Johannes Gutenberg (1398 – 1468) was a German blacksmith, goldsmith and printer who invented the printing press and movable type. Before Gutenberg all books had been hand written or stamped out with fixed wood blocks. Gutenberg combined two existing ideas – the power of a wine press and the detail of a coin punch to create the printing press.
His invention of mechanical movable type printing started a revolution in communication throughout Europe. It facilitated the spread of knowledge in the form of printed books and pamphlets. This fueled the Renaissance and the Reformation. There followed the Age of Enlightenment and the sharing of Scientific Knowledge.
There were many details which Gutenberg had to master. He invented a process for mass-producing movable type based on new metal alloys. He developed oil-based ink. He adapted screw presses used for squeezing grapes. His great achievement was to combine all these components into a practical system for the mass production of printed books.
In Renaissance Europe the arrival of inexpensive printed books started an era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. Revolutionary ideas flowed across the continent and challenged the powers of established political and religious elites. Many consider Gutenberg’s printing press to be one of the most influential inventions in history. In 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium. In terms of the impact on mass communication the inventions of paper and of the internet are the only two which come close to the printing press.
There are lessons for innovators. Many great innovations are really recombinations of existing ideas. Gutenberg’s great innovation involved combining the humble wine press and coin punch to make the mighty printing press. Another lesson is that great innovations have unintended and dramatic consequences. Gutenberg presses were originally used to print the Bible in Latin. However printing presses were subsequently used to print seditious, heretical and revolutionary texts which changed society forever.
Sometimes the by-product, the surplus or the unwanted extra can become the unexpected success. All it takes is a little imagination.
Brandy was originally a by-product used to help transport wine. In the middle ages in France duties were levied on the volume of wine being transported. Merchants boiled off water to concentrate the wine so as to reduce the taxes they paid. Water was then added later. However, someone discovered that the concentrate, brandy, tasted pretty good on its own.
In the 19th century diamonds were a rarity. They were primarily used as drill bits because they were so hard. The South African mining giant De Beers wanted to find a high-value market for all the surplus small diamonds that they found in their mines. They created the concept of the diamond engagement ring. They employed the ad agency N W Ayer to promote the concept of the engagement ring as the ultimate sign of love and devotion. Their strap line ‘A diamond is forever’ is considered by marketing experts to be the greatest advertising slogan of the 20th century.
Amazon developed tremendous IT skills and capacity as it grew rapidly selling books and other products on-line. It was a giant in B to C (Business to Consumer) products. After the dot.com crash in 2000 Amazon found itself with excess IT capacity in its data centers. It offered web services to businesses and became a leader in B to B (Business to Business) services – a completely different field from its original strength. Amazon Web Services is now a leader in Cloud computing.
In his excellent book, The Four Lenses of Innovation, Rowan Gibson gives the example of Imperial Billiards, a small New Jersey company which for 40 years specialised in making pool tables and other carpentry-based items. But sales of billiard tables were in steady decline. Then a customer suggested that they use their unwanted surplus sawdust and wood chippings to make wood pellets to burn in stoves and fireplaces. This turned out to be a better and more profitable business. A customer will only buy one pool table but will return time and time again for wood pellets for his stove.
Japan Railways East had a problem with water seeping from the mountain above into one of their tunnels. An engineer noticed that the water was of exceptional purity. In a stroke of marketing innovation JRE bottled the water and sold it as the Oshimzu brand.
Can you innovate with the under-utilized assets in your business? What by-product or surplus capacity could be put to better use?
In January 1952 the renowned artist Salvador Dali appeared on the US TV game show, ‘What’s My Line?’ The panel members were blindfolded and had to question the guest to determine his identity. Almost every question they asked he answered in the affirmative. ‘Are you a performer?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you a writer?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you an artist?’ ‘Yes.’ And so on until one of panellists said in frustration, ‘There is nothing this man does not do!’
Dali, born in 1904 in Spain, was most famous as an artist and as the outstanding exponent of the Surrealist movement. His most celebrated painting is entitled, The Persistence of Memory; it featured images of soft, melting pocket watches. But he was also an architect; he designed the museum in his home town of Figueres. He was a sculptor and furniture maker – his most famous pieces were the Lobster Telephone and the Mae West lips sofa. He was a jeweller making many intricate pieces of jewellery – some with moving parts. He was very active in theatre and film, constructing sets. He collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock to create the dream sequence in Spellbound. He wrote novels and his non-fiction works included the revealing titles, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942) and Diary of a Genius (1952–63). He worked with photography, textiles and fashion. In short he was a master of all trades.
Dali had great self-belief to the extent that he was an egotist desperate for attention. He grew a flamboyant moustache which became his trademark. He was a shameless publicity seeker and was perhaps the first great artist to mount serious PR campaigns on his own behalf. He was deliberately provocative and shocking and this increased his media coverage. His various antics were seen as gimmicks by his critics but as performance art by his fans.
If you are a genius then flaunt your genius. Dali wanted to express himself in every art form he could find. Not all of Dali’s experiments succeeded but enough did for his reputation to grow to towering proportions. He applied his genius and creativity without fear wherever he could.
Dali died in 1989. He has since become revered as a major inspiration by many modern artists, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. His image is a worldwide cultural icon for everything fantastic and surreal.
Louis Braille was born in 1809 in Coupvray, a village near Paris. His father was a saddler and little Louis liked to play in his father’s workshop. Unfortunately at the age of three he accidentally pushed a sharp tool called an awl into his eye. His eye became infected. The infection spread to his other eye leaving the small child completely blind. Despite this terrible setback, Louis went to the local school and proved an avid pupil. He was a quick learner and a diligent student despite his disability. At the age of 10 he won a scholarship to the only school for the blind in France, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.
The school was run by Valentin Hauy who had developed a system to enable blind people to read. He printed books using regular letters which were raised and embossed so that the reader could feel their shapes. It was a method designed by sighted people. Blind people found it slow and clumsy but it worked. The books were large, heavy and expensive to produce so the school had only a handful.
Louis Braille was determined to find a better way for the blind to read. In 1821, at the age of 12, he learned of a communication system invented by a Captain in the French Army, Charles Barbier. If a soldier lit a match at night to read a message then the light became a target for an enemy sniper so Barbier devised a code which could be read in the dark. It consisted of dots and dashes raised on thick paper. It was complex and difficult to use but Braille immediately saw the potential of the idea.
Braille spent many hours experimenting with the concept and developed a much better system by 1824, when he was just fifteen. He rotated the Barbier design and simplified it. He dropped the dashes and used two standard columns containing a total of 6 dots. His most important improvement was to create a cell which could be recognised with a single touch of a finger. He published his system in 1829 and printed the first book using it.
After graduation he stayed at the school as first an assistant and then a teacher. He was a very gifted musician, being an accomplished cellist and organist. He played the organ at many churches in Paris.
Despite his failing health he continued to refine and develop his system and he incorporated mathematical symbols and musical notation. He was highly respected and admired by pupils and staff at the school but his new writing system was not adopted by the school or elsewhere. Indeed the governors of the school and traditional educators opposed it.
He died of consumption in 1852 at the age of 43. After this death pupils at the Institute insisted that his system be used there and its advantages became apparent. It spread first through the French-speaking world and gradually beyond. A universal braille code for English was formalized in 1932 and it has now been officially adopted by schools for the blind throughout the world. There are now braille computer terminals and email systems. The braille system has proved an invaluable aid to blind people everywhere.
Louis Braille remains an inspiration. He suffered a terrible adversity yet used it to devise a way to make things better for fellow sufferers. His genius was ignored during his lifetime but it is recognised worldwide today.
How much of the brain do we employ and how much remains unused? What would happen if we could release the full potential of our brains?
Lucy is a film directed by Luc Besson in 2014. It stars Scarlett Johansson as a heroine who ingests drugs that dramatically improve her mental capacity. Morgan Freeman plays Professor Norman who states that, ‘It is estimated that humans use only 10% of the capacity of their brains. Imagine if we could access 100%’
Limitless is a 2011 movie starring Bradley Cooper which is based on exactly the same premise.
Would it not be wonderful if we could dramatically improve our intelligence by unleashing this unused potential? Unfortunately for movie makers, motivational speakers and amateur psychologists worldwide there is no evidence that we use only 10% of our brains.
Neurologist Barry Gordon says, “We use virtually every part of the brain, and most of the brain is active almost all the time.” The scientific evidence is very strong. Brain scans show all the areas of the brain areas are active while we are awake. There is no part of the brain that is not functioning.
If most of the brain is unused then damage to those parts should have little effect. But studies of brain damage show that injury to any part of the brain has deleterious consequences.
So what is the origin of the myth? It is probably based on the work of American psychologist William James at the end of the 19th century. He said that he believed that most people did not achieve more than 10% of their intellectual potential. He did not refer to brain function or capacity. However, many amateur psychologists and self-help proponents seized on the concept and changed it into a supposed statement of fact which held out the prospect of getting an extra nine fold performance from our brains.
When you consider that nearly all of us could learn to play how to play a musical instrument or how to speak another language it is clear that we are operating well within our intellectual potential. Once we have mastered a set of common communication and thinking skills we tend to stick with them. If we want to significantly increase our intellectual prowess the answer lies in hard work, exercise and training. Unfortunately we cannot turn to some magical drug or secret formula to effortlessly activate the rest of the brain.
When you have a successful innovation be sure to broadcast the fact. Track the source of the original idea that led to the innovation. It may have come from a brainstorm, a suggestion scheme item, an idea event or some other source and the originator may have been an individual or a team. In any event, if the contributor is agreeable, make a big fuss.
Draw up a story about the innovation and place it in internal and external media. Put it on your intranet and if appropriate on your main website. Place it in the trade press – they are usually hungry for stories and a good press release should ensure coverage. If at all possible feature the originators of the idea in the story with a photo of the person or people who came up with it.
Many managers prefer to keep their innovations secret for fear of giving away competitive advantage if the innovation works and for fear of humiliation if it flops. But generally the upsides outweigh the downsides. It sends a positive signal to the outside world about the company. Clients and prospective employees see it as well as competitors. But the biggest payback is internally. People feel good about seeing their name in print. Recognition is a powerful motivator and incentive. More ideas will flow and people will believe in the innovation process.
The approach that was used in the past was to wait until as much as a year after an innovation was implemented, calculate the savings (on a very conservative basis) and then give the originator a fixed percentage (e.g. 10%) of the savings. This led to occasional large payouts in manufacturing plants where someone spotted a way to significantly cut cost. But for most process improvements the cost savings were hard to measure and the wait for the reward was so long that people lost interest. Large payouts can also be divisive – especially when several people contributed to an idea but one person walks off with the bonus.
The more modern approach is to give many small incentives quickly. As soon as an idea is approved and enters the pipeline its originator gets a small reward. The idea may or may not emerge at the end of the funnel as a fully formed innovation but the contributor is rewarded anyway. Instant gratification is the order of the day – all good ideas that gain initial acceptance are recognised.
Ideas are the lifeblood of innovation. Respond quickly to suggestions. Financially reward contributors. Implement the best ideas. Celebrate successful results.
Taken from a chapter in The Innovative Leader by Paul Sloane published by Kogan Page
Threadless is well known as an example of crowdsourcing new product design. This fast-growing T shirt company asks its user community to submit designs for new T shirts. Designers from around the world submit designs which are often edgy, cool and topical. The company then asks users to vote on the designs. Threadless manufacturers the most popular items and (not suprisingly) they sell well. The original designer gets some small monetary reward and his or her name on the label. Threadless now makes sweaters, hoodies and phone cases on a similar basis.
A similar but different model is operated by Gustin who make premium men’s clothing. Gustin sets out different designs on new products. Members of their user community then make pledges as to which new product they would like to buy. Each new line has a goal in terms of number of items and funding. Once these goals are met then no further pledges are accepted. The company makes a limited edition of the item and those people who pledged to buy it are sent one and their credit card account is debited. The company carries no inventory, has no waste, no distribution channel and no marketing expense. Each new product is fully funded by customers before it is made.
Threadless and Gustin are eliminating the risk in new product development. They get their customers to design, select or fund their product innovations and that pretty much guarantees success. Nice work if you can get it.
Shimpei Takahashi is a Japanese innovator and inventor of new toys. In this TedX talk he recommends disregarding data analysis when developing new products. Instead he suggests using random words to generate novel ideas and combinations. In particular he recommends using a method called Shiritori where you generate a list of words where the last letter of one word is used as the first letter in the next word.
Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Scott Wiltermuth of Marshal Business School published a paper which proposes that dishonesty leads to creativity. Their report states that, ‘dishonesty and creativity have something in common; they both involve breaking rules. Because of this shared feature, creativity may lead to dishonesty and dishonesty may lead to creativity.’ They tested this hypothesis with a series of five experiments. Gino and Wiltermuth found that those people who cheated in one test were subsequently more creative than non-cheaters, even when they accounted for individual differences in their creative ability. Using random assignments they found that acting dishonestly led to greater creativity in subsequent tasks. They believe that the link between dishonesty and creativity is explained by a ‘heightened feeling of being unconstrained by rules.’
These findings present us with a paradox. We do not want our employees to be dishonest but at times we do want them to be creative. So is there a way to harness the power of dishonesty to improve creativity without getting bad practice at work? Creativity guru Jeffrey Baumgartner makes a useful suggestion here. He recommends that you start a brainstorm or problem solving meeting with an ice-breaker which involves telling outrageous lies. Everyone is encouraged to introduce themselves with their real name followed by an absolutely egregious falsehood. So they might say something like:
My name is John. I climbed Everest wearing only a straw skirt. I kept warm by rubbing my skin with a wire brush.
My name is Jane. I discovered a major conspiracy – our government is comprised entirely of aliens from the planet Zog. They are gradually replacing each of us with an identical robot.
The more ridiculous and humorous the lie the better. Laughter breaks down inhibitions. You will find that the subsequent meeting starts in a much more relaxed and creative atmosphere. Because people have already broken the rules of what is acceptable they are much more likely to generate really radical ideas.