Tuesday, 29 December 2009

“Power Distance” and Innovation

In his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the role that “Power Distance” has played in a whole series of air disasters. Basically, the real problem in each case was not equipment failure, but communication failure - usually the inability of subordinates (such as the first officer) to tell the Captain clearly that he was screwing up.

Power Distance is a concept developed by Geert Hofstede as a result of years of research into management relationships around the world. It measures the extent to which less powerful managers feel they can challenge and confront more senior managers.

At one extreme are highly consensual societies, such as the Nordic countries, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the Netherlands, Israel, the USA, Britain and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. In these countries it’s expected that managers should and do speak up clearly to their superiors when there’s a problem (or an opportunity).

In the mid-range are many central and southern European countries (including France and Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the Czech Republic and Hungary), plus several in South-East Asia (Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan). In these countries a manager may think twice before challenging.

Up towards the autocratic end are China, India, Russia, Singapore, Korea and the Philippines, many of the Islamic countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, with Malaysia at the very top of the list), and several in Latin America (Mexico, Brazil among them). In these cultures a manager often feels best advised to keep his/her mouth firmly shut rather than rock the boat.

Of course, Power Distance has a profound influence on innovation. For example, if a senior manager in a country with a high score pours cold water over a new idea, it’s far more likely to be fatally damaged. This makes the development of breakthrough new products, new strategies, new ways of working far trickier. And techniques like open brainstorming, which can work so well in an open climate, are nowhere near so useful or effective. Participants often prefer to hide rather than speak up.

Over the years I’ve had to discover by trial and error innovation practices that work better in high Power Distance societies. But it’s never easy!

Have you discovered techniques that work well?

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Étonne-moi, Jean!

Commissioned to write a new ballet, the French writer, Jean Cocteau, asked Serge Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario, what was the brief? “Étonne-moi, Jean!” was Diaghilev’s instant response. “Astonish me!”

The eventual result was Parade: music by Satie, choreography by Massine, designs by Picasso, scenario by Cocteau. (What a team.) The first cubist ballet, it was also the birth of surrealism. Parade was premièred by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1917, causing general shock and amazement.

I rather doubt that Charles Saatchi knew this line when he was briefing creatives in his ad agency – he wrote recently that he doesn’t care for ballet - but that was exactly the core message that constantly permeated his business in its palmiest days.

So what’s the point? Whatever business you’re in – whether it be ballet or advertising, or banking or beauty, if you want real, breakthrough creativity, find and hire some VERY talented and creative people (amongst the conscientious and reliable ones) – and challenge them to ÉTONNE you. And listen attentively and open-mindedly when they do just that.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Harmony or conflict: which is more productive?

Is it better to have harmony or conflict in innovation teams?

A thrilling and very personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in the early 1950s, James Watson’s The Double Helix makes clear the high levels of interpersonal conflict that existed over the period of trial and error that led up to the eventual breakthrough by Watson and Francis Crick. Both of them had seemingly continuous rows with the brilliant crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, and her boss at King’s College in London, Maurice Wilkins. And Franklin and Wilkins were themselves barely on speaking terms throughout.

A good part of the enmity stemmed from the fact that they were all racing towards the same goal, each wanting to cross the finishing line first. In the event all the main players except Franklin, who died tragically young, won Nobel prizes for their work.

Would it have helped them to solve the problems more effectively if the boss of the Cavendish at the time, Sir Lawrence Bragg, himself a Nobel laureate, had provided the kind of leadership whereby this group of powerful but polarised intellects might have come to value and respect each other more? Or if Watson and Crick, both mavericks themselves, had had higher levels of personal maturity in dealing with colleagues constructively? Both were relatively young men, Watson only twenty-four years old at the time of the breakthrough.

My sense is that Bragg was not the finest of leaders. In fact, at one stage, unable to deal with the brash noisiness of his two most brilliant scientists, he forbade them to work on DNA and on model-building, a key part of their work. Of course, they carried on regardless - and Bragg himself made the initial public announcement of their success.

Many believe that Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix was the most important advance in biology since Darwin. If you haven’t read it already, I thoroughly recommend The Double Helix - quite the most exciting and spontaneous description of the triumphs and tragedies involved in major scientific discovery, with lots of learning for everyone involved in innovation.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Metaphor and the Art of Naval Warfare

Did you see Peter Weir’s film Master and Commander? It’s a great favourite of mine, as are several of Weir’s movies.

Having left the Galapagos Islands, where the ship’s surgeon, Maturin, and young Midshipman Blakeney have collected armfuls of newly discovered species (and spotted the enemy – the British ship is being pursued in the South Atlantic by a larger, better-armed French frigate). Maturin and Blakeney show the skipper, Jack Aubrey (brilliantly played by Russell Crowe), what appears to be a twig. It is in fact a phasmid, “an insect that disguises itself as a stick in order to confuse its predators,” says young Blakeney.

Intrigued, Aubrey conceives the idea of re-dressing his British warship as a harmless whaler, a “nautical phasmid”, luring the enemy into a trap. “I had no idea that a study of nature could advance the art of naval warfare,” says Aubrey.

Metaphors such as this are often the springboard for breakthrough ideas. As the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset puts it: “The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by men.”

Do you have favourite ones that have led to Eureka moments?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Pursuit of Perfection

The problem is this: if you wait till it’s perfect, first of all, you’ll never get there. And you’ll get beaten to market by a competitor.

For goodness sake, what’s perfect? If we demanded perfectly safe airplanes, we’d be sailing in ships. In point of fact, the Wright Brothers would never have taken off. If we wanted ships that never sank, we’d never leave harbour.

The real question is: when have we reached a threshold of acceptability? When that point has arrived, try it out, learn and adapt.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Do you have experience of losing out in this way?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Walkabout Verdi

Aside from silly and often irrelevant productions posing as creative, opera has not been noted for innovation in recent times. So what joy Graham Vick’s powerful new production of Verdi’s Othello in Birmingham.

Staged in a disused inner city factory. No seats, no shoes. Surrounded (it turns out) by actors and singers, it blasts off with the great storm and the arrival of the conquering hero in our midst. And before long, we are all dancing in cheerful circles.

Given that nowadays real black Othellos are the rule in the “legitimate” theatre, rather astonishingly Vick’s production has not only the first operatic black Othello, but also a black Iago, and is set in a contemporary, unidentified African state.

It’s an overwhelming experience. You can read my more extended review of it in Opera Britannia by clicking on the link below right.

What’s your experience of innovation in opera and theatre these days?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

In Praise of Lists

The Italian writer, Umberto Eco, has curated an exhibition for the Louvre in Paris of lists. Of lists? “The list is the origin of culture,” says Eco, citing Homer, Thomas Mann and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

A personal favourite of mine are the lists in the extraordinary travel books of Patrick Leigh-Fermor. The Argentinean poet and essayist, Jorge Luis Borges, lists his special pleasures as: “Hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee and Stevenson’s prose.” In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king lists the names of the French and English dead, ending with plain Davy Gam, Esquire. Early in the Bible we encounter the Ten Commandments, and later the Beatitudes. Buying a CD or book or DVD, we get the help of Google to present us with a list of options.

And lists are at the core of effective work, as we sort out the important and the urgent each day from amongst the dozens of jobs competing for our attention. This is especially important in innovation projects, where things can inadvertently come off the rails at any moment.

But there is always a struggle - every day, every hour - between the important and the urgent, where the latter seems so often to drive out the former.

How do you deal with this problem?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Betting the bank: not such a great idea

When Coca-Cola had the result of a blind taste test for New Improved Coke involving 200,000 consumers, it clearly indicated to the company that they should launch – and massively support – the new formulation. And that’s exactly what they did.

That’s most probably what I would have done too. And if you are honest, so would your organisation, faced with apparently overwhelming consumer preference.

Of course, we all now know that it was the greatest marketing blunder in living memory. The question is: how could (and should) they have handled it differently?

My own view is that they should have area-tested the whole new mix – product, packaging, promotion, advertising, pricing etc – in a discrete part of the USA and learned from the response in reality of consumers, while at the same time gauging the counter-attack of Pepsi. That way they would have limited the downside risk dramatically.

Many years ago, I worked on P&G’s Fairy Snow brand when it was a fairly distant follower of the great Persil in the British washing powder market. These two brands were the only remaining “heavy duty” soap powders on the market, all other brands having switched to be synthetic detergents. Unilever wanted to switch Persil to be a detergent brand too. They knew that this would give consumers clearly better results in their wash. And research showed that consumers massively preferred the new detergent-based product.

Just as with Coke, the company did not anticipate the effect of the strong emotional attachment that consumers felt for their existing, “kinder”, soap-based brand.

But here’s the difference: unlike Coke, the company did not immediately go national with their hot new formula, they test-marketed the whole thing in an area with no more than 5% of the UK’s population. P&G and Fairy Snow came back with a hard-hitting “we’re your only soap powder now” campaign – and Persil started to lose share immediately, hand over fist. At least in this case Unilever had limited their exposure and were able to go back to the mix that was tried and true.

However confident they are of success, I always advise clients not to bet the bank on their current hot innovation, but to try it out and be prepared to move fast, one way or another, when they have genuine market-place response.

Not to bet the bank: hmmm…maybe it’s not just a metaphor these days.

Do you have experience of this issue? What are your own learnings?

Friday, 4 December 2009

The two stages of childhood

Discussing my seven year old and her process of growing up with my colleague at City University, Kristine Karlsen:

“There are two stages to child development,” said Kristine. “First we teach them to walk and talk. Then we teach them to sit down and be quiet.”

This seems to me the pithiest and most devastating of summations. It tells us so much about why children emerge into adulthood with their creative faculties diminished. And why too often we need to have that side of us re-awakened later in life.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the lack of creativity in our British education system and I have some ideas about it.

But what do you think?

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The leadership of innovation – different?

The leadership of innovation teams – is it different in any way from leadership more generally?

Two things that are critical to success in innovation are: first, creating with your team a clear sense of direction and impetus; and second, maintaining a climate of possibility, supportive of speculation, creativity and problem-solving.

But aren’t those exactly the qualities you’d want in any leader? Does a climate of criticism and fear ever help the performance of a team, except maybe in the very short term?

In a recent Youth of Today survey, British teenagers have amongst their chosen Top 10 leaders celebrity businessman Sir Alan Sugar, X-Factor judge Simon Cowell and sixteenth century British king, Henry VIII. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to be in their teams, any of them. And what’s more I wouldn’t want them in mine.

Who would be your ideal leaders of innovation?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Secrets of Followership

A very experienced American colleague, Marvin Smith, suggested we talk about “followership”. “What?” we chorused. “What’s all that about, Marvin?”

“Well everyone talks about leadership,” he responded, “and the bookstores are stacked high with a continuous stream of new books on that subject. But when they teach leadership, they hardly ever touch on followership.

“In fact, outside of religion, no one ever seems to talk about followership. There are hardly any books or training courses. But, without followers, there are no leaders. It’s as simple as that.

“So what makes a good follower?” he asked us.

We spent a memorable hour springboarding thoughts and ideas and developing some ideal characteristics and behaviours. We realised quickly that we all need to be leaders and all followers in different situations. I personally committed to learning and growing as a follower and as a leader. One thing I would say is that good followership is clearly not about uncritical servitude.

What for you makes an outstanding follower?

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Professor Jerry Morris RIP

It has been assumed since Ancient Greek times that exercise is good for you. Yet until Professor Jerry Morris started to think about it in the late 1940s, there was no real scientific evidence.

Morris conceived the extraordinarily simple idea of studying the health of bus drivers and bus conductors on double-decker buses in London. After all, the drivers spent their day sitting behind the wheel, whereas the conductors were running up and down stairs all day – an average of 750 steps per day.

Lo and behold, he discovered that the drivers had twice as many heart attacks as the conductors.

Morris followed up this study with other grander designs. He discovered for example that postal workers who delivered their mail by foot were significantly healthier than those who drove their routes in vans. But it was the publication of his bus-workers research in the Lancet in 1953 which began the process of transforming attitudes and behaviours worldwide.

He himself was an early jogger, at a time when it was considered eccentric. And well into his 90s he was still swimming, pedalling his exercise bike and walking every day.

He died 28 October 2009 aged 99.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Huddles R Us

Whenever I run an innovation masterclass with a group of managers, I always kick off by asking them what are the things that really work well in their organisations and what problems they are encountering around innovation.

A constant refrain is that their company’s “culture” is not supportive of creativity, innovation and risk-taking, whatever the corporate mission statement (or the CEO) says.

This was a massive problem confronting Archie Norman and Allan Leighton when they took over the running of the major British supermarket chain, Asda. From the beginning they ran creative sessions with their leadership team aimed at finding ways to transform the culture. And among the ideas that they decided to implement was “team huddles”. Everyone. Every day.

These were (and are) opportunities to come together in functional teams for a few minutes at the start of the working day, to discuss what’s working and what’s not, to get fired up for the coming day, to connect personally with colleagues, to be briefed on anything new. Usually these are stand up, not sit down, occasions.

Of course, like so many innovations of this kind, the practice evolved in the USA, initially in sports teams, then in many American businesses. It’s also used a great deal in Japan. But it was (and is) quite unusual in major European organisations.

In the UK, huddles are fairly common nowadays in newer, smaller firms, in hi-tech and communications, but the idea that it should be applied in a vast business like Asda, with its 170,000 employees, was totally radical.

Together with a handful of other important organisational and cultural changes, Allan and Archie turned around a vast and previously sinking ship, so that it became (and remains) one of the great success stories of British business, and was voted “Best Employer” in the annual Sunday Times survey.

Do you have huddles? What’s your experience of them?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Me and My Shadow

Even today, with the benefit of psychological profiling tools like Myers-Briggs, I notice that so often managers hire people in their own image. This can be comfortable, but it’s unlikely to be very potent in terms of innovation or leadership.

In my own case, I noticed quite early on that the partnership I had with Jennifer Laing at Saatchi and Saatchi was extraordinarily effective. Yet in personality type we were quite different. Somehow or other her strengths mirrored my weaknesses and vice-versa. Everything we touched turned to business.

And I’ve been lucky enough to have had a number of these symbiotic relationships later in my “career” – with Max Gosling at Lintas, with David Walker at Synectics, and now with Alison Duffy at Per Diem. In each case these partnerships have been associated with periods of major innovation and of sustained business success.

Of course, there is a great elephant trap involved in this. As polarised personalities it’s quite likely that you’ll not appreciate each other, maybe even disliking each other. So unless there is genuine mutual admiration, a real appreciation of the value of the other, and a shared sense of direction, success is unlikely to follow.

Knowing which is me and which is shadow in any given situation can be tricky. Flexibility as to who leads and who follows can be a moment by moment thing.

Do you have a terrific shadow?

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Oprah, Queen of Facilitators

So Oprah Winfrey is to give up her TV show after a couple of decades.

When I started out on the journey of learning to become a facilitator of creativity and innovation, aside from the excellent training I was given by Jasmine Dale, I also sat in with any and all other facilitators who would have me, making notes - really detailed notes - on how they did it, what worked and what didn’t.

Doing this with my colleague, Bill Boggs, was extraordinarily important to my own development. At his best he was unbeatable. Irrespective of the numbers in the room he seemed continuously to know what everyone was thinking and feeling. And to know what needed to be done in order to get towards a result.

But, in parallel, I looked at all the TV “facilitators”. Many of them seemed to me to be almost completely incompetent – and by the way I learned much from this.

Two emerged as head and shoulders above the rest – Jerry Springer and Oprah. I studied both carefully, making sure that I focused on them, not on the topic at hand. My colleagues were uniformly dismayed that I should pay such attention to Jerry. After all, wasn’t he serving the forces of darkness? But with such skill and style.

On the other hand, Oprah in her early days was magical in her ability to draw out her guests, often working with a large studio audience as well as with the celebs. All were treated with dignity and empathy. Her connection-making skills were particularly evident. She always knew when to move in, when to back off, when to paraphrase to help clarity, when to confront…

Of course, I was studying these people twenty years ago. By now both Jerry and Oprah have become the true stars of their shows, irrespective of the exalted standing of guests, and that has made them, from my point of view, infinitely less interesting. But I owe them a lot.

Are you a facilitator? Do you have your own role models?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Too-tight innovation strategies

A fascinating article by Stefan Stern in the Financial Times reminds us how easy it is for organisations to fall into an elephant trap formed out of their own corporate missions and strategies and operational norms.

At the heart of the article are thirty five innovations that were rejected internally by Xerox management over the years, innovations that went on to create significant wealth for other companies. In fact, it’s been estimated that the cumulative market value of ten of these rejects became worth twice that of Xerox itself.

The principle is this: if your mission/strategies/processes/norms are too tight, too specific, you’ll end up with the panflute situation.

You don’t suppose the panflute flowchart was one of Xerox’s core processes, do you?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Why are senior managers the enemies of innovation?

Many years ago the founder of Synectics in Europe, Vincent Nolan, wrote an article entitled “Why is marketing the enemy of innovation?” It’s an apparently paradoxical but still very relevant question.

Building on Arun Prabhu’s comment on the “If at first the idea is not absurd…” post (October 28), I’d like to widen it to senior managers more generally. As Arun says, “In my experience, senior leaders who shout loudest about the need for breakthrough innovation are often the biggest barriers.”

There is the centre of the paradox. On the one hand, senior managers push hard for significant innovations, at the same time frequently putting the boot in when interesting, sometimes shocking, possibly breakthrough ideas are floated.

What’s more, the more a breakthrough the new concept seems, the less likely conventional market research is going to give a good reading on its performance in the marketplace.

Of course, there’s no evidence that seniority goes with judgement when it comes to new ideas – especially ones that break the mould in some way or other. In fact, there may well be an inverse correlation. They are exactly the folks who know lots about what has not worked in the past.

What’s needed? Often it’s for senior managers to invest in personally developing new skills in open-mindedness. Some chance?

So if that’s not going to happen, innovators need to develop new processes for getting senior managers into the boat.

What is your experience of all this?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Only connect

I received this from an actor-writer friend, Philip Bird. I think it’s very interesting, full of intriguing and important ideas. What do you make of it?

“I couldn't sleep and for some reason wrote this down.

“The human brain is a wonderful thing, predisposed to look for and find connections between things, often linking different areas of perception in unexpected ways - which is why, for a computer to do what a brain does, it would have to be the size of my house. How each of us makes those connections is an individual mystery, affected by our genes and our exposure to patterns of thought in others - parents, friends, people we admire, some of whom give us permission to think the unthinkable and open doors we didn't even know were there to open.

“To make these connections, to allow our brains to do what they want to do naturally, and in fact can't help doing if released to do it, is the essence of creativity. There is no one creativity, we each have our own. How can we be encouraged to make these connections? To be in an atmosphere of mutual trust and support where egos are left at the door.

“People think 'but if I don't display my ego I will be nothing, just some wishy-washy yes-person bowing to someone else's forceful personality'. But we ask everyone to lose that ego, so that no-one is forcing anyone else. The ego is, after all, only a part of one's personality, the assertive driving look-at-me part. We need to let the brain do its thing, unlimited, unconfined, unfettered, unashamed. People think that only certain people are creative, that some are and some aren't, and they can feel pressured when asked to 'be creative'. That very request may imply that there is a definite end in the view of the questioner, it may put pressure on just by being asked. Somehow the suggestion must be put without pressure; whatever happens must be allowed to happen, with no fixed end in view. Connections will be made, be they wild, funny, synaesthetic, intuitive, if unforced by any agenda, unlimited by preconception. We all have the potential to be creative in our own way, but many of us need the confidence to let it happen.

“There is no-one to please. No-one to impress. I find to be creative I need to carve out some still time first - to look out of the window, deliberately not take anything to do on the train journey, go for a walk, anything which lets the brain work its magic. And it does, in its own individual way, if you wait.”

Philip Bird appears regularly on our stages and film and TV screens. At an “Ideas into Action” Masterclass that I ran at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Philip was Thomas Edison, going on that same evening to be Dr Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor on stage there.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Neophobic – what me?

“There is no standard development nowadays of elegant letter writing, as there used to be… It is a sort of go as you please development, and the result is atrocious.” Who wrote this and what is it attacking? Is it an attack on SMS text messaging? Or Twitter? Or emails?

No – in fact it’s in a letter from a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, complaining about the supposed “dumbing down” effect of the then newfangled medium of postcards.

Neophobic attacks of that sort are launched every day – against new forms of communication, new products, new ways of working, new technologies, even new words. I even find myself doing it, unable to cope (at least initially) with the pace of change. My business partner at Per Diem, Alison Duffy, is currently in thrall to her recently-acquired iPhone, and takes every opportunity to expound its virtues. Will I get one myself? Maybe…

Of course, word of mouth support for a new product is the most powerful form of marketing, one completely out of the control of the marketer. But ranting against an innovation makes zero difference to the outcome. In the end the market always decides.

What’s new that gets your goat? And will you be able to move on, maybe even embracing it?

Thursday, 12 November 2009

“Terminal 5 is working”

What a tragedy it was that London Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 should have started with those highly publicised baggage-handling issues. It’s a fine building – as big as the previous four terminals put together in terms of capacity. And, speaking as a frequent traveller, it works really well.

Together with a number of wonderful colleagues – Dave Smith, Marian Moriarty and Jonne Ceserani among them – we helped BAA to envision this massive undertaking. That was all of fifteen years before the eventual opening. It was one of the pioneering projects where we carefully mixed managers from many different functions within the company together with passenger-customers in order to dream, wish and create together.

The resulting brainstorming sessions produced ideas that were many and varied, but the Big Insight that emerged was the wish for the passage through the terminal to be totally free from queuing.

In so many ways T5 has met those needs. The orbital motorway, the M25, has been expanded to twelve lanes there and the access roads are so much better than for previous terminals. The passenger’s ability to check in electronically, both online and in the terminal, has been transformed. Fast-track has helped to ease congestion on arrival.

Of course, fifteen years ago we didn’t foresee the so-called War on Terror and the damaging effect it would have on time spent navigating through security. And I feel ashamed when I see the slowly crawling lines of “aliens” going through passport control on arrival.

Both issues need to be addressed creatively. My guess is that there is much to be learned from supermarket operators, who seem to manage fluctuations in traffic density so much faster and more flexibly.

What’s your experience of T5? And more generally of working creatively with consumers?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Educational standards “woeful”

Perhaps the most successful leader of a major British company, Tesco’s Sir Terry Leahy has criticised educational standards in the country. “Woefully low,” was how he summarised the situation, adding: “We depend on high standards in our schools as today’s schoolchildren are tomorrow’s team.”

Singled out as an underlying cause by Leahy was “reams of instructions to teachers, who then get distracted from the task at hand: teaching children.” Bureaucracy certainly seems to have increased exponentially over recent years.

His main area of concern is focused on basic numeracy and communication skills. I often hear similar comments from colleagues at City University – but with the rider that there are also serious issues with school-leavers in the areas of creativity and problem-solving skills.

I wonder what the answer is? And is this a worldwide phenomenon?

My own experience in Asia (India, Singapore etc) would indicate that they are the ones we might be learning from these days.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Work in secret – even risk your own life?

A comment from Vincent Nolan on the Mavericks post reminds me of the amazing case of the breakthrough immunity-suppressant drug, cyclosporine (brand name Sandimmune®). I first became aware of this story when I worked with the company, at that time Sandoz (now Novartis), on the relaunch of the brand.

This is what happened.

In 1970, a Sandoz R&D team led by JF Borel got interested in the properties of certain fungal spores contained in soil samples brought back by team members from trips to Wisconsin and Norway. Metabolites were isolated that had anti-fungal properties – this was cyclosporine. A whole range of tests with mice were conducted to explore cyclosporine’s efficacy, but only one test showed promise – suppression of the immune system.

However, in 1973 immunosuppression ceased to be a strategic priority for Sandoz. It was a small market with apparently limited growth potential, and it was estimated that it would cost in the region of $250 million to gain FDA approval in the USA. Initially the team was allowed to carry on with its work, and in 1975 it was ready to start human testing. A separate team in Cambridge, England, successfully did heart transplants involving pigs, using cyclosporine to suppress the immune system and radically reduce rejection of the implanted organs.

Because the company no longer supported the project – actively opposing its development – further development work was conducted in secret and three of the R&D team’s members (including Borel) courageously took the new drug themselves, risking their own lives, in order to test the suppression in their own immune systems. In 1978, the first human transplants were undertaken – of kidneys. Throughout this period there are disputes as to exactly who did what.

In 1983 FDA approval was obtained and the following year synthetic cyclosporine was developed.

Meanwhile, since1967 Christiaan Barnard and others had been successfully transplanting organs. He in particular became world famous as a great pioneer in cardiac surgery. However the fact remained that the patients all died over relatively short time-spans, their new organs rejected by their own immune systems. The arrival of cyclosporine changed all that.

Of course the resulting dramatic market growth of organ transplants of all kinds (heart, kidney, liver, skin etc) led to rapid growth in sales for Sandimmune®, so that it became by far the company’s most profitable brand.

I believe there are powerful lessons for all organisations and innovators in this extraordinary case story. How does it strike you?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Building Star Teams

Are innovation teams different from other teams? I’m not sure.

But experience has shown that many innovation teams are assembled on a cross-functional basis – someone from marketing and someone from R&D. Oh and from supply chain and sales and finance…

This is OK, so far as it goes, but how much more powerful it is to think about the team in terms of complementary psychological profiles.

So you’ll need a Warrior – someone you will make things happen, kick down doors if necessary, push the project forward to fruition with determination.

And you’ll need a Bard – a teller of tales and singer of songs, who will make sure that everyone knows what’s going on.

You’ll need a Craftsman – who has a passion for producing the best possible product, a passion for detail.

There are several more archetypes you may need, not forgetting that, if you want breakthrough ideas, you may need a Maverick.

Who’s useful to have on the innovation team in your experience?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Seeing with new eyes

The problem with so much market research, or rather with our response to it, is that it often seems as though we have heard it all before.

I was working with a mixed group of managers from Nestlé, together with a gang of young consumers, endeavouring to find a new way forward for one of their pan-European chocolate brands. The problem seemed to be focused on the brand positioning and the advertising.

Early in the workshop, we sent them out in pairs (manager and consumer) to do some shopping together and to make notes of what they heard from each other. In the debrief, one of the managers said: “I knew that we had a problem with the communication strategy, but what my guy said just now was that he doesn’t really like the taste of our product.”

It turned out that this was a common piece of feedback from most other pairs.

“Why hasn’t market research been telling us this?” asked the international marketing director. “It has – in every study we’ve done,” responded the research manager. “We just decided it wasn’t that important.”

So every time they had heard it subsequently, they knew it could be ignored.

Hearing it with new ears, seeing it with new eyes, we were able to go with this “new” insight immediately to develop an improved, preferred recipe, which, together with a new communication strategy and new advertising, propelled the brand to double its sales across Europe within twelve months.

What the great French writer, Marcel Proust, said on this subject was: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Do you have special ways of doing this?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Branson’s Black Book for Ideas Management

I once asked Richard Branson what made him different. Was he more intelligent, more aggressive, more energetic, more insightful?

“I think that I pay more attention to my own ideas,” he responded, flourishing a little black book. “I have it with me always, noting new things down as they occur, day or night.”

“And what do you do with them?” I asked. “I review them twice a day to pick out the ones that seem most interesting,” he responded, “so that I can start to get something done about them.”

Ah, so that’s it!

What’s your method? Do you have one?

Sunday, 1 November 2009

“What is now proved was once only imagin’d”

Where is the heartbeat of our universities? I recently did a trawl of their websites to check out what lies at the centre of their vision and mission statements.

Most are focused on knowledge transfer and learning, which I guess is not so surprising.

For me, it’s something of a shock to discover how few of them recognise the central importance of creativity, of discovery, of imagination. The artist-poet William Blake’s line, “What is now proved was once only imagin’d,” really nails the issue.

Without the idea in the first place, there would be no “knowledge” to transfer. As Rosamund Stone and Benjamin Zander put it in The Art of Possibility: “It’s all invented.” Everything.

Behind every research “question”, there is always an idea – though in many cases it’s not articulated.

What can be done to redress the balance?

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Mavericks – for us or against us?

A qualitative research programme I did for a major multinational demonstrated that the original ideas behind all their significant innovations of the previous decade were attributed to people who might best be described as hero mavericks.

What’s more, although they may well have disliked each other, these mavericks had much in common. They hated bureaucracy, were disruptive, found it very hard to conform to corporate rules, were seen as difficult to work with, and they kept rather odd hours – you could never be sure where they were. They were the ones who were happiest going on long and lonely journeys in search of the Holy Grail.

One other thing: they had all left the company – some deciding for themselves to go, while others had been pushed out.

And it was generally agreed by their former colleagues that their departure was better for all concerned – for the mavericks and for the company.

Of course, this begs the question: if the way we’ve got breakthrough ideas in the past is from mavericks, and the ones we know about have left the building, how sure are we that we’ll get new disruptive ideas in the future?

Most of the large companies that I know could easily accommodate these creatures. After all they are always a small minority. But in order to do so, they need to be recognised, succoured and supported, not just tolerated.

What's your view - nurture or eject?

Friday, 30 October 2009

Birth of the facilitator

It’s not given to many of us to change the world in any significant way, but George Prince and Bill Gordon did. The founders of Synectics, they were running an innovation consultancy in the 1960s, providing clients with new ideas to brief, when they realised that clients often rejected George and Bill’s ideas, whereas they went forward with rather similar ideas they had had themselves.

Eureka! Synectics was born out of the belief that if George and Bill helped, facilitated, their clients to get better ideas, they would have a much higher strike rate.

It’s an unfortunate fact that they fell out quite soon after and Bill set up separately, but the seed was sown, and by now there are thousands of innovators and organisations successfully using Synectics-derived methodologies around the world.

I once asked George where the word “facilitator” had come from. “Well,” he smiled, “we just didn’t seem to have a word for it.”

What’s your experience of facilitators and facilitation? Helps or hinders?

Thursday, 29 October 2009

“The old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea!”

New ideas often seem to pop up serendipitously: in the shower, driving the car, falling asleep, eating breakfast, walking the dog.

But does it always have to be so? In Jeeves Takes Charge, PG Wodehouse wrote: “I pressed down on the mental accelerator. The old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea!”

In other words, ideas can come – sometimes by the dozen - by purposefully switching on the power and doing one’s own brainstorm. All you need is a pad of paper, a pencil and the will.

Why do we imagine that brainstorming has to happen in groups? Or that we have to wait for lightning to strike? Press down on the mental accelerator. Just do it…

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

“If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.”

An innovation manager in a major multinational said to me today that there were two camps in his company: those who think that significant growth will come primarily from breakthrough ideas and those who think that it will come from a continuous stream of incremental ideas.

Of course, in reality it needs to come from both. But how to tell the difference when you’re confronted with a new idea?

One test is quite simple: does the idea seem somewhat (or even completely) absurd? If it does, odds are it’s not an incremental idea. But does that mean it’s a breakthrough? Maybe. Maybe not.

The thing about absurdity that Einstein was identifying in his famous line is that those who are experts in any particular field necessarily build up a series of boundaries and ground rules. By definition breakthrough ideas confront and in some way overturn one or more of those givens. So “experts” are often the very ones who reject breakthrough ideas.

That’s why so many organisations appear to be organised around the rejection of absurdity – and in the process jettison new concepts that might radically change their growth trajectory.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” asked Harry Warner of Warner Brothers, one of the greatest of the Hollywood movie moguls, in 1927. That was exactly the moment that talkies were to move from mere possibility to overwhelming success. Was he stupid? Not really. He was just an expert confronted with what seemed to him absurd.

Innovation Process as the Grand National

As organisations have struggled to systematise and professionalise their Innovation Process, so the course seems to have got longer and longer, with more and more jumps, many of them high and with boggy ground around them.

Sometimes the resulting course looks quite short, but the reality can be very different. A senior R&D manager in one company that I worked with told me that their Innovation Process has four decision gates, but he worked out that, on one particular project which eventually reached the market place, there had been in total over 160 decision points.

No wonder new ideas can take so long to get to market, often being dramatically sub-optimised on the journey (the death of a thousand cuts), and allowing competitors to get in there first. And so many good ideas can and do fall at any one of the jumps.
How does your organisation's process work?

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Come to the edge…

I first came across this short poem in the Saatchi and Saatchi annual reports of the 1980s:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew…

In the Saatchi report it was always attributed to the British poet, Christopher Logue, but every time I saw it afterwards it was said to be by the French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire.

Saatchi was quite right – was it chosen by Charles Saatchi? It’s part of a long sequence by Logue published as New Numbers.

I think it’s really inspiring, coupling the power of creative risk-taking with the energy of committed teams in achieving success. It captures very well the spirit at Saatchi’s in the early days, on their way to becoming No 1 worldwide.

What do you think of this little poem?

My first (fairly successful) innovation and a flop

When I left JWT, where I’d had a very menial series of jobs starting with the mail room, I was lucky enough to land my first real break in “adland”, as Assistant Account Executive on what was then the UK’s largest single TV advertiser, Rowntree’s. I was twenty-three.

It shows the subservient role that innovation had then, that while the experienced folk were managing the main established brands, I was immediately assigned to the two new ones in the pipeline, a carbonated soft drink brand called POP (that sank without trace), and a small round fruity sweetie in a bag aimed at young children and their concerned mums.

That one, Jellytots, passed its fortieth birthday two years ago. Tightly targeted, it was never going to be a major player, but the fact that it still holds the stage is testament to the clarity of thinking and creative expression, in both company and agency, that went into the brand’s initial strategy, product, packaging and advertising.

Rather extraordinarily, Jellytots was the favourite of my now seven year-old when she was around four.

There is no doubt that I learned massive amounts about what works and what doesn’t in innovation from that seminal experience long ago.
What was your first innovation?