Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Bach as he wrote it

The wonderful cellist, Katherine Sharman, came to my house in King’s Sutton yesterday to do a private run-through of Bach’s sixth suite for solo cello. Privileged audience of three.

She’s to play it at a concert in Brighton today – and in Edinburgh on 24 March in an all-Bach programme with the London Handel Players.

The reason she wanted the run-through was that she’s recently taken delivery of a five-string cello, made for her by Mark Caudle and based on an original of 1730 by Testore. It’s a smaller instrument, about the size of a modern three-quarter cello, but with a very direct sound.

Although Kath has regularly played Bach’s other five suites (all written for the standard four-stringed instrument), she has held off playing the sixth because she knew that over recent times it’s been played mainly on the wrong instrument.

In fact, when I first encountered the sixth, some forty years ago, it was assumed, to quote a sleeve note, that “the [four-string] cello is the only possible instrument on which the suite can today be performed.”

Thank goodness for the new generation of musicians and instrument-makers, who enable us to hear great music ‒ Bach and the rest ‒ as fresh as paint.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Running the country?

It was during the Blair administration in Britain that one heard the expression “running the country” most frequently. Often from his publicist/enforcer, Alastair Campbell, or from Deputy PM. John Prescott. But also from Tony Blair himself.

And I still hear it, a bit less frequently in and around David Cameron’s coalition.

It’s such a gross misunderstanding of the role of leadership in government. People talk about “running a company” (that’s where the phrase has been borrowed from). It’s an unlikely concept, even in the corporate world, filled as it is with self-importance.

I’d much rather hear from politicians (and corporate leaders) reference to service. That’s what they are there for.

Now running a bus. That’s more like it. Or running a bath?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

In praise of book reviews

I have to own that, in the three weeks since my surgery, thus far not able to sustain the attention to read proper books, I’ve lived mostly on book reviews.

In truth, reviews have been a staple part of my reading diet for 45 years. The reality is that if you want to have a passing understanding of most (or at least many) things, you can’t possibly read books on them all.

But good reviews always give you a précis of the content, together with (less interesting to me) a view on the excellence or otherwise of the tome in question.

So, over the years, at about twenty per week, I must have read something like 45,000 reviews – on an astonishing range of subjects.

Just in the past two days, I’ve read about the origins of AIDS, the problems of translation, the artist John Craxton, the Opium Wars in China, Ernest Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War, the castrato Tenducci, the world post-9/11, scapegoats, the Roman boy-Emperor Elagabalus and much besides. All these in the excellent Literary Review.

The books that I actually do read are nearly always ones at the heart of whatever I’m studying at the time.

Fact is, I’ll have a conversation with you about just about anything. And in my career in innovation, covering most subjects under the sun, it’s been an amazing foundation.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Ten reasons why good ideas get strangled at birth

1. Sounds too risky.
2. There’s little solid research support.
3. The “experts” in the field think it sounds a bit absurd.
4. The potential market seems too small.
5. The idea comes from R&D (and marketing says it’s not based on sound consumer insight).
6. It would be first to market.
7. It would be following a previous entrant that didn’t do so well.
8. It surfaced too early – not following corporate innovation process.
9. Top management demands breakthroughs, but draws short of funding them in practice (see reasons above).
10. Because it wasn’t my/our idea.

I’ve had each of these with my clients. Usually followed by a competitor taking the opportunity quite soon after.

Additions? Builds?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Whose desire is it anyway?

I wrote recently about “insight” processes and their role in discovering desires we didn’t know we had.

In parallel with newly emerging desires is the capacity we all seem to have to pick up on other people’s desires for ourselves, almost telepathically.

This process, the French philosopher and literary analyst, René Girard, called “mimetic desire”. He first articulated his theory in his 1961 book (in English), Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

In it he analysed novels by Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, demonstrating that, although characters would cling strongly to the notion that a desire was their own, in fact it was always provoked by the desire of another for the same object or objective.

In society as in literature, the “others” may be friends, family, colleagues or neighbours, or they may equally be people far outside of the personal circle, so easy to access nowadays through Hello magazine and the like.

I wonder how many innovators and marketers have studied Girard?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Learning by shouting out

You may have seen that a recent study of primary school children by Durham University shows clearly that pupils who shout out in class do better, academically, learning faster than those who seem better-behaved.

And yet so many teachers (and parents) still regard this sort of behaviour as disruptive and rude, censuring pupils accordingly.

My belief is that a major side-effect of the repressive way teachers react is that children start to suppress their own creativity.

On the subject of enthusiasm, the great American choreographer, Martha Graham, hit the nail on the head: “Great dancers are not great because of their technique. They are great because of their passion.”

The real question is: how to encourage and support impulsiveness in children and re-awaken it in adults?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Comfort reading

Just as from time to time we feel the need to retreat to comfort food, so it is with reading.

I’ve found it impossible in the past week to open anything in the nature of a book. Book reviews seem OK, but invariably one has to put up with all the baggage of the reviewer.

So today I moved on to “comfort poetry”. Clearly that’s not complex, hard-to-grasp poetry, so rewarding if one puts in the intellectual effort. In my semi-veg state, I have reached for works that had already revealed themselves and their pleasure over many years.

For me, first and foremost that's Robert Louis Stevenson.

Here is one that fits the bill, “Envoy”. Stevenson included it as the introductory verse to his 1887 collection, Underwoods.

Go, little book, and wish to all
Flowers in the garden, meat in the hall,
A bin of wine, a spice of wit,
A house with lawns enclosing it,
A living river by the door,
A nightingale in the sycamore!

In his Dedication to the collection, Stevenson lists the groups and individuals he most admires, top of the pile being the physicians who have kept him alive through thick and thin.

And so say I.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Not a picnic. More a miracle.

Having triple-bypass cardiac surgery, as happened to me last Tuesday, is definitely not a picnic. I got back home yesterday after five days post-op at the Heart Centre of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. In another six weeks, God willing, I’ll be able to drive (and work) again. I’d only realised something was wrong on my recent working trip to the Philippines.

How can one begin to express one’s gratitude to all the staff involved at the famous JR? The wonderful surgical team led by Rana Sayeed, the doctors and anaesthetists, the inspiring physio team, and all the skilled and supportive nursing colleagues.

I couldn’t count how many nationalities, cultures, styles and backgrounds were involved, all working seamlessly and professionally with each other twenty-four hours a day. Truly the global village in action. Heart-warming. And a quite different kind of experience to my only previous with that hospital, working on innovation programmes with them.

The first three days were the hardest, and in truth I am by no means out of the wood yet. But I have felt better each day that has passed. And my native optimism seems to have made a return. The love and practical support of close family and friends, day by day, has made a massive difference.

I must say that, having invested in private health insurance over several decades, I’d hoped to take advantage of all that, to travel first. But it was not to be. The small print meant that I travelled NHS. And I can’t imagine it could have been better or timelier. Genuinely first-class.

To bring together all that innovation and organisation developed over the past half century or so. That’s the miracle.

With my heartfelt thanks.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Desires we never knew we had

A funny thing happened to Dr Geoffrey Miller. He’s a leading American evolutionary psychologist.

At a conference that brought together economists and psychologists in London in 1999, he noticed for the first time a group of people who looked different from all the academics there.

They were marketers. And they were interested in psychology because they wanted to know more about people’s preferences and how these worked.

Talking with marketers, Dr Miller noticed: “A new world opened up.” He recorded the experience in his book Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism, where he observed that marketers and marketing-oriented companies “help us discover desires we never knew we had, and ways of fulfilling them we never imagined.”

I don’t believe that traditional market research, nearly all borrowed from psychology, did any such thing. In my experience, that sort of enquiry, both qualitative and quantitative, was conducted in the present, holding firmly on to a rear view mirror. And this kind of research still holds sway in many of the more conservative organisations.

But over the past fifteen years or so, a sea-change has occurred whereby newly-developed “insight” processes (based on face-to-face interaction and walking together imaginatively into the future) have gradually replaced that rear-view mirror.

Of course, this work leads marketers to new and more interesting places – but it’s hard to replicate. So it can leave risk-averse managements very fearful of failure.

Trying things out is at the very heart of Darwinian evolution! The point for us is to manage the risks involved.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

All for one, one for all?

This famous and oft-quoted line, the epitome of good teamwork, comes, as everyone knows, from Alexandre Dumas père’s novel published in 1844, The Three Musketeers.

“Tous pour un, un pour tous.” It is intended as a lifelong bond of loyalty, brotherly love and mutual support between Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. Through thick and thin.

It’s so often used as a keystone nowadays in teamwork training exercises.

But how difficult it is to realise in the world of today, where team members are changed with such frequency, and where individuals within a team are in practice competing with each other for recognition and preferment.

Teamwork today is for Christmas, not for life.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The river is the goal

In recent weeks I’ve been doing a lot of “visioning” with senior management teams from diverse organisations – in food and beverage, white goods, energy, orchestras and international education. It’s always very interesting and engrossing work.

I think that having a sense of direction is useful, so long as it doesn’t become a straitjacket, getting in the way of responding to change in the competitive environment and within the team.

But much more important than the destination is the journey.

As the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski (currently in the middle of a Prokofiev fest in London), has said in an interview: “The way is its own destination.” And, paraphrasing Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha, “The river is the goal.”

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Risk and the financial meltdown

I’ve been developing new products with financial services organisations – banks, building societies, insurance companies, credit card operators etc – for several decades. Nearly all the majors, both in Britain and internationally.

In my early days (by which I mean the 1970s), there seemed to be a rather strict regime, where risk assessment and legal issues would be dominant in our thinking.

But some time along the way (in the mid-eighties, I think), the gung-ho marketing folk seemed to get the upper hand, and the risk and legal people were pushed back, discounted, assuming a much less intrusive presence.

I wonder if others share this perception? How widespread did it become in the industry? Was this shift a factor in the recent financial meltdown?

And what is the situation now? Have the risk managers reasserted themselves?