relationships. Emma saw that this was concerning some of the older generation, who thought it was contributing to the erosion of traditions and beliefs over time. With recent studies showing causal links between social media and loneliness, their fears may be representative of wider concerns.

Participating in the outside world may be easy online but integrating into offline spaces is not so simple. Minority groups often face many obstacles which makes full integration close to impossible. Emma spoke passionately about the mistreatment of travellers by the settled world and how unfair judgement was only isolating them further.

“Small things like Deliveroo drivers refusing delivery on their site or GPs refusing phone calls has made them defensive to the outside world. Security guards will often trail them at supermarkets and other parents at school will look at them like dirt. Modern society often casts sweeping judgements on the entire community based on the actions of a few. There is good and bad in every group and it’s not right to write off an entire ethnic minority based on the assumption that they’re all the same.”

It makes sense then that isolation is still apparent amongst minority groups like these, who often face larger personal costs when opening up to global societies. Emma believed that a key reason why the older generation were unsupportive of formal education was because of their unwillingness to compromise on their strong Catholic values.

Opening up their children up to formal schooling meant risking a non-Catholic partnership and potentially sex before marriage which would bring great shame onto the family. Sex-education also raised concerns, as parents wanted to teach their children about instead. Pair this with judgement from parents in the settled world and social situations don’t seem so attractive.

For the younger generation though, some are willing to bear that cost. Less interest in Catholic beliefs means that education is seen as an opportunity for some. Some could see their lives developing outside the site and others already had. Though on the most part, education was still largely seen as optional.

“If there isn’t much opportunity for your future to be self-determined, then a lot of the motivation to educate yourself disappears. Most of the boys would end up working with their dads (some as young as 7) and the girls would likely be married by 18 – taking care of the home.”

For modern society, engaging in the global community can also come at a cost. The concerns of the travelling community in opening up to the outside world seem like a micro version of what’s happening on a broader scale. Countries pulling out of trade unions, nationalist sentiment on the rise and a trend towards micro-influencers over big name celebrity endorsements all signal our increasingly inward perspectives. The isolation of the travelling community is a microcosm for understanding our own tendency towards insularity as a larger world.

It seems that a willingness to open our communities and gain the benefits of a more interconnected world comes at a cost that not everyone is willing to bear. Technology may encourage people to be more aware and open-minded, though physical integration still comes with great challenges. The decisions made by tight-knit communities like the travellers to remain apart from the wider world are really just reflective of decisions being made in modern society each day.

You can learn more about Emma Williams and her photography here and see some of the coverage of her upcoming book here.

By Jannah Hardy

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.

Baby Boomer

Bridging The Distancing Effects Of Age

As part of Propellerfish’s Coronavirus work-from-home plan, we ask our team members to call their parents and grandparents.

Our projects rarely ask questions about how we can make the world around us more user friendly for our parents and grandparents. This is a big group of people. It’s also a group that, through a mix of genetics and better decisions, we will likely be joining at some point in time. With our team working from home amidst a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the older people in our lives, we asked everyone to call their parents and grandparents. We asked them to check in and listen for insights into the years ahead of us.

The effects of age magnify physical distances.

The physical paths to the things we care about most become longer with age. A short walk to visit a neighbour becomes an investment of a limited amount of energy that needs to be budgeted and replenished. Travelling even short distances comes with risks of falling which limits access to things we care about as we get older. Many of the seniors we spoke to could no longer drive, which transformed small trips into huge distances overnight.

“I can walk around on my own with a walking stick around the house but generally feel breathless after a few steps and then I have to sit down. I’m bored at home, I don’t go out besides medical appointments at the hospital and  functions like weddings. Even that it is a chore to shower and tie a saree and go anywhere.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

The effects of age puts distance between us and the activities that give us meaning.

Seniors talked to us about being distanced from the activities that gave them meaning in their younger years. One grandparent whose primary source of exercise and social interaction came from a regular game of tennis twice a week had to stop after a bad fall. Many talked to us about retirement distancing them from the profession that had given them meaning their entire lives.

Seniors Basketball
“I knew my squash game was in decline, but I didn’t want to give it up. For about 18 months after quitting I was depressed. I realised I was missing something that I’d actually spent a lot of time doing and it was really important to me.” (Tim’s Dad, UK)

Aging puts distance between us and the people we care about.

The seniors in our lives talked about being both literally and metaphorically farther away from the people they cared about. Some had lost hearing and found it hard to connect with the people around them. We heard about how younger people couldn’t relate to their experiences in older age. And obviously, the physical distance they need to travel in order to visit people they care about is harder to travel with depleted energy levels and less access to transportation.

“You can’t hear and it’s frustrating. I’m right there in a room with people and I don’t know what’s happening or what they’re trying to say to me. You’re physically there but you’re still far away.” (Miguel, 96, Miami)
“In the last 2 years especially, I feel more lonely because I’m less mobile. My two daughters live with me but they go to work. I have a helper from India and we talk a lot about the customs and I tell her my stories from when i had struggles.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

Getting older puts distance between us and strangers.

Our seniors felt they weren’t acknowledged by people out in the world the way they were when they were younger. Shop staff are less likely to approach them, people are less likely to make eye contact with them on the street, and they generally feel as though they go unnoticed when out in public.

“A woman I’m in the garden club with asked me, ‘do you ever get the feeling that people treat you like you’re invisible now that you’re old?’ and it’s true. People in stores don’t pay attention to you.” (Retired Nurse, 76, Miami)

The effects of aging create distance between us and ourselves.

Our grandparents talked about feeling distanced from themselves. On the one hand they talked to us about how in their minds they feel like the same person they were in their younger years. On the other, they felt their diminishing physical and mental capacity a constant reminder of the distance between the person they were and the person they are today.

Senior Insights
“Looking at pictures of me 10 years ago, it’s not the same person. If I see pictures on the wall taken 40 years ago, it’s there but I am not there anymore.” (Alex’s Dad, 95)

The Covid-19 crisis is challenging us all to find ways to manage distance from our work, from our loved ones, and from the basic necessities we need to keep ourselves and our families going. As we manage the crisis ahead, let’s think about the members of our communities for whom age has already made the things that matter farther and harder to access. And let’s take a moment to think about how we can play a small part in bridging that distance for them through this crisis and beyond.

Aside from asking staff calling their grandparents, Propellerfish has donated to Meals On Wheels and Age UK who are offering practical support for the elderly in the US and UK during this time. We have also made a donation to Doctor’s Without Borders whose work will become increasingly important as this crisis impacts some of the more vulnerable regions of the world where much of our project work happens.

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

The most clever people in business have a talent for thinking forward. They reframe problems in ways that bring clarity to the beginning of a strategy process. They distill user needs down to precise opportunities. They design solutions that address those needs perfectly. Thinking forward is every consultant’s comfort zone. Thinking forward gets you to a perfect solution.

Unfortunately, perfect solutions struggle in an imperfect world. They are often divorced from the imperfect realities of implementation. They ignore the imperfect personal politics of big organizations. They ignore the very practical imperfections of new markets. Reality eats perfect solutions for breakfast.

If thinking forward gets us to perfection, thinking backwards helps us design for the imperfect reality ahead. Thinking backwards is about starting with end game realities in mind. Its about engaging technical people from the start. It’s about starting at the shelf and working backwards from a retailers point of view around stocking something new. It’s about prototypes sitting on a real shelf during a pilot. It’s about working backwards through every stage of the commercialisation journey ahead of your ideas to ensure those ideas become something real and impactful in the world.

Great innovation is designed for an imperfect world by keeping the full journey to market in mind.

In a world that celebrates the journey to the summit, most of the fatalities on Mt. Everest happen on the way down. Successful teams think the climb through not just to the summit but to moment a climber returns safely to base camp. Innovation teams have a habit of focusing on the summit at the expense of getting back to basecamp safely.

The least popular people in businesses tend to think backwards.

Thinking backwards early on can make you an unpopular voice in the beanbag circle. When it comes to innovation, organizations overemphasize the art of thinking forward. They emphasis is on new ideas as the antidote to business as usual and often shelter innovation teams from the imperfection of the real world. The result is usually a team focused on the summit with no idea how to come down.

Great innovation teams pair the creative vision to think forward with the operational and commercial awareness to think backwards so solutions actually get to market. They are like time travellers with the ability to operate in both the present and the end of an innovation journey at one time. They can think forward to a solution and backwards through implementation at once. They use constraints drawn from thinking backwards as springboards for thinking forward.

Organizations need to equip innovation teams with more holistic commercial skillsets. Put people with a complete view how innovation happens at the start of your journey so teams have more impact to show for themselves in the end.

On The Value Of Half-Baked Solutions

You’re kicking off a project aimed at solving something complicated. Something that’s a priority across the organization. Your 6 month timeline feels short. Your starting point can be interpreted as an inspiring blank slate or a very intimidating zero.

At your first meeting, a colleague suggests solving the problem now. In fifteen minutes.

An uncomfortable silence follows.

This exercise makes most people uncomfortable, but tapping into that discomfort can unearth insights that give projects direction. That discomfort can help you identify the knowledge gaps undermining the group’s confidence and help the team prioritize what questions need answers before a team can arrive at a solution with confidence.

Where does it hurt?

Your team has hastily tackled the colossal challenge ahead in fifteen minutes. Before they present back, ask them to pause and reflect on how they’d feel if they had to recommend this solution to a more critical group of stakeholders within the company. Ask them to write down the aspects of the solution that make them the most nervous in descending order of concern.

Anxiety as a project planning tool

Now ask people to reframe their most fundamental concerns as a question that needs to be answered over the course of the project.  These questions can then become a guide for the learning journey ahead. Meanwhile those early solutions, no matter how rough, are valid hypotheses worth exploring.

Ultimately, innovation is a learning process where our earliest solutions make for better questions than answers. Understanding what makes us nervous about those earliest hunches can tell us a lot about how we can reach an outcome with confidence in the end.

Alex Marquez is the founder of Propellerfish, an insights and innovation agency with offices in London and Singapore.

Strategy Is A Human Practice

All commercial growth starts and ends with people.

Whether the conversation is about a new system, a technology, a B2B product, a manufacturing process, or a business model, all growth is a result of people doing something they were not doing before. But for some reason, our vocabulary around growth tends to dehumanize it. We focus on what organizations do and the outcomes of clever strategies, but growth only happens when human beings take action.

People make strategy real.

Global strategy becomes real when teams in local markets agree to take action. Marketing Strategy becomes real when consumers choose our products instead of someone else’s. Service Design becomes real when frontline employees adopt a new way of delivering a service. Product Innovation becomes real when a retailer agrees to put your new product on a shelf. Each of these things involve someone doing something they were not doing before.

Where thinking meets doing

The past ten years at Propellerfish has been a front-row seat watching people make growth happen or hold it back in businesses around the world. Our team has championed the realities of local teams on global innovation projects. We have spent time with traditional retailers in India understanding how they think about inventory. We have spent time on factory floors in Germany understanding worker concerns about digitisation. We have delivered sodas to retailers in Nigeria. We have unlocked the potential of a B2B technology by recognising that the current interface is unintuitive to non-engineers. We’ve worked on petrol station forecourts to understand how to motivate staff to deliver better service.

Successful leaders recognise that commercial growth is delivered by human hands and work backwards from the people to make growth happen. Because designing commercial growth around the people who make progress happen brings us several steps closer to making growth happen in the real world.

Alex Marquez

By Alex Marquez

Alex founded Propellerfish in 2009 and is currently leads the team based out London.

Back End Innovation

Front End Innovation Needs More Backend Reality

The term Front End Innovation implies an unhelpful distance between the concept stage and the hard work of getting products to market. Teams that are great at Front End Innovation, tends to understand that great Front End Innovation starts at the Back End.

If your goal is a product in market, thinking backwards from that outcome helps teams focus their work on what matters at every stage in their work.

It helps you focus on the right things at the right time

Corporate innovation typically means developing solutions that can scale within massive corporate systems. Those systems come with complexity startups don’t typically have to deal with. When we see teams getting lost in complexity, we ask them to pause, let go of where they are in the process and think through the journey of designing a new product or service in reverse, from the moment it hits the market to right now. Thinking in reverse reminds teams of what it really takes to get a solution to market and helps them prioritize the right things at the right times to keep moving forward.

It helps you focus on the right stakeholders

While working with an automaker in North America, the outcome we wanted was a better customer experience. We could have gotten lost in all the ways this could happen. Thinking the challenge through in reverse reminded the team that this outcome sits in the hands of dealers. We redesigned our project to think through the challenge from the perspective of dealers rather than the automaker. The result was a suite of services dealers would be willing and able to deliver well.

It helps you focus your questions

On an consumer goods project, we hit a roadblock when a team could not agree on the details of an ambitious round of consumer research across 3 countries. We paused and all agreed that the outcome we wanted was a successful product on shelf. When thinking backwards through the journey, we realised our biggest challenge wasn’t consumer insight (we had loads of it). The real challenge was that the organization’s existing manufacturing assets limited our landscape of solutions dramatically. We shifted our focus to rigorously iterating around the three products the organization could deliver and a product hit shelves 18 months later.

It helps you focus your consumer research

On a project focused on alcohol occasions, we realized that no matter how great our final product was, it would go nowhere if it was not embraced by bartenders. We designed a week in each market where our first and last interactions were with bartenders. That vantage point helped us ground our work in what mattered to our key gatekeeper before finalising our thinking about what a successful product would need to do in order to succeed.

It helps you create innovation for the real world

An innovation process that starts at the back end is more consider all of the factors that dictate success at those final stage gates. On a drinks innovation project, we involved R&D in our research stage. Being present during those early conversations sparked connections between what consumers told us and an amazing technology that was available through a vendor. That technology became the core of our winning concept early on. The result was a project with an immediate roadmap through their system into market.

It helps you focus on your organization’s strengths

Many organizations respond to opportunities without really thinking about whether they are the player in their industry to deliver. Starting at the back end can give you a healthy dose of perspective around whether this is an opportunity your organization should tackle alone or whether this is better approached as a partnership or through an acquisition.

Amazon has a similar approach to innovation called “Working Backwards”. You can hear our friend Wen talk about that here.


If you are looking to put more back end in your front end innovation process, here are six exercises to re-focus on what matters by forcing them to think projects through in reverse.


Propellerfish is an innovation and insights firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead innovation projects with an eye on what it takes to get products and services to market.

Responsive Consumer Insight

Better Consumer Insights Through Responsive Design

The process of understanding something complicated begins with more questions than answers. When it comes to consumer insight work, the more we learn, the better our questions get and our best questions tend to be the ones we ask later in our discovery process. Great research responds to new learning. It snowballs, evolves and gets better over time. Yet the dogmas of traditional consumer insight work tend to ignore the power of questions we don’t yet know to ask.

On a project aimed at rethinking a mobile payment platform in India, our clients wanted help understanding why their current solution wasn’t working for their target female user and how they could pivot that solution into something that works.

We planned an intense week of research across about a dozen rural villages in Uttar Pradesh. After day 1, we realized something important: most of these users were illiterate, they did not have phones, and they did not manage home finances.

That night, we redesigned our fieldwork completely to understand what it would take to make mobile financial services work in this region. We broadened our focus from female users to include men since they were the ones with the phones, the home finance responsibility and literacy required to transact via mobile in these communities. We also tapped into local telco agents and street shops selling top up credit. These people knew more about the users than we could ever learn in a week.

Day 2 taught us that the idea of a mobile payment solution was attractive because paying bills was inefficient and took time away from earning a living. We also learned that telco agents had no interest in mobile finance because it required them to keep enough cash on hand for people to cash out and offered an insignificant payoff compared to the other things they sold.

Our week in field snowballed into our final day where we focused exclusively on telco agents in order to understand what we would need to offer them in order to make this commercially viable from their perspective.

A great research methodology responds to consumer insights you hadn’t expected to find

If we had stuck with our discussion guide, we would have come back with a fairly limited insight. Iterating on our methodology in real time meant we came back with consumer insights and principles teams can use to craft actual solutions.

Responsive Research Design puts structure around flexibility the iterative nature of great research. It allows projects to evolve in real time with protocols in place that ensure changes are made methodically by a team that knows what they’re doing.

Here are six things that Propellerfish teams do to help insight projects respond to new learning and get smarter over time.

01. Debrief early and often

Where possible, teams debrief in a standard format at the end of each day, if not after each interview. On global projects, we land a refined picture of the project after we complete fieldwork in each market. This emphasis on landing insights and solutions regularly means missing knowledge and new questions are raised before it is too late to address them.

02. Jump to incomplete solutions

We periodically challenge our teams to land what they’d do if they had to solve the challenge with only the data they captured on day 1. Sitting with an incomplete solution (perhaps a bit uncomfortably) helps teams understand which areas need further exploration so they can solve problems more confidently later in a project.

03. Build in time for less structured exploration

Avoid the temptation to over-schedule your time in market. Wandering streets with a translator can get you surprisingly far when it comes to addressing questions you hadn’t anticipated needing answers to before your consumer insight project started.

04. Engage the people who know your people early

Experts who know a lot about your user are people to speak to upfront. They can help you skip the basics and get more out of your time in field. If a pivot needs to be made to your methodology, you can make that happen early.

05. Hire locals

Global teams are great at piecing together a picture that cuts across markets, but it’s hard to get beneath the surface of a culture that isn’t your own. Hire someone local to keep you in check. These people don’t need to be researchers. We’ve hired our own respondents, friends, and translators to stick with us throughout our fieldwork to ensure we process consumer insight and tweak our methodology through a local lens .

06. Put experienced boots on the ground

It takes experience to know when and how to pivot a research methodology in field. We make sure every team has a leader capable of leading teams towards better research as research is unfolding.

Because insight projects are a learning process, our methodology around those projects should that respond to new learning. Responsive project design allows teams to evolve a project as they learn within structures that encourage the right evolution at the right time.

To learn more about our approach to consumer insight work, read our article on how innovation teams need a different approach to insights.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that closeness is the key to better insights.

Innovation Lab

Successful Innovation Labs Have Something Obvious In Common

Innovation labs within large companies have a spotty track record of lasting more than 24 months. What separates survivors from the teams that fold is an ability to align what they’re doing with problems and opportunities that matter to the organization. If you’ve been charged with setting up an innovation team, our one piece of advice is to start there.


“Our innovation lab built a good sandbox of technologies that are the future of this industry but the organization was too slow to adopt any of them.” – Head Of Innovation Lab, Financial Services


All organizations are slow, but while they may be slow to adopt solutions in one area they’re probably busy implementing things with urgency in another. If you’re in the slow camp, you’re either (1) working on something transformational with the support of a future focused leadership team or (2) you’re working on something nobody genuinely cares about. If you’re in the second camp, it’s time to reprioritise.


“The team had 15 priorities when I arrived. We picked five that had teams needing to implement urgently. We had a launch in 18 months. That impact fuels support and engagement on everything else.” Head Of Innovation, Consumer Goods


Start by understanding the organization’s priorities. Too many innovation labs start by ordering 3D printers and looking for startups to hang out with. The successful ones start by understanding the areas of the business that need help and align their efforts with what these areas need in order to move forward.


“We didn’t start with startups, we took time and seconded our team to live and work alongside the different functions within the bank. We learned exactly what each team needed and are now incubating startups that solve those problems so the solutions become bank ready.” Innovation Lab, Financial Services


Land quick wins. Understanding priorities can help you understand where the quick wins are. You’re going to need some of those in order to have enough momentum to carry you over the longer term. Have some stories to tell sooner rather than later.


Finally, realise that success in this role could look a lot more like “mission accomplished” than “job for life”. Successful innovation teams have a tendency to do themselves out of a job. Always look ahead to what a successful innovation lab will set you up to do next.

If you’ve found yourself setting up an innovation unit inside a large organization, check out our article on How To Build A Successful Innovation Centre.

Global Leadership

How Local Experiences Make Us More Global Leaders

I was speaking at a regional conference in Yangon a month ago where someone kicked off an interesting discussion around the role of global leadership in markets that ultimately succeed locally. The question came from someone on a country level team from Pakistan:

Is it better to take a global innovation and adapt it to a local market or is it better to take an idea that’s worked in one local market and export it to others?

The question gets at the natural challenge faced by global leadership: their ideas only succeed if they deliver value at a local level, but local teams often feel global lacks the complete perspective they need to deliver impactful locally.


The question kicked off an interesting discussion around the role of global leadership in organizations that ultimately succeed (or fail) locally.


I’ve spent most of my career working with global teams. At Propellerfish, I have the privilege of watching global leadereship operate across a variety of initiatives around the world. We’ve had the opportunity to partner global leaders from different backgrounds, in different regions, with different levels of exposure to local markets, and with diverse perspectives on what it means to be “global”. The best of them have a three things in common.


1. Their perspective is informed by diverse local experiences

Global executives with experience in local markets have a clearer picture of what it takes to make things happen at a country level. Beyond the operational perspective, executives with experiences living day to day in a developing or emerging market understand the realities of life for the vast majority of people around the world.


2. They assemble teams that represent a global perspective

While diversity is a hot topic within organizations at the moment, nowhere is diversity a more important asset than in assembling teams that shape the global agenda of an organization. And when it comes to designing a global team, diversity runs deeper than drawing from multiple cultures, genders and race. It’s about leveraging diversity of experience to shape global thinking that’s grounded in multiple local realities. The ideal global team is a set of people hailing from different cultures, who can pair razor sharp professional skills with first hand experience living and working in different markets.


3. They’re based in hubs that share commonality with the markets they serve

While the flexibility of where to base a team with multi-country responsibility may be more the luxury of regional teams than local ones, choosing a baseplace that has more commonalities than differences with markets a team is meant to serve helps shape a more relevant worldview from which to think about global challenges.


If you’re looking to shape a set of global leaders that deliver impact locally, or are looking to become a global leader yourself, here are five pieces of advice worth considering.


1. Treat “global” as a skillset rather than a title or remit

When assembling global teams, think seriously about the skills you’ll need in order to create solutions that local markets can take forward.


2. Foster global perspective through local experience

Some countries have a culture of sending their high potential talent abroad to gain local experiences and perspectives that will make their global thinking more relevant in the future. Building global leaders is about equipping future leaders with local experiences as much as it is about exposing them to global standards.


3. Import & Export: Second from the inside out and from the outside in

Most of the investment in creating global leaders is about globalizing people from the centre of an organization, but some of your most valuable global leaders will come from the local markets. Creating a generation of global leaders is as much about seconding people from the global nucleus of an organization to local markets as it is about identifying local high potentials, exposing them to other markets and sharpening their skillsets.


4. Base global leadership in markets that reflect the many rather than the few

There are many reasons why a global team should sit in a global headquarters, but we are seeing more and more global teams base themselves in the markets that drive the majority of a business’s growth. Singapore has become a destination for businesses looking to headquarter their global operations in Asia Pacific, a part of the world that is driving the most growth in our global economy. Meanwhile, a regional team once talked to us about their choice of basing their regional team in Bangkok because it delivered both geographic convenience for leading Asia Pacific while also offering employees a day-to-day lifestyle that reflects a Southeast Asian market along with the perks of first world comforts.


5. Help local markets see the world from each other’s perspective


Finally, local markets that operate in isolation are unlikely to see value in the bigger picture without being exposed to it. Helping local markets become more versed in the similarities (in addition to the differences) that run between them can help them enter regional and global conversations with a productive sense of perspective.


If you have a story about how “global” works or doesn’t inside of your organization, I’d love to hear it.

Alex Marquez is the founder of Propellerfish, an insights and innovation agency with offices in London and Singapore.

Experiment: Designing An Innovation Toolkit

By 2015, Propellerfish had partnered with Cisco’s internal innovation teams across dozens of initiatives around the world. The need for support on innovation projects throughout the organization was growing and Cisco’s internal innovation teams realized that volume of requests for their services had grown beyond what they could reasonable deliver.

Propellerfish was starting to see similar limitations in other client businesses. We decided to sit down together and segment out the types of requests on a spectrum. At one end were teams needing help running simple things like workshops. At the other, were teams needing more robust support working through complex challenges. We realized many of the former were initiatives teams could be tackling on their own. With the right innovation toolkit, we were convinced they’d be successful leading smaller innovation projects and innovation workshops without us.

We set out to understand the anatomy of these challenges and realized they had three things in common:

1. The time and resources these teams had to dedicate to the initiative was limited. They needed answers quickly and needed to move on with their day jobs. The right innovation toolkit would help them get the most out of the time they had to dedicate to this challenge.

2. They were situations where the need (or the resources) to conduct any meaningful insight work was not present. Teams were in a position to jump to solutions and weren’t looking for months (or even weeks) of rigorous user research and solution development. The innovation toolkit would need to help them be insightful with the time and perspectives available within their team.

3. A huge part of the task at hand was really understanding what they were trying to achieve with this project – the innovation toolkit would need to force them to pause and reflect on what made them approach Cisco’s Innovation Management Office in the first place.

We developed our first innovation toolkit in 2014 as an experiment. The prototype was basic: a plastic box contained a booklet on process, basic templates for running a session and the stationery people would need in order to complete a working session.

We learned a lot from that first experiment. Specifically, we realized that teams need two things: (1) efficient guidance and (2) structured flexibility.  Efficient guidance in that they needed to understand what they were doing but did not have tons of time to watch an instructional video. Structured flexibility in the sense that every session was inherently different. People needed the ability to customize their journey without compromising on the structure that made workshops run well.

Version 2 was a more polished toolkit that started with a questionnaire about what challenge the team was setting out to solve. Based on that diagnostic, the toolkit prescribed a series of exercises that helped people tackle their specific problem. Instructions were simple and visual. The result was a series of stories where teams felt more empowered to take these types of challenges on alone.

The innovation toolkit has evolved further through experimentation across different organizations and use cases. What we’ve ultimately learned is that the innovation tool kit works best in conjunction with (1) a team that is genuinely committed to doing some of the work on their own and (2) a dedicated amount of remote coaching from a seasoned Propellerfish innovation leader.

If you’re interested in developing a toolkit for your organization, we’d love to share our experiences building innovation capability for organizations around the world.  Please get in touch here and someone from our team will get back to you within 24 hours.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.