Cary Bran, Senior Director of Innovation and New Ventures at Plantronics (NYSE: PLT) and PLT Labs, is a modest technological wizard and entrepreneur and an accomplished strategist with more than 16 years of experience working within the communications and collaboration industry. Apart from being extremely talented in captivating consumers with innovative technology, he has a distinguishable Anthropological edge. He urges his research and development team to approach new idea generation using a customer-centric methodology. Currently, Cary and the team are working to identify and try to solve real-world communication and collaboration problems using experimental body-worn sensor technologies. A core belief of Bran’s that seems to be serving him well: the key ingredients to successful innovation is to work with a cross-disciplinary team that can bring in fresh perspectives to solve real-world customer problems or pain points.
As background: Plantronics was conceived by two airline pilots working from a garage in hopes of creating a new kind of aviation headset. The company pioneered the lightweight headset, and is now considered a leader in groundbreaking audio technology. Bran explains, "Plantronics has been around for over 50 years, so the proof is in the pudding. We've been innovating on products that have delighted customers for decades. When I came into the company there was already a strong culture of engineering excellence and over the last few years we’ve made significant progress towards building a company-wide culture of innovation and smarter working. If you look at our Santa Cruz office, it's a spacious and open concept that encourages collaboration between associates; everyone sits out in the open, including the senior executives and the CEO.
Clearly Plantronics has mastered the art of simplifying audio communication for its customers and Cary Bran is exactly what a Senior Director of Innovation should be: an inspiring team leader who persistently strives to delight customers, and fearlessly embraces change for continuous innovation.
Five Questions with Cary:
Q1: How does your team generate new ideas?
I'm the lead for the PLT Labs team, which is Plantronics’ showcase for product concepts and open innovation with the developer community. From a team perspective there are a couple of areas we focus on when building new hardware or software prototypes. We have structured innovation sessions, where we focus the team around solving problems for a specific customer domain. We like to ideate with folks from across disciplines. For example, a team may consist of a mix of software and hardware engineers, industrial designers and product managers. People from different disciplines bring in different perspectives that can help transform raw ideas into actionable projects. Our team is comprised of naturally curious people, and often we’ll ideate around what we observe in society from an anthropological perspective. You can learn a lot about communication pain points by riding the bus or strolling along the Santa Cruz boardwalk during the summer.
Q2: Do you have specific rituals for re-setting your team to be creative?
There are a couple of things I do to re-set a team while in the throes of an ideation session. Excursions are a great tool to break up the groupthink and reset the energy level. For example, the team may be deep into solving a hard problem but starting to stall due to mental exhaustion. To reset the team, we’ll take a 15 minute break and focus on something completely different, such as a scavenger hunt, listening to music or exercising. I try to make sure that we take excursions often; every 60-90 minutes or so. Essentially excursions are about un-focusing the team in order to come back with a renewed focus.
Q3: How do you identify trends? What resources does your team use to spot trends and consumer insights?
Part of identifying trends is being a bit of an anthropologist, keeping up with social media, scavenging content and sites like Trend Hunter, and simply paying attention to how people behave. In a more controlled way, we look at our industry and where sensor technology is going, and which software trends might be potential disruptors to the status quo. We like to go out into the field and engage with developers at hackathons since the feedback we receive from the development community is very valuable and helps us make better APIs. We partnered with AT&T recently for their Internet of Things series of hackathons. It was pretty amazing to see the hardware and software solutions that can be built in a weekend. I think the trend for hackathons is to become more like a maker fair with regards to what gets delivered at the end of the hack. I’ve seen teams build things like clothing with an array sensors controlled with a body-worn microcontroller that speaks to an iOS application over Bluetooth Smart. It’s amazing.
Q4: What makes an innovative culture? How do you create a culture of innovation?
When I came into the company there were some seeds that were already here, and adapting has been key. Also, we've progressed in making an innovative culture. If you look at our Santa Cruz office, it's a spacious and open concept, where the CEO sits among everyone else. We aren't blocked off in cubicles. People can communicate with one another easily and foster innovation. Plantronics has transformed its Santa Cruz offices into a smarter working environment that allows for productive meetings and creative collaboration, which creates the ideal environment for innovative thought.
Q5: Looking to the future, how is Plantronics going to be a leader in innovation?
Innovation isn’t something new to Plantronics; it’s part of our DNA. With that said, it's an ambidextrous challenge to continue with our industry leadership of delivering high quality products that delight customers while at the same time rapidly bringing to market features and functionality we’ve discovered through our open innovation initiative. It’s a good challenge to have. Plantronics has consistently delivered products and solutions that help people engage throughout their day. It’s my job to help ensure that innovation continues well into the future. Right now we have a really good team in place that’s passionate about delivering a personalized experience through continuous innovation. It's an exciting time to be at Plantronics.
References: plantronics and