Friday, 30 September 2011

CEOs and innovation training

A recent study by PwC/Accenture shows that globally 80% of CEOs believe that innovation will drive efficiencies and lead to competitive advantage.

Percentages very close to this come up in most surveys of top managers, time after time.

The problem of course remains that the majority of CEOs themselves have very limited training or hands-on experience in the field of innovation. Most of them attended business school and grew through the ranks at a time when specialised training was not widely available, and many have not actively worked in an innovation function.

It would perhaps be OK if several of them recognised this and went about fixing it. But in my experience that very rarely happens.

So classic problems remain within organisations as barriers to successful innovation – problems not only of climate and culture and inappropriate personal behaviour, but also the belief that having a standardised innovation process is the primary route to glory.

Many organisations would benefit from an honest, root and branch review of their innovation capabilities, coupled with the open-mindedness to deal with whatever issues emerge, starting with the CEOs themselves.

Throughout my time in innovation, I’ve found that CEOs think that innovation training is important, but only for THEM, not for ME.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The fallacy of fairness

We live in a world that appears to assume that there is some objective way of assessing fairness. In reality, fairness is always only in the eye of the beholder.

So it’s surprising and refreshing to find the CEO of a very successful multinational company - one whose appeal has always to bring outstanding value for money to consumers everywhere - come out so openly in contradiction.

Mikael Ohlsson, boss of IKEA, said recently: “What decides how much a lamp should cost? Only imagination sets the limits.”

At the end of the day (as our footballers put it), it’s always the market that decides.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Passing of Nellie Melba’s granddaughter

Sad to note the death in Australia at 92 of Pamela, Lady Vestey, at her home, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.

She was the adored granddaughter of the great Australian diva, Dame Nellie Melba. Coombe Cottage had been built by Melba in 1910, and Lady Vestey lived there, guardian of Melba’s legacy, for the last four decades of her life.

I met her some ten years ago at a talk on Melba’s recordings at the Athenaeum Theatre in nearby Lilydale. I had been advised that she was quite deaf and would probably not hear much of it. But, of course, the difficulty in hearing among the elderly is at its most severe in social situations, where there is a lot of ambient noise. I noticed this chatting with her before the talk.

Then, when I started, the theatre fell silent and her face turned towards me. And when I played the first of the Melba recordings – the “Mad Scene” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor – she positively beamed with pleasure. Clearly she heard it well enough, the memory of her grandmother’s voice flooding back.

We have lost a gracious lady, one of the last links with that Golden Age.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Virgin birth for Egg?

I’ve been re-reading an article from 2008 in The Director magazine about Mike Harris. Apparently he’s the “creator of banking pioneers First Direct and Egg”.

Turns out neither of these innovations was actually Harris’s idea. And, what’s more, “Harris isn’t too concerned where the ideas came from”.

Aaaah. Virgin birth? Wonder how the actual originators of both ideas feel about that? Who were they?

More recently Harris has been part-time “chairman of innovation” at RBS. Think I’m getting a picture here.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Creativity and the Inner Child

He lived most of his adult life as a rather well-organised trader in, amongst other things, coffee and guns in the Middle East and Africa. He kept neat books.

Yet between the ages of fifteen (in 1870) and twenty, he had written a series of extraordinary poems that led him to be regarded by many as the founding father of modern poetry. And then no more.

He was Arthur Rimbaud.

His poems can still disturb, even shock. “Je est un autre,” he wrote. “I is someone else”.

In his later life he went so far as to describe his own poetic creations as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting”. Endeavouring to make sense of the change in Rimbaud, his former friend and lover, Paul Verlaine, said: “One big reason, perhaps obvious, is that the child in him died.”

His work has gripped so many – not least the composer, Benjamin Britten, who made an electrifying setting of parts of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. That opens:

J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.

I alone have the key to this savage show.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Myth of the Brand Life Cycle

Throughout my working life, there has been a concept, a marketing trope, a metaphor that has consistently been held as a “truth” – the brand/product life cycle. I won’t bore you with the theory. You know it.

It’s just that it has never seemed to me to have any validity, nor be of any use. Fundamentally it’s derived from the concept of animal life cycles, of course. These happen naturally, whereas brand/product life cycles occur through lack of imagination and lack of will.

Well and continuously marketed and innovated, there’s no reason why brands should not go on indefinitely.

Here are sixteen brands that I’ve personally worked on the marketing and innovation of that were launched well before I was born and will be here long after I’ve gone:

Louis Vuitton (born 1854)
Bacardi (1862)
London Underground (1863)
Nestlé (1866)
Campbell Soup (1869)
Toshiba (1875)
Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles (1881)
Marks & Spencer (1884)
Coca-Cola (1886)
Smirnoff (1886)
Philips (1891)
Fairy Soap (1898)
Persil (1903)
Evian (1908)
Johnnie Walker (1909)
Electrolux (1919)

The people working so hard on them today are, just as I have been over the years, custodians.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

My first presentation

At twenty-three I was entrusted with presenting the new ad campaign for Rowntree’s Jellies. I think that this was because it was the smallest of our Rowntree brands, with the smallest budget. So it was not deemed sufficiently important for anyone more senior to go up to their headquarters in York with it.

I’d never presented anything before. Ever.

I practiced on the train from King’s Cross, silently running through the strategy, the media plan (whole pages in women’s magazines), the creative variants we’d tried and the approach we finally adopted. Great big display boards with hand-drawn coloured layouts on them.

I was shown into the marketing director Ralph Kaner’s office. There he had a phalanx of Rowntree people from assistant brand manager upwards. They were all somewhat in awe of him.

I did the business. And then I fielded questions, starting with the most junior and working my way up to Ralph. It all seemed to be going quite well.

“I have just one question,” said Ralph. “Why does the headline have these nobbly bits on the letters?”

My mind went a complete blank. Why did it have those nobbly bits? I had no idea.

“Appetite appeal,” I blurted, hoping that it would sound less stupid to them than it did to me. And I smiled nervously.

“I like it,” said Ralph. Campaign sold.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Saying “Yes” and meaning “No”

Working with a multinational company in Tokyo, I was training a group of managers in creative thinking and problem-solving. It was a mixed group of Japanese and expat Europeans.

One of the Europeans, a Brit, got irritated with his Japanese colleagues and announced: “The trouble with you guys is that you don’t tell the truth.”

Shocked silence in the room.

I encouraged the Brit to say some more about what he was thinking. “Well, you guys endlessly say ‘Yes’ when you mean ‘No’,” he blundered on. “It’s very confusing.”

In the break that followed, I took him aside. “Like you, I notice that our Japanese colleagues have multiple ways of doing this,” I said to him. “But haven’t you noticed that we do too?”

“Like what?”

“Well, a regular standby for us is ‘In principle I agree with you’. We know it means “No”, but do you suppose that everyone else knows that?”

Do you have some good yeses that mean no?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Best way to murder an idea

Over the years I’ve noticed (and written about) a handful of highly effective ways in which ideas may be murdered.

A regular and particularly lethal one is to form a committee.

As Sir Barnett Cox (a former Clerk of the House of Commons) famously observed: “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured, then quietly strangled.”

Which are your favourite ways?

(By the way, I notice that several things that I wrote – including a piece called “Ways to murder an idea” – are included verbatim in various British government websites on creativity and innovation, completely uncredited. Should I be flattered or pissed off?)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Best thing since…

How is it that sliced bread became the byword for step-change in innovation?

The key to it was the creation of a machine that would slice a loaf of bread evenly. This was invented by one Otto Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, who built his first prototype in 1912 – so next year is its centenary.

Unfortunately, in 1917 his prototypes were destroyed in a fire, together with the blueprints, and it was not until 1928 that he had a fully functional machine ready. What took him so long?

Were there insuperable obstacles? Certainly the early response of bakeries to the concept was not enthusiastic. Maybe he ran out of cash? Did it take him a long time to obtain a patent? Did he go away to war? Were there lots of other nifty inventions from him in the meantime?

And if sliced bread is such a significant thing, why don’t we all know about Mr Rohwedder?

Rohwedder’s loaf-slicer was first used by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Missouri – and was a success immediately. In 1930 sliced Wonder Bread became the first brand to market the product nationally. It was the coincidental invention of the pop-up toaster that gave massive added stimulus to the growth of sliced bread.

So what would be outstanding candidates for the role of “Best Thing Since Sliced Bread”?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Creating wealth: getting back to basics

Lunch yesterday with an old friend, the brilliant Australian winemaker, Julian Castagna (left).

He has always been uncompromising in his pursuit of excellence – that’s why his wines are so highly regarded. In recent years he has pioneered the introduction in upstate Victoria of traditional Italian grape varieties to Australia – a market still swamped by shiraz and chardonnay.

We reminisced about a campaign we worked on together (in previous lives) in the late 1970s for the Institute of Directors in London. We’d been hired by the then Director-General, Jan Hildreth, to communicate to the Great British Public that, in order to pay for public services – education, health, defence etc – the taxes that paid for them were only generated from continuously created wealth. And that the only way to create wealth was to sell goods and services profitably.

We didn’t pursue the project when Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party co-opted the thinking into the core of its 1979 campaign – the one that swept her into power – and then into all the changes that kick-started the British economy again through the 1980s.

I keep thinking that we might usefully resurrect it now. People do seem to have lost the plot again, not least our Conservative/Lib Dem government in Britain. They appear to know that getting the economy moving ahead is top priority.

But liberalising the planning laws as the main event? I don’t think so. The answers lie in substantially greater incentivisation and reduced bureaucracy for entrepreneurs and innovators.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The future is a foreign country

The re-positioning of many traditional market research departments as “insight” providers has made a lesser contribution to successful innovation than might have been expected.

There are a number of reasons for this, perhaps the main one being that supposed “insights” often result from looking into what is in effect a rear-view-mirror.

What is needed, of course, is a way of walking into the future (together with customers, consumers, suppliers, experts etc) and gaining insights from that perspective. I think this is better described as “foresight”. And it’s not a good fit with people who have a strongly rational and logical cast of mind.

After all, nobody knows exactly what the future will hold. What we do know is that it will be different from the past. So walking into it is fundamentally an imaginative exercise – a new perspective from which fresh innovations can be created. And to do it well, it needs radically different methods.

To adapt LP Hartley’s famous opening sentence in his novel, The Go-Between: “The future is a foreign country: they will do things differently there.”

Monday, 5 September 2011

Remembering Rich Gabriel: 9/11

Rich Gabriel was one of the smartest of my colleagues at Synectics.

He had an intense honesty and clarity of thinking, allied to a sharp, downbeat wit. In many ways he always seemed rather semi-detached at the firm, almost as though he’d joined by mistake.

He had been an officer in the US Marines in the Vietnam War, where he had lost a leg, and was awarded the Purple Heart.

I thought he might make a major contribution if we brought him on to the small management team, so I approached him. He thought about it, dealt with me with great courtesy, and said thanks but no.

Soon after, he left with his friend Ned Preble, and together they set up their own firm.

On 11 September 2001, Rich was flying from Washington DC to Australia on business aboard American Airlines Flight 77. Terrorists took over and flew it into the Pentagon.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

Byron’s daughter – the world’s first computer programmer

It’s not so easy finding important innovators in the history of science, mathematics and engineering who are women. In fact, it’s really quite hard. So I asked a couple of friends to come up with some names.

Suggested by Jacki Fortune in Sydney (who also proposed Helena Rubinstein), one who certainly deserves our attention is Ada Lovelace. She was born Ada Byron, the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron, in 1815. She was to marry the Earl of Lovelace.

Quite early in life she became fascinated by mathematics, and in due course by the work of Charles Babbage. Babbage was impressed with her intelligence – he called her “the enchantress of numbers” – and in 1842-43 she wrote a series of notes on his “Analytical Machine”, the world’s first computer. These notes described how Babbage’s machine could be programmed and are now widely credited as being the world’s first computer programme.

Of course, a major contributory reason for the lack of outstanding female maths, science and engineering students in our schools in western societies is the expectation that girls are not good at these subjects.

At a fine girl’s school in Sydney, Ascham, my daughter, Rachel, was lucky enough to find a brilliant (male) teacher of maths, who thought that she had real gifts. How right he was.

I wonder whether any real progress is being made now with the teaching of maths, science and engineering to girls in our schools?

And which are the other women who should be celebrated?