New Top Gear : Innovation v. Arrogance & Fear

C Evans 1“Matt LeBlanc is a natural at location filming, but Chris EvansJ Clarkson 1 needs to relax and stop trying so hard to be Jeremy Clarkson”, according to the Guardian  – and if Twitter is anything to go by, according to many viewers.

Now, this isn’t another review of the programme – although from a Customer Experience angle, the (enforced) reboot of this hugely popular, and equally controversial, TV franchise poses an interesting debating point:

When your product or brand has to adapt to new circumstances, how do you go about it – do you innovate, or do you focus on damage limitation?

It’s a Customer Experience issue because the viewing public are the customers, and the BBC is the provider of the experience. And any experience as popular as Top Gear will inevitably risk upsetting a lot of its customers if it decides to – or has to – change. Think of your local pub that changed hands – the new landlord was younger and hipper than the old one, the menu changed from pub grub to gastropub, the familiar decor was given a trendy makeover. The resulting transformation was controversial; there was an exodus of formerly loyal patrons while the landlord was left to try and win over the remainder and attract new customers.

In the case of new Top Gear, the format remains the same; it’s as if the new, hipper landlord is trying to recreate the cosy atmosphere that his predecessor seemed born to inhabit. It’s what the Metro, in its review of the programme, called the “Uncanny Valley” syndrome – where all is not what it seems.

So the question is – why did the BBC decide not to change the format, having decided to change the presenters?

The answer, presumably, is either that it took the view that the programme is bigger than the presenters, or that, having been forced to make the change, it was trying to minimise the impact by keeping everything else the same.

Assuming the real answer is a combination of the two, I’d suggest that the result is the product of a mixture of arrogance and fear:

  • Arrogance, in failing to acknowledge that ultimately, it is the people who make the experience;
  • Fear, in missing the opportunity to reinvent the programme, playing to the strengths of the new team rather than forcing it to imitate its predecessors.

Having said this, I acknowledge that the BBC faced a daunting challenge, once the decision was made to change the team. Additionally, I have no doubt that the new team will settle in and that Top Gear will continue to be a popular and entertaining show.

So why does this matter?

Any organisation facing change needs to be clear about its objectives, and clear about the critical success factors.

In my programme The Three I’s of Innovation I quote Dr Stephen Maranville’s definition of innovation:

the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs.

In the case of Top Gear, the BBC is trying to meet new requirements, whilst satisfying existing market needs, and arguably, attempting to anticipate inarticulated needs too – no wonder it’s a challenge!

Generally however, the organisation should identify which of these is the principal driver of change. This then forms the basis of the change Initiative (the first of the Three I’s).

Next, the change needs to be informed by Intelligence (the second of the Three I’s): market research, competitor benchmarking, trends analysis, and common sense! In other words, be as well-informed as possible, talk to customers, talk (crucially) to the team who are delivering and will deliver the experience, understand the market, and avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Thirdly, remember that Implementation (the third of the Three I’s) is, according to former McKinsey CEO Al McDonald, “the last 98%” – detailed planning, monitoring and fine-tuning must always refer back to the reason for the innovation and the strategic vision. Too often, vision is dictated, or at least approved, by senior management, only for the detailed implementation to water it down or take it off on a tangent.

Finally, although touched upon under Intelligence, it bears repeating that the team – the people – bring the experience to life. Clarkson, Hammond and May didn’t only develop Top Gear into a global ratings juggernaut, they were the programme, or the experience. So, even if you are unable to hold onto key team members, never underestimate how “key” they are/were. I’d argue that no amount of focus, effort and resource is too much when it comes to ensuring that your team fits your organisation’s brand experience, and vice versa. That’s why I would have liked to have seen Evans, LeBlanc and co. have more influence over the new Top Gear format than they appear to have had.

To sum up, as novelist Chuck Palahniuk put it:

“History is filled with brilliant people who wanted to fix things and just made them worse.”

Don’t let it be you!

Watch my presentation The Three I’s of Innovation (20 mins) here.


Stephen Spencer is a keynote speaker, business coach and consultant, helping organisations create better Customer Experiences to unlock team and profit potential. He has over 25 years’ experience as a leader, trainer and experience developer with some of the UK’s most prestigious Retail, Tourism and Hospitality brands. Sign up for Stephen’s POSITIVE Customer Experience newsletter here.

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