Zero is not Nothing
The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations did not employ zero. If you think of the Roman numbering system 100 is represented by C and 1000 by M. The ancients did not use a symbol like 0 as either a number or a placeholder. Indian mathematicians are credited with the first use of 0. Arabs used it and introduced the concept along with the decimal numbering system into Europe during their occupation of Spain in the 12th century. It is highly unlikely that the development of western mathematics, science and technology would have happened without the number zero. The paradox is that zero is nothing and yet something absolutely crucial.
Now India has contributed another (and related) lateral concept, the zero value banknote. There are millions in circulation. They look like other banknotes but have a value of zero. Why would anyone do this? The answer is that they act as a valuable weapon in the fight against bribery and corruption. India unfortunately suffers a high level of corruption. Officials at many levels in Indian government offices and other bureaucracies demand bribes for all sorts of permits and services.
A group called 5th Pillar set out to combat corruption by issuing the zero rupee notes which people give to officials who demand bribes. The founder of 5th Pillar, Vijay Anand, describes the fake currency as ‘a non-violent weapon of non-co-operation.’ The bills, like others in India, carry a picture of Mahatma Gandhi. They also bear contact details for 5th Pillar and a declaration, ‘I promise to neither accept nor give a bribe’. They are given as a protest and in order to shame the official. The zero rupee note makes a statement. The person giving it is not just an individual complaining about a bribe; they are part of a wider movement that is fighting corruption across Indian society. The notes are not always effective in deflecting the extortion but overall they are judged a success in the fight against corruption. Many other countries have shown an interest in using them.
A good way to start a brainstorm is to deliberately look for wrong answers. Set the challenge and then ask people to think of crazy ideas which are just plain wrong. Then take some of the more outrageous wrong ideas and kick them around. People will be outside their comfort zone and they will approach the original challenge from a new perspective. Each crazy notion can be provocative and stimulating. What is more each wrong answer is itself the answer to a different question. Sometimes these different questions are more interesting than the original challenge. Consider these examples.
Christopher Columbus set out to answer the question, ‘Can we sail west around the world to reach India?’ He got the wrong answer but found America.
Trevor Bayliss invented the clockwork radio. It was the wrong answer to the question, ‘How can we make a better radio for our customers?’ It was the right answer for the question, ‘How can we make an ideal radio for poor people in the developing world?’
Art Fry at 3M got the wrong answer to the question, ’ How can we make a glue that sticks better?’ He got the right answer by suggesting that his invention could be used in Post-it notes.
Pfizer Corporation had a new drug on trial with men. It was designed to reduce blood pressure but Viagra proved to be the wrong answer for that question. It became a remarkable success as the right answer for a different question.
In the 1970s Sony Corporation under its chairman Akio Morita had a strong position in the cassette recorder business. They wanted to design new and better models. They started with two wrong ideas – a cassette recorder that could not record and one that had no speakers. Both were heretical notions for designers of cassette recorders but they resulted in the Sony Walkman. It was a personal music player which used tiny headphones. It could play music but not record it. It was major innovation and a huge commercial success.
When you look for the right answer you will often come up with bland and predictable ideas. So break with convention. Start by looking for the wrong answer and see where that leads.
Often we find in large organisations that the executive team is keen to improve innovation and at the same time, front-line staff are frustrated and keen to change things. So why is change not happening? Who is impeding innovation? Middle managers get the blame. They are seen as the blockers. John Kotter in his book, Leading Change, identifies supervisors as one of the key obstacles to major change initiatives. He points out that they do not actively oppose change but they offer passive resistance. They are so busy doing their job that they don’t have time to implement someone else’s fancy idea. They wait for the change initiative to lose momentum. They focus on making the current systems work.
James Gardner takes a similar view in this blog Middle Management won’t Innovate. He argues that middle managers do not innovate but this is not because they are not innovative. They do not innovate because the systems and their objectives are inimical to innovation. If we want to overcome this problem then two approaches spring to mind:
1. Change the supervisors’ objectives to include innovation, initiative and risk-taking. Give them targets for trying new approaches and include it as a measure in their appraisals. One issue here is that these metrics are hard to measure objectively. Another is that these guys often have too many objectives already.
2. Bypass the middle ground. Empower front-line staff to try new things in their work and set up skunk works to operate under the corporate radar and develop new products and services without having to go through normal approval channels. But provide an executive level sponsor to give them the political clout they will sometimes need.
The ideal approach is for innovation to be in everyone’s objectives and for every employee to feel somewhat of an entrepreneur making the whole organisation more agile. However, many companies would find this culture change very hard to achieve. So the second approach of bypassing the normal channels and empowering a smaller number of innovators is often a better way to kickstart innovation.
Variety may be the spice of life but many people find themselves in a rut where there is little variety and no spice. If you want a varied, challenging and innovative new year then try these resolutions:
1. Set yourself a secret assignment at work. Pick a big challenge that is not in your current job objectives and make it your personal goal to achieve it. Chose something that will surprise and impress you colleagues and work on it secretly (to start with).
2. Deliberately take a different point of view. Get a different perspective on the world. If you normally watch CNN or BBC News then watch Al Jazeera instead. Read a newspaper at the opposite end of the political spectrum from your regular paper (e.g. the Guardian instead of the Telegraph). Do not visit your regular bookmarked websites but try some entirely new ones. Read more books. If you normally read fiction then try non-fiction and vice-versa. Spend time with people who will disagree with you and challenge your views.
3. Visit an old relative. Who is your oldest living relative that you have not seen for at least a year? Visit them in January. You may not get many more chances.
4. Meet an old friend. Think of someone you have not seen for many years who was a good friend at school or college. Invite them to lunch and chat about old times and what they are doing now. Friends are important and good ones are hard to find.
5. Change a habit at home. If you sleep on the right side of the bed try sleeping on the left. If your partner does the cooking and you do the cleaning then try swapping roles. If you normally watch TV then trying listening to the radio or reading a book for a change.
6. Change how you exercise. If you normally cycle then try running. If you normally run then try walking. If you normally walk then try cycling. If you don’t exercise then start.
7. Go somewhere different. Plan to spend a day every month visiting somewhere you have never been before.
8. Start writing that book that you have thought about. Just write the first chapter. Nothing more. Then review it and see how you feel about venturing further.
Try some of these and I guarantee that you will have a more creative, more successful and more interesting new year.
Since there is no way of absolutely measuring which companies are the most innovative we see different lists using different measurement methods. Forbes publish a list based on a measure of how much investors have bid up the stock price of a company above the value of its existing business based on expectations of future innovative results. Their top ten companies are:
- Salesforce.com USA
- Alexion Pharma USA
- VMWare USA
- Regeron Pharma USA
- ARM Holdings UK
- Baidu China
- Amazon USA
- Intuitive Surgical USA
- Rakuten Japan
- Natura Cosmeticos Brazil
The full list of 100 international companies is worth perusing. Notable entries are 20. Pernod Ricard, France, 27. Diageo UK, 30. Proctor and Gamble USA, 35. Reckitt Benckiser UK, 40. Tata India, 47. Google USA, 79 Apple USA.
Boston Consulting Group publish a list based on a survey of 1500 senior executives. So it tends to consist of large companies with strong brand awareness. Their top ten are:
- General Electric
The magazine Fast Company publishes a list of the 100 most innovative companies based on their perception of ‘businesses whose innovations are having the greatest impacts across their industries and our culture as a whole’. So they include many smaller high-tech companies. Their top ten is:
There is a wide divergence between the lists reflecting their different approaches. The only company which appears on all three top tens is Amazon so maybe they deserve the title of the most innovative company of 2013.
I came across an interesting article entitled 10 Great Inventions Dreamt up by Children. They range from earmuffs to crayon holders to an underwater talking device. The stories of their young creators are inspiring for anyone interested in innovation and entrepreneurship. The article begs some questions. Why are children so much more creative than adults? How does that creativity get crushed? What other great ideas do children have that are ignored?
Children have the benefit of not knowing what is not possible. For them everything is feasible. What’s more young children get praise and encouragement from their parents and teachers for almost any work they do – particularly for imaginative stories or weird pieces of art. They have heard tales of magic and they see around them technology doing all sorts of amazing things. As far as they are concerned every problem can be solved. Adults on the the other hand are only too well versed in what they cannot achieve and what cannot be done. They are surrounded by rules, regulations, laws and compliance. They have experienced rejections, failures and humiliations. At some stage they have worked for a difficult boss who was not interested in their ideas – just in getting the job done on time.
If we want to be truly creative we need to think like children again. We need to imagine an ideal solution and then ask ‘Why not?’ The daughter of Edwin Land asked this question when he told her that she could not see the photo he had taken straight away. Her persistence led him to invent the Polaroid camera. In similar fashion 11-year-old Richie Stachowski asked ‘why can’t we speak to each other underwater?’ His invention of an underwater speaking device is listed in the article above.
Of course every invention and innovation has to exist in a world of constraints. But if we start by imagining a wonderful solution then work back to overcome or accommodate restrictions then we will have a better chance of success than if we start with all the obstacles in clear view. To be creative think like a child; you did it all the time once so now do it again.
The great management guru Peter Drucker said, ‘Every organisation must prepare for the abandonment of everything it does.’ Think about your company today. Now think about what it might look like in ten years time. If it has survived then nearly everything about it will have changed – in particular the products, the services, the methods, the processes and the business model. That is the inevitable outcome of the march of technology and competition. So why wait for the future to overtake you? Anticipate the trend and identify what needs to be replaced.
Most companies do this with their products. They have a development road map. It shows how the main sources of product revenue today will be replaced by new products – enhancements, replacements or radical diversions into new areas. Few companies do this with their systems, methods and work practices.
List all your current systems – in accounting, customer records, planning, marketing, sales, development etc. Knowing that they will have to be replaced sooner or later ask yourself – which of these can we replace with something that will give us a real competitive advantage? How can we harness the latest technologies and thinking to leapfrog the competition?
It is silly to replace sound systems just for the sake of change. But eventually all systems run out of steam. The objective for which they were originally designed has changed. They are no longer well suited for the new purposes of the business. We are patching and adapting them to make do. Prioritise which systems you are going to change this year and next year. Keep doing this and you will keep the blade sharpened. The process of innovation involves abandonment and renewal. Plan them both
Apparently Socrates in ancient Greece was strongly opposed to the new practice of writing. He thought that it would kill the long-established skill of memorizing and reciting long stories. Furthermore he thought that writing would replace or discourage conversation. It seems ludicrous that any intellectual could oppose writing. However, every innovation involves an element of destruction. Often that destruction is of a popular practice or method. But in general, the net effect of innovation is to grow the whole sector. In the case of writing it dramatically improved the field of communication, For sure recitation diminished (though it survived) but writing transformed mankind’s ability to store and transfer knowledge.
Similarly I am sure that the highly skilled monks who transcribed and decorated the hand-written bibles of medieval times must have been dismayed when Gutenberg’s printing press enabled the relatively fast and efficient production of bibles. The publishers of sheet music thought that Edison’s phonograph was a terrible invention because they thought it would kill the performance of music in homes (and thus the sales of sheet music). Television was feared by Hollywood as something that would kill the cinema. The paranoia was repeated with the advent of the video cassette recorder. But cinema survived, adapted and flourished.
We are seeing many similar instances with the internet. Newspapers are threatened by on-line news services, websites and blogs. But the forecasts of the death of newspapers are premature. Many are adapting and enduring.
The music industry has suffered declining sales for years as downloads and sites like Spotify have replaced sales of vinyl records and CDs. But the digital downloads do generate revenues and in 2012 sales of recorded music in all forms showed their first increase in a decade. And even the modest vinyl record is seeing a revival. Innovations kill practices that cannot adapt but others adjust and survive. Ultimately innovation opens up many new opportunities and expands the category.
It is easy to get into a rut at work. The longer you have been doing the job the greater the tendency to keep doing things the way you have always done them. That is easy and straightforward – and boring. In almost every job there are opportunities for creativity and innovation – sometimes they are small procedural improvements and sometimes they are big risky innovations. How can you put some imagination and creativity into your work? Here are seven key steps:
1. Recognise that every product, every service, every method and every aspect of your job can be done differently and better. Think of the service of providing music to music fans. Once it was only in live performances. You had to go to a drafty hall, sit still and listen. Then we had vinyl records. Then tape cassettes followed by CDs. Now we can listen to music downloads on our cell phones as we walk in the park. It is the same with industrial, office and business processes. Each gets replaced by something better. Approach every task with the attitude that the current method is temporary and that your job is to find a better way to do it.
2. Ask people. Ask customers what problems and issues they have with your products or services. Ask suppliers for ideas for cost savings and quality improvements. Ask colleagues in other departments what could be improved. People in other places have other viewpoints and can see problems, gaps and opportunities. Network outside of work with people in other fields and discuss their approaches to some of the topics that concern you.
3. Run regular brainstorms. A well-facilitated ideation session or brainstorm with a diverse team will generate plenty of great ideas for any business challenge. You should hold them often with your team (and a sprinkling of provocative outsiders) to tackle the issues that are crying out for fresh approaches. Start with a clear statement of the issue and some broad criteria for what a good solution might look like. Turn the brainstorms into action by implementing the best ideas.
4. Look far outside. How do other organizations in different fields tackle the sorts of challenges that you face? What do they do in the entertainment industry, or in retail or in charities? What do businesses similar to yours but in Singapore, Holland or Shanghai do? Research them on the internet. Can you pinch some of their great ideas and apply them locally?
5. Discuss with your boss. Find out what his or her big issues are. What is the corporate strategy? Maybe you can contribute a few ideas of your own which will help your manager or the company at large. Talk about the challenges and your proposals and suggestions. Show that you are a positive contributor of ideas.
6. Build prototypes. Show people how the idea would work in practice with a mock-up or a prototype. Ask for their input and ideas. Make the idea real and you will get feedback. Test new product and service ideas with customers.
7. Change your attitude to failure. If everything you try works then you are not being bold enough. Innovation involves trying some things that don’t work. Treat each failure as a learning opportunity. The innovator’s motto is, ‘ I succeed or I learn but I never fail.’
Every CEO says the same thing, ‘We need more innovation here.’ Yet everywhere we see people frightened to try new things. We tend to think that it is just the marketing or R&D departments that should be creative. The truth is that we desperately need creative thinking everywhere in our workplaces. It can start with you.
Consensus is a good thing isn’t it? We want to get everyone on board and aligned don’t we? So we need to get everyone’s input and approval before we move forward with a new initiative, right? Wrong. If we wait until we have everyone’s feedback then we move at the speed of the slowest animal in the herd. One of the big problems with making innovation happen is the number of meetings and approvals that are needed before we can move forward with anything radical or different. Generally the bigger the company the worse the problem but sometimes small organisations can be tied up with difficult approval processes. If this is the case then there is a powerful solution that can be delivered with one telling phrase; ‘Unless I hear differently.’
Instead of asking for everyone’s input on a proposed new course of action, lay out your best plan in an email and add ‘unless I hear differently by close of play tomorrow I will go ahead with this.’ If someone has strong feelings they will voice them, otherwise you move ahead with the initiative. If you start using this approach and encourage others to do so then it will lead to a bias for action rather than discussion. Of course some big decisions still need discussion. But if your organisation sometimes suffers from ‘paralysis by analysis’ then try cutting through the procrastination with the magic phrase.
There are more details and examples on the website unlessiheardifferently.com