Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Importance of Having a 'Thing'

I’m in Texas on a road trip.   Day One: fly ten hours from London to Houston and then drive three to Austin.  But I’m happy because I had asked the car rental agency for the biggest baddest car they had and they didn’t let me down.

I can’t see that many practical advantages driving this beast.  It’s actually not that fast and or well equipped.  But it’s a truck and I’m five feet off the ground and the 5.5L V8 makes a gorgeous gurgle.  That’s the thing here – I’m driving a tank, it’s all about me, king of the effing road and the rest of the planet doesn’t count.

Day Two: we check into Hotel Aloft.  It’s a 70 odd chain owned by Starwood.  It’s a big box with 140 rooms, a trendy reception and I count three staff.   There’s no eating apart from a self-service snack bar (pay receptionist), a self-service gym and a pool table.  Our rooms got cleaned at 5.30pm.  But we like this cool feature free box.  There’s a good shower, free wifi and low prices. 

That’s the thing here – without being barren it’s a no frills approach to overnighting.  We leave feeling smug about our discovery, and now I’m telling all my friends – why pay for amenities you never use?

Two days, two different things.  A gross, two fingers up at the world of auto and a stripped down, stylistic but simple place to sleep - each equally confident in their ‘thing’.  Makes me think how compromises ruin great ideas.  Many would hate my auto or choice of hotel.  But accepting and even enjoying rejection – isn’t this how we really define what’s brilliant about what we’ve got – our ‘thing’?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Coffee – Rich or Smooth?

OK – this is driving me nuts!  Go to my local coffee shop and you’ll get asked if you want your coffee ‘rich or smooth’.  Maybe I’m just too stupid early in the morning to answer this question but what the heck does it mean?  I want coffee rich and smooth.  Is rich coffee unsmooth?  Is smooth coffee weak?  I don’t get it.  I’m awarding this coffee shop first prize in the ‘Over-Enthusiastic but Ultimately Dopey Product Innovation Awards’.

It reminds me of a story a banker colleague told me about queues.  She went into the local branch of the bank she works for and the teller apologised for the queue – despite the fact no queue existed.  Perplexed she called the branch manager later in the day to enquire what sort of drugs the staff were taking only to be told that it was ‘Queue Week’ – mystery shoppers were said to be crawling all over the retail estate checking on queues and colleagues ability to smile and apologise for them.

But it’s ok the world hasn’t gone totally crazy for unthinking innovation.  In the most unlikely of places I discover an example of great insight and am very grateful for it.  Let me take you to the men’s urinals in Heathrow Terminal 3.  Instead of placing your bag on the wet floor (use your imagination here) while you stand and do your business – instead, the clever insightful folks have created bag stashes – secure, dry and very welcome.  Bravo to the loo designers at Heathrow for acting on their insight.  I wish they worked in my coffee shop.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Too Good To Be True?

What if I told you there was an office-based communication system that had the following features:
·         extremely fast operating speed  
·         instant updates
·         unlimited RAM
·         specialises in exposing hypocrisy
·         inextinguishable
·         completely free!

What if I told you that?
It’s called ‘The Grapevine’ – the informal transmission of fact or fiction from person to person at work. This gossip-fuelled system is one of the most powerful elements of the corporate apparatus. Just because it’s underground and unregulated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously.
The currency of the grapevine is what people actually do at work – not what they say they are going to do.  I used to work in Thailand – my boss lived in Australia. He would fly into Bangkok but unlike many of his colleagues he never came directly into the office.  Instead he’d go out into what we called the ‘field’ (normal life) where he’d observe how our customers were using our products – in their own homes.  This meant when he eventually showed up in the office he was able to make decisions informed by a first hand and intimate type of intelligence. 
The Grapevine across most of the region had his activities monitored and his reputation was quickly and accurately formed – he was a guy who took customers seriously.  This was in contrast to desk bound email-wafflers who extolled the virtues of customer proximity but remained cocooned at work.
Whether we like it or not the Grapevine is a 24-hour news service that’s moulding our reputation – right now.  We invest so much into our lives at work we have to take the grapevine seriously – it’s our most powerful personal brand broadcast system.  We can choose to feed it with ‘activity’ or sit back and let it write the script.
I’m exploring this and other innovation concepts in my new book: The Science Of Serendipity – How Large Organisations Unlock The Promise Of Innovation.  To be published by John Wiley and Sons in early November.



Thursday, 30 August 2012

Corrosive Mediocrity

Sometimes someone says something to you with a turn of phrase that cuts through everything else you’ve heard on the topic.  In a moment of laser like clarity the problem is revealed - laid bare in all its ugliness.

I’m lucky enough to have one of those jobs where it’s my business to poke about with company leaders and try to unearth why innovation isn’t happening.  Recently I asked the leader of a mid sized company why they were dissatisfied with their rate of innovation – ‘what’s the one thing you wish you could change around here’ I asked.

I’ve heard this answer before but never expressed so clearly: “Corrosive mediocrity – that’s our problem.  We’ve got used to not pushing, we’re just a big ball of busy-ness, kidding ourselves we’re making progress but in reality we’ve lost the ability to irritate each other”.

How brilliant – this concept of the necessary irritant and how the lack of it creeps up to corrode you.  And it makes a lot of sense.  Innovation is born out of dissatisfaction with the way things are.  Anger is an essential component of innovation – it shines a light on a wrong that needs righting and drives us to action.

So next time you feel the slightest urge to stamp your foot or to interrupt the meeting and ask “What’s so great about this?” remember that being pissed off is productive.  Better to irritate a great debate than to sit back and accept good but not great ideas.

I’m exploring this and other innovation concepts in my new book: The Science of Serendipity – How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organisations.  To be published by John Wiley and Sons in early November.

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Opposite of Speaking

Like most parents of young teenage kids, I work for money during the week and I am an unpaid taxi driver at the weekend.  I’m getting really good at listening to obscure radio stations while doing the midnight pick up.  Last weekend, tiring of listening to the news in Danish on Long Wave (try it – a non Danish speaker can get about 25%), I tuned into some very smart people discussing the latest play in London’s West End.  They were praising a play because the actors appeared to be listening to each other – not just waiting for their turn to speak.  Honestly, I didn’t know that you could act ‘listening’ but it’s an intriguing concept and it got me thinking about how so much innovation in large companies gets snuffed out. 

Most ideas are born ugly – a half-bred, half-cooked idea leaves your lips but dammit, you curse your inability to speak the idea in a clear thought through way.  Those around you break for a moment to listen but get back on their conversational strand as you trail off.  Yes, that was a daft thing to say, I won’t do that again.  Rewind and play it another way: those around you break for a moment and give you the slightest encouragement to say more – what’s behind that idea, mmmm – there’s something in it – let’s explore it a bit more…Now that wasn't such a daft thing to say after all.

Speaking is an art, transmitting is an art – our words, tone, gesticulations, even our clothes – they are all transmitting something we want to say, and we put a lot of effort into it.  But the opposite of speaking isn’t waiting to speak some more, it’s listening and it’s an art that most of us pay a lot less attention to.  Which is odd – our brains can process concepts 5 times faster than we can speak them. There’s a lot that can go right and wrong with listening. 

I don't think the rules of listening are complex:

1.   If you’re not in the mood then say so, fix a time to ‘listen’ to someone when you are.

2.   Resist the temptation to problem-solve or dive in and ‘save’ someone.  Listening is very hard for energetic well-meaning problem solvers. 

3.   Beware over-use of ‘reflective listening’ – parroting the last thing the speaker said isn’t helpful.

4.   ‘Why?’ is the listener’s best tool.  ‘Why’ is this person feeling this?  Treat it as a challenge – get to the bottom of it.  Thinking or asking ‘why’ automatically displaces the confirmation bias most of us have – the need to hear in others what we want to be true.

5.   ‘Why?’ is also a subtle tool and dangerous if mishandled.  ‘Why?’ should be an encouragement to share more, to dig deeper beneath the surface, to ‘cook’ the idea more.  ‘Why?’ shouldn’t be a demand for justification; ‘ok, so why is that such a great idea?’  Nothing kills innovation faster than this.

The opposite of speaking is listening, really listening, not waiting to speak.  Who cares if you ‘act it’ to begin with, maybe with practice listening will become as authentic and valued as speaking.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I’ve been in prison…

I’ve been in Brixton Prison finding out if the skills of an innovator are useful ‘inside’.  Let me explain: Channel 4 call me and ask if I can advise on developing a food product made by prisoners tutored by celeb chef Gordon Ramsay.  One thing lead to another, and the next minute I’m being frisked, X-rayed and marched across the exercise yard to meet a dozen of the inmates.

Myself, the ‘Bad Boys’ and Gordon spend a day together.  Figuring that any product needs to tell a genuine story, my job is to get under the skin of why cooking in prison may have redemptive qualities.

Up front let me tell you that Ramsay is superb at TV.  While I mumbled and self-deprecated, Gordon got angry, slapped his hands, said ”fuck” a lot and enunciated ev-ery-litt-le-syl-a-ble.  Very watchable.

The Bad Boys are bad but they’re sad boys as well.  Repeat offenders, many hooked on heroin.  If it wasn't the craving for a hit that landed them in trouble in the first place, then they often get the taste for it once inside.

But here’s the thing – cooking does have a magical effect on these tough, lost characters.  It took me a few hours to figure out why, but for them, cooking is unique.  It’s delicate.  It requires absolute attention to detail.  It’s a team thing.  And it delivers an immediate reward - you see the pleasure on someone’s face as they consume your delicacy.  These are the four factors that make such a difference - and you don't get them welding or sowing mailbags. (Does that still happen?).

Really it is ‘life changing’ stuff and as always when you have a great insight, the development of the idea (‘Bad Boys’ Bakery – Life Changing Taste’) and elements of the product, packaging and communications all flow.

Good luck to the scheme in Brixton and the Bad Boys.

Bad Boys' Bakery Lemon Slice is available in selected Caffè Nero’s in London and The Ministry of Justice is having very positive discussions with a social enterprise company about the Bad Boys’ Bakery continuing. The packaging was designed by Lu Burnell at ?What If!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Tolerating failure – yeah right!

If there’s one thing that drives me nuts it's hearing senior executives exhorting their people to ‘tolerate failure’ and ‘take more risks’.  Sure we all know that innovation needs us to throw caution to the wind every now and then but ‘tolerating failure’ is such a blunt concept - it’s pretty useless.

There’s the obvious chestnut about how rewards at work are rarely lined up with risk taking.  ‘Sorry boss, I missed my targets but I did take a lot of risks’.  Hmmm!  Most people have mortgages and mouths to feed – we need a much more subtle concept of risk.

In my experience it’s far more effective to substitute the words ‘lets take more risks’ with a more positive line; ‘let's make it real now’.  Asking your people (or asking yourself) to accelerate an inkling of an idea into something that others can react to is a cornerstone of innovation.  ‘Can you draw it…make a mock up…act it out?’

The trick to effective ‘realness’ is stealth.  The cheaper and quicker you can make each mock up or simulation then the more iterative the process will be.  Over several quick fire rounds you’ll learn more about your great idea and make better development decisions.

Quick and dirty experimentation can escape under the radar - no need to waste time making a case and seeking approval.  Most innovation starts like this - a few people muttering in the corner and staying late to make something real – not writing a proposal. 

So let's replace the phrase ‘tolerate failure’ with an altogether more wholesome and useful concept of ‘making it real’.  Forcing an idea through multiple experiments is scary as hell because not all experiments work out, in fact you need failures as much as successes to learn from.  In the context of ‘making it real’ then failure becomes really valuable.

There are a couple of great stories that underscore my point about making things real.  Sir James Dyson’s account of developing the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner in ‘Against the Odds: An Autobiography" (1997, Orion Publishing) is brilliant.  He developed over 5000 prototypes and made loads of mistakes along the way. An experimental approach to solving problems has also been proven to be more effective than a single burst of work. Researchers at Stanford University asked 28 participants to work on a design to protect a raw egg in a fall.  Half the participants designed, tested and iterated their egg protection ideas after 5, 10, 15 and 25 minutes. The other participants spent all their time on one design and were not allowed to test it until the end of the session.  All had similar resources (paper, string and other materials).  The results showed that the iterators significantly outperformed their non-iterating counterparts, achieving roughly double the non-breaking drop height – in some cases at 15 feet.  Definitely one to try at home with the kids!  For more read ‘Efficacy of Prototyping Under Time Constraints’ – a paper by Steven P. Dow, Kate Heddleston, Scott R. Klemmer.  Stanford University HCI Group.  Department of Computer Science, October 26–30, 2009.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Cutting to the Chase

Recently I had a discussion about innovation with a recently appointed leader of a multi billion-pound business unit.  As the conversation kicked off she revealed - ‘I know innovation is important, probably my number one priority but to be honest I don't yet have a strong point of view about how it should work in this business’.  Great I thought – this is going to be a really fascinating discussion.  Unfortunately I started to lose the plot as she then hit me with a series of options – should she pursue an aggressive breakthrough innovation strategy or stick to the knitting, should she throw innovation open to everyone, should she measure the pipeline value of new ideas…

These were all great questions but they reminded me of how many moving parts there are to the innovation engine or ‘ecosystem’.  It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of many interdependent issues.  Fortunately I was schooled in the Ken Morrison way of solving problems – ‘If in doubt, have a cup of tea’.  (Ken is a famous UK supermarket-supremo and I’m not kidding my Mum really did use a tea break as a solution for just about everything!).  So in this case we had a metaphorical cup of tea and I cut to the chase - ‘Give me a number, just an approximate number, what is innovation really worth to you, what’s the revenue over the next 3 years you need innovation to deliver?’  She had a think and reported that even if her team made the acquisitions they were planning and even if they worked their socks off – there was still a £300m revenue gap.  She didn't believe in back-loading the plan so she needed about £100m revenue from innovation within the year.

This wasn’t new news but it was the first time that she had put a hard number to the concept of innovation.  As the penny dropped we were able to really focus the conversation on the portfolio of projects and probes needed to deliver.  The raw reality of ‘how much’ is incredibly powerful and often overlooked.  So if you find yourself having one of those complex innovation conversations then stop and cut to the chase – ‘How much innovation do you really need’.

 (Trivia question: Where does the phrase ‘cut to the chase’ come from? – Answer – US movie studios in the 1940’s.  Enough romance / dialogue / plot – lets cut to the action / end / chase.)

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Stuck In A Rut – The Story of Encyclopedia Britannica

Last week Microsoft announced a tie up with Encyclopedia Britannica.  Now, if you search on Microsoft’s search engine Bing, along with the usual Wikipedia search result, up will pop an Encyclopedia Britannica result. 

For all those who are still wary of Wikipedia it sounds like a good idea but hardly a life-saver for the beleaguered Britannica and not as innovative or audacious as Google’s Knowledge Graph.  The Encyclopedia Britannica story, like those of Kodak, Blockbuster and many more we can all name is a harsh reminder of that most basic of innovation rules: People buy benefits not products.

So I’m not interested in buying, say, detergent, but I love that feeling of putting on that crisp white shirt in the morning.  Detergent innovators know that there are many ways to deliver me that crispy white start to the day (laundry delivery at work?) that lie beyond the physical format they have invested so much in over the years.

We all know this ‘river of thinking’ stuff don't we?  Leaping out of that river is at the heart of innovation isn’t it?  But this is something that’s easy to comment on and, when you’re deep in it – so hard to do.

First sold in 1768 in Scotland and then from 1901 headquartered in the US, sales of the 32 volume Encyclopedia Britannica to me had dwindled from a peak of 120,000 in 1990 to only 4000 ten years later.  Sales of the printed set ceased in early 2012. 

Just as Kodak weren’t blind to the digital revolution nor were Encyclopedia Britannica.  They launched EBlast, a curated web directory of sites when no one knew what a web directory was.  They experimented with linking their content to current news stories on the net.  Just click from the news article through to Encyclopedia Britannica for more content, was the idea. 

The problem was that Encyclopedia Britannica was stuck in a ‘river of thinking’.  They had such an authoritative editorial board and such August contributors (Nobel prize winners amongst others) and so much history in diligently collecting and editing the facts that they couldn’t see that it was access and not the quality of the content providers that had become the main thing. 

Encyclopedia Britannica was always an aspirational purchase, mainly by working class parents who wanted a better life for their kids – opportunities they never had.  They switched to buying PCs (about the same price as the 32 volume set) that came with free Encarta encyclopedia software.  Still Encyclopedia Britannica clung to the notion that content was king despite the fact that many of the weighty books were never taken off the shelves.  Today Wikipedia has the power of vast numbers of editors and the ability to immediately update.  Clearly these are huge benefits compared to rarely edited paper books but it wasn't technology that killed Encyclopedia Britannica, it was their failure to recognize the voice of a thousand ‘Joe Publics’ is as important as a single Nobel laureate.

To read more stories from the front line of innovation check out my new book ‘The Science of Serendipity’ which will be published by Wiley in November 2012

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Seeing is Believing

A simple way of looking at the innovation journey starts with insight (a penetrating glimpse into why people behave as they do).  Then comes what some call ‘ideation’ (can’t work out if I hate or love that word) and then implementation.  No prizes for guessing the part of this journey that’s most stressful, expensive and prone to screw ups.  Getting a new product or service over the line and into the market can be 99% of the task.  Something not for the feint-hearted.  Recently I came across a great story about the power of illusion, pretending that the line had been crossed, that the dream had already been achieved. 
James Averdieck is the founder of Gü.  This is a $80m chilled chocolate soufflé and brownies company operating in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.  Their publicity heralds ‘nibbles and naughty’s of chocolate extremism that’s strictly for adults’. Hear James talk - ‘Chocolate is about fun and indulgence; it brings out the kid in us, the smell; it reminds you of sticking your hand in the mixing bowl’ and see the company rules  - you soon start to get the picture:

James told me about the birth of the brand.  The story goes something like this: In 2002 James had an initial concept named ‘The Belgian Chocolate Company’. He hadn’t yet talked to supermarkets about it, this was a good thing because, and to use James words ‘the name was shit’.  I agree.  So back to the story - James hires UK design company Big Fish to come up with a brand identity.  In he walks to their offices to be shown a brand that creative director Perry Haydn Taylor had located in Scandinavia.  Called ‘Gü’ it had an exotic continental ring, it’s onomatopoeic spelling was just right and the design looked just right for upmarket yummie-mummies.  James was devastated; someone somewhere had had HIS idea.  Heartbroken he hardly heard Perry release him from his misery and tell him that if he wanted it the idea was all his.  I think this is a superb example of mental trickery.  Of course it’s high stakes, imagine how the meeting would have gone if James’s reaction was ‘ok, but we can do better yeah’?  The point of this story is that future was made real, in dramatic effective style.

It reminds me of the how Disney’s Animal Kingdom got off the ground in Florida.  Joe Rohde, a Disney Imagineer, convinced a skeptical Disney investment board that yes, animals were interesting, really interesting – he bought a 400 pound Bengal tiger into the boardroom!  Debate about whether there was a real business in animals evaporated. 

Back to Gü. The sneaky but powerful launch trick was not lost on James.  Weeks later he crept into upmarket Waitrose food store on London’s Kings Road.  Unobserved he re-merchandised a small section of the store and carefully placed four empty mock ups of his delicious chocolate soufflé.  With baited breath he stood back, within minutes a shopper approached the section, reached out and picked up one of the packs.  After what seemed like a lifetime to James she put the fake pack into her shopping basket.  James then did two things; first he apologised to the shopper, whipped the soufflé out of the basket and fled.  Second he made his mind up to devote himself to establishing Gü.  This is all the research an entrepreneur needs, just enough proof to back up what you know to be true, just enough to tip you over the edge and no more.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Digital Driving Me Mad

Happy New Year, and Gong Xi Fa Cai, happy year of the Dragon to my friends in China.

Digital is driving me mad – not crazy mad, but lust for learning mad.  I think I have a screen in every room of the house now, two by my bed and I've worked out how to listen to a different podcast each morning on the way to work.  I love the random associative behaviour it promotes as I jump from someone's Ted talk to someone else's You Tube innovation rant to someone else's innovation website.  Meanwhile hours pass by….

On Monday I listened to Eric Reis talk about his book 'Lean Start Up' (excellent by the way) – I was there with about 400 tech start-ups.  Looking around the room I was struck by how many of our clients feel trapped in long cycle style innovation.  Regulation and capital cost 'keeping them away' from customers, almost as if you can get numbed out by the weight of these things.  In contrast these tech start-ups have not much to lose, easy access to customers and ability to vary the product in response to online feedback – almost instantly.  Feels like a world away from pharma or banking.  But I think the spirit of a tech start-up style 'serial experiments' is a much more useful way to see 'failure'.  I've always been irked by the phrase 'tolerate failure'.  It's struck me as one of the all-time annoying axioms of innovation.  My new year’s resolution, especially working with long cycle partners – let's plan in multiple learning loops, and value what doesn't work as much as the successes.

On Wednesday I met with the publisher of my upcoming book on innovation – current title is 'The Method of Madness'.  My mission is to help unlock the promise of innovation – it really promises a lot but often fails to deliver!  The core theme is how senior execs in large organisations wake up one morning to realise the system is controlling them, too many meetings, too much reporting, and too much process.  They yearn to rip off the tie and get out of the office into their marketplace and behave more like an entrepreneur, but somehow it all feels too difficult.  I've met lots of these people, and their bosses who wish their team was more entrepreneurial – so if everyone wants it how do we get it?  We're so lucky at ?What If! to have seen up close and personal across many industry sectors how some firms win and lose at this.  The contrast between success and failure has been instructive and I'm pulling together my observations in this book.  My publisher encouraged me, in the spirit of innovation, to start sharing the content early.  So that's the plan – send me feedback please.  Next week you'll get a summary of chapter one – what sort of people make great innovators.

But back to digital – I met Mark Champkins yesterday.  He's the London Science Museum's Inventor in Residence.  He opened his bag of inventions – some really great ideas here.  Amongst them 'pre chewed' pencils for kids

He confided that the idea was low on insight and high on publicity value.  He chewed / designed one, loaded the photo, someone blogged, then someone more influential blogged and before he knew it his pre-chewed pencils were all over the press and TV – driving traffic to his site.  That's nutty but brilliant digital marketing working at incredible speed.