Innovation consultant at Innovia Technology
Guen Bradbury has had a varied career since she graduated from Cambridge in 2011 with an MA in pharmacology alongside her veterinary degree. She’s been a small animal practitioner, an anaesthetist, a lecturer, a researcher and a rabbit behaviourist. She now works as an innovation consultant for Cambridge-based consultancy Innovia Technology.
What does an innovation consultant do? That’s the million-dollar question! Basically Innovia Technology supports companies with their innovation processes. It’s not feasible for even the biggest multinational companies to employ experts across every single area that they might face challenges in, so what we provide is people with a lot of expertise and experience in innovation from a whole host of backgrounds and specialties, who have worked with lots of different companies. We can draw on our experience of what other people are doing, or we may have solved similar problems before, and we have a very structured approach to taking an innovation from a need to a market-ready product. We help companies work through this process.
Does your veterinary training help you with your role?
I think vets have the skills they need for roles in innovation. To start with, we’re a selected population, chosen for our curiosity and desire to fix things. Every day of our working lives is about flexibly responding to problems. Then we’re trained as consultants – for animals, yes, not innovation but the skill set and process are the same. There’s a knowledge-based element, there’s the interaction with clients element, and there’s the diagnosis and treatment element. All of these are very relevant. For instance, as a vet, I have an in-depth knowledge of how body systems work. So, if I’m thinking about how something might interact with the body, whether it’s a consumer product, a cosmetic or a medication, I’ve got a good understanding of first principles and I can use this to predict what the outcome might be.
I’ve also got training and experience in taking a full history from an animal-owning client, which can equally be applied to talking to a client in a big company. I can examine a problem in a very structured way, just as I would have approached the examination of a patient, and reach a diagnosis using all the information I’ve collected. Then I can think about possible treatment options, consider costs, the effort required, and so on, to reach a solution that is right for that specific situation. Veterinary consultation skills are extremely transferable to any sort of consulting work.
There’s the problem-solving aspect, too. I’ve had a lot of practice in evaluating what I need to know to help me solve the biggest problem first. That way I can prioritise the order in which I solve problems and approach a situation in the most efficient way to make sure I reach the right outcome.
What barriers to innovation do vets face?
I actually think the term ‘innovation’ itself can be a barrier. It’s so closely associated with technology and technology is often seen as a threat. That’s a real shame – innovation isn’t just tech, it’s also new ways of working or of doing things.
Another barrier is practice life. Typically, even if the managers of a practice are trying to take a long-term view, the day-to-day focus in practice is on getting things done in the short term. Innovation comes a long way down the priorities list, and unless an organisation encourages buy-in and creates a social opportunity around the innovation process, people won’t engage.
There is also a tendency to focus too much on ‘an innovation’, rather than on a need or a problem. Vets aren’t trained to think about how they would use an innovation, they’re trained to see a need or a problem and work out how to solve it.
I think that talking about innovation as a core competence at vet school might help. Thinking that we might be good at being a vet, but that we’re not innovative doesn’t really add up to me. We have the skills we need, and creating an environment that helps us realise this would help us be more innovative.
What advice would you give to someone who is keen to encourage an innovation culture/mindset in their workplace?
Talk – and listen – to everyone. Innovation in an organisation is often approached in one of two ways – from the top down, or from the bottom up. Neither works. With the first, managers decide that something needs to be done to solve a problem, but the problem they identify may not be the problem being felt ‘on the ground’. So either people aren’t motivated to do anything about it, or the wrong problem gets solved. With the bottom-up approach, the right problem might be identified, but unless there’s a system in place for raising it within the practice, nothing gets done.
So, ideally, you need to have a very open discussion with a spectrum of people. Hold a meeting, perhaps with someone other than a manager running it. Set clear ground rules and flatten any workplace hierarchies so that everyone feels able to speak up. Create a team that can work together to identify a problem that needs solving, assess how this could be done and test possible solutions. That way you have people who have bought in to the process and a team that can identify and solve problem after problem – and in doing so you’ve created an innovation culture in your workplace.
Why is it important for vets to be proactive about innovation?
The coronavirus pandemic is a really good example of how external events drive change and its impact on the vet profession could be immense. For instance, clients who find themselves unemployed after the current situation eases may decide that pet insurance is an unaffordable luxury. Pet insurance underpins many vet services and, without it, our financial model begins to crack. We could find ourselves facing vet unemployment – something that we’ve not experienced for many years. We need to be proactive now in thinking of ways to continue serving our clients – whether that is through new technology, new ways of working, or new ways of helping them pay for vet services. The pandemic will undoubtedly drive innovation, and, now more than ever, it is vital that vets are proactive about it. If you can do it well now, you will have an advantage in the future.
What are you most proud of and why?
It’s totally non-innovation related! I’m really proud of the fact that I published a textbook on rabbit behaviour. It’s a field where there’s never going to be any money in it – people aren’t going to pay to understand why their rabbit bites them! I was lucky in that I was really interested in rabbit behaviour at a time when there were no resources available on it, so I could be the first. It’s opened lots of doors for me in a really interesting area.