Saturday, 28 May 2011

Sydney vs Birmingham: no contest?

A recent return to Sydney re-awakened for me the triumph and the tragedy of Sydney Opera House.

Those billowing “sails”, the extraordinary concept of Danish architect Jørn Utzon, together with the dramatic backdrop of the Harbour Bridge, create a magical tableau, unmatched anywhere in the world. Yet the interior has always struggled acoustically, being quite the wrong shape for music.

Contrast this with Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, the interior modelled on the Musikverein in Vienna and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Here the exterior looks like a barrack block or shopping mall. But the sounds you hear are the best in Britain, the sightlines ideal. (Thanks to Sir Simon Rattle, whose brainchild it was.)

My recommendation: go and look in Sydney. But go and listen in Birmingham.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

From Shepherd to Millionaire: Thomas Beecham

One of the most famous conductors of the twentieth century was Sir Thomas Beecham, an extraordinary musician who inspired great loyalty from the musicians in his orchestras. It’s perhaps less well-known that his grandfather, also Thomas Beecham, was the man who started the Beecham’s Pills business which has evolved to become the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

And Thomas’s amazing story is at the heart of a new book* by Anthony Corley.

He was born in an Oxfordshire village near Witney in 1820. Thomas went to school for just one year at the age of seven, leaving to earn his living as a shepherd. At around thirteen he had moved to Cropredy in North Oxfordshire and, self-taught, he started learning about the therapeutic effects of various herbs and plants (continuing to work meanwhile as a shepherd). He started to build a reputation for curing various ailments in both animals and humans, and invented a machine for grinding vegetable matter and turning the result into primitive pills, which he sold in the markets around the county.

In 1840 he moved to Kidlington, just north of Oxford, and here he started to manufacture the pills (while working as a postman). Then came the big move north to Lancashire, where, using his extraordinary marketing skills, he turned Beecham’s Pills into a massive business and brand, and himself in the process into a millionaire.

It seems there are a multitude of lessons for those of us who work in innovation in this story...

*TAB Corley, Beecham’s: From Pills to Pharmaceuticals, Crucible £14:99

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Ahead of its time?

In my first blogpost, I wrote about how much I had learned about innovation from working intensively on the launch of Jellytots for Rowntree’s back in 1967. Jellytots passed its fortieth birthday in 2007.

In that same year, the agency I was working for, Garland-Compton (which was later to become Saatchi and Saatchi), ran a competition amongst staff members – the aim being to create an innovation of some sort or other in the petfood market. I came up with the winning entry – a new product geared specifically to feeding puppies and kittens. There was nothing of that sort on the market back then.

And last week, sorting out an old file, out tumbled this photograph of me, a cocky twenty-three year old assistant account executive, being given the winner’s cheque by the agency chairman, Leonard Garland.

I was a bit dismayed that the agency didn’t immediately call Mars Petfoods to pitch my idea. No, they said. Although it was a good idea, well argued and well presented, they thought the market would be too small to be of interest to any major petfood manufacturer.

Of course, you know what happened next. Within a few years, all the major players had entered the market, fighting day by day for share.

Was it a question of “ahead of its time”, or just plain short-sightedness? Either way, it’s a syndrome that blights innovators and their best ideas constantly.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Norio Ohga: A Life Driven by Music

What an amazing man Norio Ohga was.

Born in 1930 in Nuzumu, Japan, after the war he graduated in music in Tokyo and then in Berlin, training as a baritone and set to become an opera singer.

Unhappy with the sound produced by Sony’s tape recorders, he wrote to the company and complained – and was hired by one of Sony’s co-founders, Akio Morita. For a while he led a double life – with the company and singing – but eventually decided to concentrate on Sony, eventually becoming president and chairman, leading the company from 1982 to 2003.

Most famous for his championing of the revolutionary CD – he insisted that it contain at least 74 minutes of music so that the whole of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony could be accommodated – he also made major acquisitions in the entertainment field, including Columbia Pictures and CBS Records, turning Sony into a leading global player.

Not at all the typical grey-suited Japanese businessman, Ohga was outgoing and flamboyant. He suffered a stroke while conducting the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing in 2001.

He died 23 April, aged 81.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Hero’s Journey

A wonderful version of the classic “hero’s journey” story is Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Seal”. One of the lesser noticed ones in The Jungle Book.

This is a paraphrase from the Kipling Society website:

“Kotick, a baby seal, is born amongst thousands of others on the beach at Novastosnah, on a distant northern island in the Bering Sea. He is unusual because he is white. As he grows up, he swims with his mother to the South Pacific, and back to the island at the end of the year. There he witnesses many seals being clubbed to death and skinned by Aleutian islanders. He resolves to look for a safe place for seals where there is no danger from men. He scours the world for such a place, and after many wanderings across thousands of miles of ocean, he finds one at last. He returns to Novastoshnah and, after many struggles, persuades thousands of the seals to follow him to the safe beaches where no man comes.”

So often the nature of the creative innovator is to go on long and lonely journeys in search of the Holy Grail, the breakthrough. And, having eventually found it, the greatest difficulty is usually in persuading colleagues that it’s real.

Taking care of creative heroes is a key priority for innovation leaders if you’re after breakthrough thinking.

You can read Kipling’s story here:

Friday, 13 May 2011

Composing at 98

On Tuesday I went to the UK première of Elliott Carter’s Clarinet Quintet at Richmond Concert Society, played by the excellent Endymion, the clarinettist being the brilliant Mark van de Wiel.

The thing to note is that this extraordinary outpouring of creativity comes, not from a young man, but from a ninety-eight year old American who has been composing for seven, maybe eight, decades. He is a sprightly 102 now and is regarded by many as the world’s greatest living composer.

Of course, Carter is not alone. Among others, Bach, Brahms, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi and Vaughan Williams composed much of their finest music in old age.

And Janacek, who created several of the greatest operas of the twentieth century, didn’t really get going until he was past sixty.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Creativity and Ageing

Over several years, I have done innovation work with top scientists on healthy ageing. Rather overwhelmed with all the info thrown at us, I asked one, an American professor, for the essence of it all. “Eat more fruit and vegetables and take more exercise,” he said.

That's it, apparently.

A lady in her 80s followed up by asking: “If I choose between doing the Times crossword and taking a walk, which is better for me?” He responded: "Get out the door. Every time."

Now a new book* by Barbara Strauch, based on a number of recent studies, goes further. She reveals that as we grow older the brain improves in several ways, becoming better equipped to deal with the important issues and better able to use more of the brain’s power to solve problems.

This is radical stuff in a world that has assumed up to now that creativity is the birthright of the young.

Hope for us all.

*Barbara Strauch, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: Discover the Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, Penguin £9.99

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Looking for Lawrence

“A bunch of workmen were lying on the grass of the park beside Macquarie Street, in the dinner hour…”

Even with my predilection for things Australian, I’d never read DH Lawrence’s Kangaroo. That is until my English teacher from school half a century ago, Gordon Braddy, recently recommended I give it a go.

Not the most taut (or taught) of Lawrence’s work – he never seems to have got around to editing it – I loved it. Rich in observation of 1920s New South Wales, and in particular a somewhat bonkers far-right clique he encountered there, it has swiftly become my favourite Australian novel.

So, on our recent visit, we went in search of the house where Lawrence lived and wrote much of the novel – in Thirroul, a small town on the coast south of Sydney.

I stopped and asked a woman in a pharmacy there if she knew where the house might be? “Why, yes,” she said, and gave me precise directions. “Does everyone in Thirroul know where it is?” I enquired. “No,” she smiled, “but I do.”

Craig Street is a quiet road leading up to the ocean, lined with recently built bungalows, amongst which is just one remaining example from the pre-war period - Lawrence’s “Wyewurk”. It looks as though it’s virtually untouched.

"There it crouched, with its long windows and its wide verandah and its various slopes of low, red-tiled roofs. Perfect! Perfect! The sun had gone down behind the great front of black mountain wall which she could still see over the hedge. The house inside was dark, with its deep verandahs like dark eyelids half closed. Somebody switched on a light. Long cottage windows, and a white ceiling with narrow dark beams... How the sea thundered!" (Kangaroo, chapter 5)

Completely unmarked and unsuspected. Exciting to find.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Melba at 150

In two weeks time from today (19 May) it will be the 150th birthday of Helen Porter Mitchell. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, and was destined to become the leading opera singer in the world in the Golden Age - and a household name - Dame Nellie Melba.

There were a number of special qualities that separated Nellie from her contemporaries:

With the help of three teachers – Ellen Christian, Pietro Cecchi and Mathilde Marchesi – and the requisite “10,000 hours”, she developed a technique that enabled her to perform at the highest level over four full decades. “Salvatore, viens,” Marchesi called to her husband on first hearing the girl, “j’ai trouvé une étoile.”

In an age when married women were expected to give up work, she decided that instead the husband should go.

She had a wonderful sense of pitch and always sang in tune.

She learned many of her greatest roles with the composers themselves – Verdi, Massenet, Gounod, Puccini among them. And she promoted avant-garde songs by Debussy, Duparc, Chausson and others.

She took responsibility at all stages for managing her own career, bringing in a series of helpers, but never delegating the authority.

She was a brilliant entrepreneur, always ready to do what was necessary to maintain her profile and fill houses. “There are plenty of duchesses, but only one Melba,” she said.

“If you wish to understand me, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian,” she wrote. This attitude enabled her to break through the rigid barriers of British society of her day, speaking plainly with everyone at every level.

She was a catalyst in building the newly-emerging recording industry, negotiating a pioneering royalty arrangement.

When she died in Sydney in 1931, her coffin was carried by special train to Melbourne, stopping at towns and villages on the way so that crowds of people could pay their respects. Her grave at Lilydale carries a brief phrase from her most famous role, Mimì in La bohème: “Addio, senza rancor.” Farewell, no hard feelings.

Here she is at 65, singing that very aria , recorded live at her Farewell from Covent Garden in 1926:

Monday, 2 May 2011

Start-ups: where do they start?

Where are ideas born?

There seems to be an assumption that creativity thrives more in small organisations than large ones – and in particular that big new ideas emerge mainly in entrepreneurial start-ups.

It may well be true that new ideas see the light of day in new companies. The question is: were the ideas actually born there?

Some years ago I saw a presentation at an innovation conference from Aston University, whose research showed that ideas were often conceived in large organisations, where they were either suppressed or rejected or simply hidden, before being brought to market by breakaway individuals or teams.

This is certainly a syndrome that I’ve observed frequently over several decades of innovation work. What’s more – it has happened to me personally.

So what are the interesting learnings?

For large organisations, it behoves them to think twice before rejecting or suppressing the ideas of their more creative colleagues. For governments, it might be good to re-think their assumptions concerning the sources of new ideas.