Sunday, 31 January 2010

Innovative vs Conscientious

“Find good people”. “Set them free”. Two of the basic rules set out by Richard Branson in his recent book Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur. Simple? Or not so easy as it might appear?

One of the most interesting findings in a major new innovation study undertaken for NESTA by my City University colleague Professor Fiona Patterson and her team is that, at work, “innovativeness” as a personal characteristic has an inverse correlation with “conscientiousness”.

One way or another, most organisations treat conscientiousness as a basic given in the recruitment and promotion of staff. The question that arises from this is: are we effectively screening out highly creative people and thus restricting our chances of developing breakthrough innovation?

I wonder if Branson’s Virgin has this cracked? Or you and your organisation?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Einstein and “Common Sense”

What people call “common sense” seems highly prized. I’m never quite sure what it means beyond “what I think”, “what my experience tells me”, “conventional wisdom says”.

As such, it can be very useful in dealing with the existing.

But, when dealing with creative ideas, it can become really dangerous. New ideas can be fatally damaged at an early stage by the application of too much common sense.

A much better process is first to find and articulate the intrigue in the new idea. Then to establish what’s valuable about it. Then to identify any issues – problems that come with the idea. Critically, then to do some rigorous problem-solving so that the new idea can be made to work in practice in real life.

As an approach, it’s not quite as simple as “common sense”, but it’s a whole lot more likely to get you past go.

As Einstein put it: “Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created.”

Have you been on the receiving end of someone else’s common sense recently? Or… have you dished it out?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

“Heavier than air flying machines are impossible”

This was the judgement of Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, in 1895, just eight years before the Wright Brothers actually did it. And he repeated this pronouncement the year before their historic first flight in 1903.

Of course, attempts to fly had been made for centuries. The earliest documented is from Ancient Greece. Leonardo da Vinci famously designed a sort of helicopter in 1493. Over the following centuries dozens of inventors, many of them excellent engineers, had tried and failed.

Was Kelvin an ignorant fool? Quite the reverse. As Bill Bryson notes in his A Short History of Nearly Everything: “He was admitted to Glasgow University at the exceedingly tender age of ten… In the course of a long career he wrote 661 papers, accumulated 69 patents (from which he grew abundantly wealthy) and gained renown in nearly every branch of the physical sciences. Among much else, he suggested the method that led directly to the invention of refrigeration, devised the scale of absolute temperature that still bears his name… His theoretical work, in electromagnetism, thermodynamics and the wave theory of light, was equally revolutionary.”

No. The central problem was that Kelvin assessed the possibilities of powered flight as an expert, and as the revered President of the Royal Society, from the perspective of existing knowledge and experience, all of which appeared to confirm his judgement.

This is exactly the problem facing senior managers when they are confronted with any breakthrough idea. Experience often tells them that it’s been tried before and didn’t work. That it’s not feasible. That it’s quite likely even "absurd". I often think that it’s a kind of miracle when big new ideas get approved for implementation by senior management, especially in large, often risk-averse organisations.

How do you address this issue? And how do you ensure that you’re not being a latter-day Kelvin yourself?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Wishful thinking

I don’t know about other cultures, but in Britain “wishful thinking” is what you get accused of when the apparent facts don’t support the claim - imagining against the evidence. Daydreaming.

My mother used to accuse me of it regularly as a child.

Yet wishing is the most powerful start point when you want to innovate. Wishing is the single act that best enables us to get out of the pit of experience, to set off into unknown regions.

Edison wished that he could light the world. The Wright brothers wished they could fly.

“Thy wish, Harry, was father to that thought,” says King Henry IV to his son when Prince Harry lifts the crown from his father’s head, thinking him already dead.

What’s one of your unfulfilled wishes?

Friday, 8 January 2010

Being in the moment

My wise friend Marvin Smith sent me an article he wrote for Color magazine in the USA, "Creative Practices to Give You the Edge". The first advice he offers is: “Be in the moment. Being present, responsive and tuned in is critical for establishing rapport. The rapport will help you move around in the conversation and share control of the meeting.”

Excellent advice. I know it’s true from my own experience. The question is: how to achieve it?

The concept comes originally from Zen Buddhism. Part of the issue is the fact that in our modern world we are so future focused that we fail to notice what is going on around us right now. For example, it’s so easy to walk down a street and notice nothing about the buildings, the people, or anything else. In a meeting we can be making a presentation and lose all contact with what others are thinking and feeling. If you are facilitating creativity and innovation, this can be quite disastrous.

Becoming mindfully aware of what’s happening here and now in the room – thoughts, senses and feelings – is the point. Calmly centred, aware, attending, available, responsive and creative.

Being in THIS moment is a choice we can all make. How do you achieve it?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Edison: Lighting the World

If you ask people about Thomas Edison, they nearly always come up with the light bulb. But in truth, that’s just the start of it.

In 1878 on a vacation with a group of scientist friends in the Rocky Mountains, he was struck by a thought of one of them, Professor George Barker, that he might look at the possibility of producing light electrically. Gas lighting was the standard at that time.

The existing electrical system, the arc light originally developed by Humphry Davy in 1808, was “too bright and too big”, wrote Edison. “What we wished for was little lights, and a distribution of them in people’s houses in a manner similar to gas.”

It is clear that from the start Edison envisioned the whole thing - from the generation of the electricity, through its distribution, to the lamps and fittings themselves, together with necessary fuse systems. So many parts of this system needed either to be invented from scratch, or to have adaptations made to existing inventions.

In developing the electric lamp, a key problem was that the early filaments tested were both too expensive and burned out far too quickly – in less than ten minutes. Over time they tested more than 7,500 materials. “Finally, I carbonized a strip of bamboo from a Japanese fan, and saw that I was on the right track,” wrote Edison. Now they had to establish which strain of bamboo would be best suited for the purpose. It was in the end in Japan that they found exactly what they were looking for. It gave 900 hours of continuous light.

In parallel, Edison built a glass-blowing plant at his labs at Menlo Park in New Jersey, installing the most advanced vacuum equipment. He calculated the size and cost of using copper mains, worked on an improved dynamo, driven by steam and producing a steady 110 volts, created a system for sending power from the generators, through feeder wires, to distribution points, and from there to individual streets and buildings.

Having got the whole system up and running, Edison first provided the complete lighting system for a newly-built ship, the SS Columbia. Then he had eight miles of underground electric mains laid at Menlo Park, lighting the houses in the village – together with lamp posts across the fields for streets that did not yet exist.

He invited the city council of Manhattan to come and observe this amazing phenomenon, and they were persuaded that this could all work. So Edison turned his attention to Manhattan, moving his headquarters there and laying eighteen miles of underground electrical mains. “I saw every box poured and every connection made on the whole job,” he said. “There was nobody else who could superintend it. I used to sleep nights on piles of pipes at the station.” On September 4th, 1882, the lights were switched on.

Edison was thirty five. The world was never to be the same again.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Renovation and Corporate Culture

Skoda is of course a rather exceptional example of successful brand renovation (“Renovate or die,” 1 January 2010). Perhaps more realistic and valuable is the case of the great consumer goods giant, Nestlé.

Over several decades I’ve worked on a dozen or more of Nestlé's brands, getting to know the style of the company quite well. A couple of years ago I interviewed their Chairman, Peter Brabeck. It was he that recognised that renovation was a critical core competence of the business.

Nevertheless, there was even more they could do to ensure that their major brands and products stayed relevant to changing consumer needs and ahead of competition. So from the start of his period of leadership, renovation became a key pillar (alongside innovation) – and this has continued throughout Brabeck’s stewardship of the company.

He told me that he had first realised the importance of renovation very early in his career, when he was a young ice cream salesman. “It’s now a key driving force for our business,” he said to me. And from Kit-Kat to Maggi, that’s exactly what they did.

Is Nestlé the only major corporation to recognise so explicitly the value and power of keeping everyone focused on renovation? Certainly it seems to me that having it separate from, but parallel to, innovation is good and helpful to managers, making clear that both are vitally important to building sustained profitable growth.

And if you aspire to be truly world-class at renovation, it has to be a clear corporate priority, continuously activated, supported, communicated, recognised and rewarded by the top team.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Renovate or die

For years I’ve been a high priest of brand renovation, battling against the self-fulfilling effect of the so-called “brand life-cycle”.

For far too long BCG has made life-cycle theory fashionable through their “Boston Box” matrix, as a result of which far too many brands with potentially healthy and profitable futures have been consigned first to the unsupported “Cash Cows” box, before being consigned to the “Dogs” box, then to be withdrawn from the market altogether. What a terrible waste of potential shareholder value.

One of the most astonishing renovation stories is Skoda cars. Bought by VW, they were transformed from joke to cult status, from death-trap to top-of-class. Why does a Skoda have a double rear-window heater? To make sure your hands stay warm when you’re pushing it. That’s how it used to be.

In Communist Czechoslovakia, Skoda had some 98% of the local market, but customers had to put up with extremes of unreliability and poor performance. A clue to the low quality of the product is that one third of the workforce was drafted in from the local prison on a daily basis.

VW decided to invest heavily in product development and manufacture, but perhaps most importantly, they worked hard to create a totally different culture, initially bringing in experienced VW managers from other countries to work alongside their Czech colleagues. They built new relationships with key suppliers. There were no more convicts on the assembly line.

Quite quickly product quality improved and, with the introduction of new models and some honest marketing programmes, their reputation started to rise and sales in tandem. In fact, within a few years, in Britain they became the marque with the highest repeat purchase – an amazing 82% of owners going back for more. The Daily Mirror described the whole thing as “history’s greatest comeback since Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower.”

Have you been involved in successfully renovating a brand that otherwise might have been consigned to history?