10.12.2020: Blog | General News |

Innovation in the Telecoms Sector – Exploring the mindset and mechanics of Big Telco

In recent months I’ve spoken to large telecoms operators across the globe about innovation. More specifically, I’ve dug deep into how they find and engage companies that are building and or launching game-changing and problem-solving technologies. My conversations were very different depending on region, seniority and sector; however, all the discussions provided real insight into the challenges these businesses face ensuring they don’t miss an opportunity.  I will caveat that this article will not compromise any of the specific discussions I’ve had to date.

To start with I wanted to explore why? Why is keeping an eye on innovation so important?


The FOMO or fear of missing out is palpable in all of my discussions, and nobody wants to be the one to miss the next big thing. There is a genuine desire to have visibility and an opportunity to engage innovators more regularly; however, the current climate has made this more of a challenge.

Competitive Advantage:

Most feel that true innovation if done right, should offer them some competitive advantage to their businesses. Although it is rare to find a game-changer, it is the aspiration, and to be the person that finds an innovation that propels a business beyond its competition should always be the goal.

Operational Excellence and Cost Reduction:

Most innovation scouting ends up in this category.  A new tech that enables a shift in the way a business does something and or significantly reduces the cost of an activity can make a significant impact on the fortunes of a business. But this requires a business to really know themselves, and know that they are far from perfect.

Then I examined how. How do you go about making sure you’ve got your finger on the “innovation” pulse?

Innovation Scouting:

Many operators boast an innovation scouting function or a spin-off venture that specifically targets engaging the startup ecosystem around telco and beyond. Competitions, incubation programmes and partnerships generally attract innovators to the table but to what end.

In-House R&D functions:

These functions are created so that innovation can come from within. All too often though, these functions tend to focus on vanity projects or projects with ill-defined outcomes. In both cases a third party innovator can also be involved, this is where things get tricky as there tends to be a significant misalignment when it comes to urgency and outcomes, innovators can ill afford to waste six months to a year on a pilot to “prove” their tech while an R&D function takes notes.

The “Independent” Sector Body:

There are bodies in Telco that genuinely look to help further the sector and the fortunes of the ecosystem they serve; however, some are in it for the money. Many start with honourable intentions, to further the sector, to help the ecosystem grow and connect and to make the world a better place through connectivity. However, over time things take a turn and become self-serving.  When it costs a small business £30,000 to showcase itself on the sectors main stage, there is something very wrong. How many startups can afford that kind of investment? If they can’t afford that ticket price, they won’t be there, and they won’t be seen or heard, simple. And the industry bodies meant to help this ecosystem connect suddenly becomes moot.

Reactive – We are big, and people will always come to us:

I heard this very statement from a European telco in November 2020. Okay, so you’re a big deal. That’s cool. What are you doing about your industry high churn? What are you going to do to compete with new entrants in the marketplace? It was a short conversation.

Proactive – Good old fashioned research to solve a specific problem or need:

Most of the great people I have met in Telco, the thinkers, the doers, the quiet achievers are incredibly proactive, humble and ooze empathy. It’s the empathy that sets them aside; it allows them to hone in on a problem and clearly articulate the problem so that they can actively search for solutions. Once they have options to explore, they are always willing to hear people out, and they understand that being an innovator or startup is hugely challenging and will tailor their discussions and engagement accordingly.

Takeaway thoughts on the Mindset of Big Telco? Patience vs perseverance to ensure innovation thrives.

We all want the benefits that come from innovation. Telcos, in particular, have to innovate to make sure they survive the challenges and competition that bombard them these days. If they fear missing out, truly want to gain competitive advantage and ultimately achieve operational excellence, then innovation is the only option. And that requires patience. Innovators aren’t likley to have all their “ducks in a row”, the latest ISO accreditation, the ability to swallow 180-day payments terms and reams of IT compliance documentation. Having a clear route to an open-door policy for innovators to engage with a Telco is a start. Enabling more empathetic approaches and engagements will help too and are a must if we are to succeed together.

If youre a small player searching for the eyes and ears of Big Telco then you are going to find lots of closed doors, you’ve got to be thick-skinned, tenacious and persevere. It’s a cliche but one that is absolutely key to getting the right visibility and traction.

I’ll leave you with the quote from American Scholar, Author and Pioneer of Leadership Studies – Warren Bennis.

“Innovation—by definition, will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience.” —Warren Bennis.