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Meet the practitioner!



Businesses must put people and their experiences at the heart of what they do to become and remain successful. But how can businesses put user experience first and drive additional income? Fortunately, we have Tom Daplyn, Director of Active Matter, at hand to help! Tom is a leading innovator in the world of design and has worked with leaders competitive from some of the world’s biggest brands including Vodafone, Diageo, Lenovo and Mercedes to define and execute strategies that build competitive differentiation and grow customer loyalty. His mission is to accelerate positive ideas and the people they come from, and Tom has lent us some time today to talk through his approach to innovation and what the idea means to him.


Hi Tom, it’s great to meet you! To set the scene, would you be able to tell us about your background in the world of innovation and what you’re currently working on?

Hello everyone! My journey in the world of innovation started when I realised how much potential businesses have when they approach problems with a new perspective. Having honed my Design Thinking skills at a boutique consultancy, and launched a successful brand experience agency, I founded Active Matter in 2018 with a focus on bringing imagination and ingenuity together to spark positive change for ambitious companies.

Right now, we’re working on several projects – a new kind of loyalty program for a well-known consumer electronics company, re-imagining the customer experience of a global insurance company with AI, connecting lots of data to find new ways to enhance the travel experience of a train company and we just launched a new brand focused on health and wellbeing.


Sounds like you’re busy! There’s a lot of variety to that work. So to help frame ‘innovation’ – can you expand on what the word means to you?

Innovation has been so overused it’s kind of lost its meaning, hasn’t it?

Let me start with what it’s not. It’s not just about having ideas and running hackathons and doing sprints and being busy. We saw so much ‘innovation theatre’ over the years and there’s probably a graveyard (or goldmine) of half finished ideas and sketched solutions to old problems somewhere.

Ideas are the easy part, but ideas only matter if they get to market. For me, innovation is the process of turning a spark of inspiration into tangible things that solve real-world problems and make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.

And not all innovation is the launch of something shiny and new, it can simply be small improvements to existing things that make them better, slicker, faster, easier. For example, Apple launching its iPhone and Starbucks writing your name on your cup are both forms of innovation that solved a real life problem. However, one cost £1.50 for a sharpie pen, the other forged the path to the next Industrial Revolution.


Great contrast! So what inspired you to get into the innovation field?

I suppose I just continually see how many companies are stuck. It’s not that they don’t know the problem or recognise the need to change. They just don’t know how. Short term financial targets and day-to-day firefighting means that without a clear focus and the right investment, the important thing that needs to be done keeps sliding down the list.

On top of that, over the last 4 years, the traditional rules of customer experience have changed so much, that the old business playbooks can’t tell you what to do next. So, building the ability to imagine and create the future has never been more important.


So, let’s dig deeper on that. Why is innovation so important? What promise does innovation hold?

These days, it’s not dramatic to say that standing still means risking falling into irrelevance. That’s pretty powerful. Today’s business climate is a radical departure from where we’ve been in the past and this is creating massive headwinds for many companies. Almost 80% of CEOs don’t believe their companies will exist in 10 years.

The ability to innovate is crucial because it enables businesses to adapt and thrive amidst this constant change. It builds resilience.

At the same time, I believe business should be a force for good, and the gnarly challenges that lie ahead for all of us demand ingenuity and the ability to change behaviours. That’s what innovation is all about.


But for people looking to innovate better, what do you think the biggest myths around innovation are?

For me, just two things:

1. innovation is only about breakthrough inventions or high-tech solutions. In reality, innovation can be super simple like finding a more efficient or more enjoyable way to do something.

2. Innovation is only for creatives or people with a deep understanding of technology. Anyone can innovate; it’s about mindset, not job titles.


We agree that anyone can innovate! What then do you believe are the essential qualities or skills for someone looking to innovate?

Curiosity and open-mindedness are key. Also, the ability to ’unlearn’, which is to question the way things are done and the traditional laws of engagement. Things get engrained into culture and it takes guts to bring a common-sense approach to things and ask ‘why’. The best innovations are often the most obvious solutions. How many times have you thought ‘why didn’t I think of that?’

The ability to persuade and inspire is also critical. Whether you’re pitching for investment or trying to change something within a complex organisation, if you can’t inspire people, your vision will not happen.

Connected to this, you need resilience because a key part of innovation is setbacks and failures.


Thank you so much Tom, super insightful. One last question… What one key bit of advice would you give to people or teams looking to innovate?

My one key bit of advice is to stay customer-focused. Because when we’re in our shiny offices, surrounded by our colleagues, our objectives, our personal goals and our to-do lists, it’s natural to think from a company perspective. And you’ll come up with questions like ‘how can we create more revenue?’ And ‘how can we improve our loyalty?’.

Whereas when you surround yourself with your customers, you start thinking about their goals, their challenges and their life, you start to frame problems from their perspective. And you’ll start asking questions like, ‘how might we make this simpler for them?’ And ‘what might we give them to make their life better?’ And ‘how might we stop them doing this and encourage them to do this instead’?

It’s the second kind of questions that create solutions that stick.


Thank you so much Tom! That was really insightful and inspiring!

If you found this insightful too, we now delve into the thinking behind Tom’s Innovation Methods and Mindset Short Course, Spot Opportunities for Innovation with Experience Design, and how this affordable, one day masterclass can help organisations use design approaches to innovate with minimal investment and maximum impact.

You can read this second interview here.

Alternatively, if you’re feeling readily inspired, you can sign up for the short course here.