EyeforTravel Europe 2017

May 2017, London

Science + simplicity: the travel industry’s honey pot

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In a tough and turbulent market place, how do you make business decisions that work? Pamela Whitby has been talking to Joerg Esser who believes the answer lies in science

Theoretical physicist and computer scientist Joerg Esser is no stranger to complexity. But as a senior executive who was involved driving digital transformation within parts of the Thomas Cook Group, Esser soon came to understand that more complexity is the last thing the turbulent and challenging travel industry needs.

By his own admission Esser, who left Thomas Cook in October last year, is fascinated by buzzwords, and the one he thinks will define the future of travel is ‘simplicity’. Simplicity, he argues, is going to be absolutely crucial to success and there are two things, in particular, that he believes business leaders need to focus on.

  1. Simplicity in the operating model: Why? Because as market hurdles vanish, and consolidation continues, there will be no safe island to be inefficient. 

  2. Simplicity at the customer front: When it comes to the truckload of choices that customers today are overwhelmed by, it has to be about stripping away those decisions that are not fun. So, yes it’s fun to choose the features you want at a hotel, so let customers do that, but it’s not fun to work out travel transit times in airports or the most cost effective route. That process could be taken care of, thus simplifying and improving the customer experience.

How to achieve simplicity has become a personal goal for Esser who, as a postdoctoral fellow has spent time at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, a theoretical research body that is asking and attempting to answer some big and complex questions.

I just fundamentally believe that there is much to be learnt from science in how to navigate complexity

After deciding to exit the corporate world to pursue his own personal interests, Esser says he had the luxury of “rebooting for a month” in the desert landscape of New Mexico. Here he became increasingly inspired by some of the research being done, and lessons that can be drawn, from how colonies of ants and honeybees navigate and survive in complex environments.

“I have always liked the border between theoretical stuff and then extracting relevance from it, and have been on both sides of the fence,” he says. “And from my experience of being responsible for a business, I just fundamentally believe that there is much to be learnt from science in how to navigate complexity”.

The good news is that that while “business turns slowly,” it is also “embracing science because it seems to provide some recipes for today’s world”. So, despite some raised eyebrows from family members, colleagues and friends, Esser has decided to apply his mind to the intersection between science and business because, he argues, “there is still much more to be leveraged”.

So what he is aiming to do, by the end of April, is come up with a simple set of science-led, business applicable rules that can be applied today by leaders finding their way in a digital world, and that will make a difference tomorrow. Coming from the corporate world, you have to wonder why he hasn't had enough of rules and recommendations which, he admits, sometimes run into 100 pages -  ‘invest in a huge database’, ‘be more agile’, ‘do three hours of yoga’ etc. But he claims, there will be nothing as complicated as this in his set. “I mean what exactly is meant by ‘be more agile’?” he says.

Instead, there will be five rules that will be truly simple, tangible, easy to recall and transparent. “We’re after a set of light, impactful rules that if followed vigorously and stringently will smarten up an organisation and get it fit for purpose in this uncertain environment,” he explains.

Flattening hierarchy

Yes it sounds abstract, and yes getting these rules right isn’t exactly going to be easy. In one of his executive roles, to highlight the point, Esser tried to apply a lesson from the honeybees but admits that this proved less than straightforward. After all, in business there are people, not bees, so not everybody fell in step so easily.

When foraging honeybees return to the hive, they communicate the location of a nearby nectar source by way of a figure of eight ‘waggle dance’. Importantly though, explains Esser, only bees that have located the food source can do the waggle dance. So why not do the same in business? In other words, bring the managers and their analysts, aka the waggle dancers, who have actually done the research, along to the board meeting. Because if, like the scouting bee, you’ve done the important analysis then you also need to have a place at the boardroom table. “The idea was that we could make decisions based on information that came directly from the source,” he says. In essence, it helped “to minimise the Chinese whispers effect”.

..any new rules need to be completely transparent and fair to all members of the team and….they need to be applied stringently

But while this was effective in bypassing hierarchy and making teams work more closely together, it made some people uncomfortable. Does he regret it? Not really, because it was a powerful and transformative driver of change. But there were some important lessons too: that any new rules need to be completely transparent and fair to all members of the team and, most importantly, they need to be applied stringently. After all, who hasn’t been around a meeting table where everybody has agreed in principle on a way forward, gone off back to their desks and done exactly their own thing? 

And so, he cannot stress enough that: “It is the repetitiveness in doing it stringently that really moves the needle.”

What the rules will be, and whether they actually work remains to be seen, but for the moment it's keeping Esser busy. Busy, it seems, as a bee.

Joerg Esser will be speaking at EyeforTravel’s Europe Summit (May 3-4) alongside other senior executives and innovators from the travel industry. Don’t miss it

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