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
Piracy on the high seas has been a major problem for many years. Determined pirates with fast boats track commercial vessels, board them with violence and then demand and get large ransoms from the owners of the ships for their release. It has been a lucrative business for the criminals. The conventional responses to this problem have been predictable, costly and clumsy e.g.
1. Avoid the affected areas and sail much greater distances.
2. Travel in convoys with the support of National Navies
3. Armed guards on every ship.
Now a British couple have launched an innovative alternative solution for the problem. Teresa and David Stevens of Lee-on-Solent run a maritime security company which has developed up a plastic barrier called the Guardian to fit over ships’ rails. It prevents anyone from boarding uninvited. The design is a large plastic P shape which is fitted over the railings of ships. It provides an overhang which makes it impossible for pirates to attach their ladders or grappling hooks. The Guardian has already been fitted to over 100 ships and earlier this year it prevented an attack in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria. There is a fuller article in the Daily Mail.
If there is a problem with a process in the use of a product then look for an innovation in the process or an innovation in the product. There is always a better solution waiting to be found. A good idea like the Guardian can prove simpler, cheaper and more effective.
Gamification is the use of game methods and game thinking in order to engage users or solve problems. It is an innovative crowdsourcing technique which is gaining increasingly widespread acceptance in business, education and research.
For example Cancer Research UK is preparing to launch GeneGame, a smartphone app that challenges users to form the best combinations of genes – aiding research in the area in the process. It was created by games developer Guerilla Tea, at a Cancer Research UK hackathon. Researchers have reams of data about genes and their role in diseases such as cancer. In order to produce reliable results from these datasets, it’s necessary to combine at least 25 different variables each time for each human gene – of which there are around 20,000. Rather than leaving this job up to researchers alone, the GeneGame app turns these combinations into winning ‘hands’ that the player has to build using their knowledge or searching the web for answers. The best players get to show off their knowledge through league placings, which researchers can then use to find out the players that are producing the most reliable datasets. More details from Springwise.
Dacadoo and Fitocracy are sites that use gamification to encourage users to improve their general health with exercise contests and games.
Mathletics is a site which encourage students of all abilities to learn and enjoy mathematics by taking part in games and challenges. It is used by over 10,000 schools and 3.5 million students aged from 5 to 18 from around the world. It tailors the games to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the student.
Health Care educators at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing have collaborated with the technology company, VitalSims, to launch web-based interactive games that challenge nursing students with real-life scenarios.
The University of Washington developed a game called Foldit, which encourages players to compete in science puzzles such as manipulating proteins into more efficient structures. According to the science journal Nature, Foldit’s players delivered better results than computer generated outcomes.
Restaurant.com is a dining deal website. It has developed a game called Restaurant.com Rewards . According to Chris Kohn, President of Restaurant.com, ‘customers earn points, badges, and rewards for completing specific tasks and missions. For example, our most popular badge is the “Sherlock Holmes,” which customers earn simply by searching for a restaurant. The most popular mission is “Creation Station” that challenges members to create an account, visit our home page, and search for a restaurant to earn rewards for completing all three steps.’
Gamification can increase traffic to your website and improve user engagement. More importantly it can be used to answer important questions and solve problems for your business.
The news that unauthorised horse meat had been found in various parts of the European meat trade in early 2013 caused a major scandal. Consumers and regulators were up in arms. Paddy Power, the Irish online gambling company, seized the moment by issuing a 36 page cook book of horse meat recipes with their annual results. It gained them significant publicity as this article in Marketing Week shows. Ken Robertson, Paddy Power’s “head of mischief”, says: “We wanted to reflect our brand persona as a mischief-maker.”
In the 2004 European Football Championships England played Portugal in the quarter-final. England’s Sol Campbell scored a fine goal which the Swiss referee, Urs Meier, disallowed. England went on to lose on penalties. English soccer fans were outraged. The morning after the match Asda opticians put out a press release announcing free eye tests for any Swiss nationals in Britain. It was an audacious piece of topical publicity. Some bright spark spotted the opportunity and some senior marketing executive promptly authorised the impudent release. Could that happen in your organisation? Could you initiate a bold piece of topical marketing in a couple of hours or would the decision have to go through lengthy committee approvals?
Topical and cheeky marketing does not cost much money but it takes courage, creativity and speed. It can then yield widespread coverage and sends a message that you are agile and bold.
Burger King garnered much good will and publicity with their April 1st release on the new ‘Left-handed Hamburger.’ Would your marketing team ever consider an April Fool’s hoax?
If your marketing budget is stretched then try a dose of topical mischief. It is a great way to innovate.
Are our schools preparing pupils to cope with the workplace of tomorrow or are they preparing them to pass exams today? To succeed in a digital world rich in information and innovation, future skilled workers will need the ability to analyse problems, think critically, think creatively, find new solutions and have the courage to take risks and to cope with failure. But these skills are eschewed in our current education system.
Professor Robert Carpenter of Cambridge University wrote recently in the Guardian, ‘The tick-box mentality underpinning GCSE and A-level rewards reactive rather than proactive responses. Here at university it takes two years to get even our best students to approach problems analytically and imaginatively, rather than expecting us to supply the correct answer to memorise.’
Today’s teaching methods encourage the belief that all that is needed for success is the ability to regurgitate the one correct answer to any given question. If you do that consistently in your course work and exams you will get top marks – and the school will look better in the league tables. But if the history of innovation teaches us anything it is that there is not just one correct answer to life’s real problems. There is always a different way. There is a better way to board an airplane, there is a better way to treat cancer, there is a better way to manage public finances – we just have not found them yet. And when we do implement better ways they will be subject to improvement and replacement too.
Finding an innovative solution for a problem often involves generating a large number of ideas ranging from the obvious to the initially absurd. These are then whittled down using suitable criteria and a selection of promising approaches is identified. Where possible it is often best to pilot these ideas to quickly see which will work and which will not. In order to solve some of the bigger problems in our society we should not put our faith in finding one perfect solution. We should run hundreds of small experiments and learn from the success or failure of each. But one perfect answer is the way our schools teach us to think.
Oxford High School for Girls is treading a different path with a maths test where it is impossible to get 100%. It is designed to show pupils it is ‘fine not to get everything right’. The exam questions get harder and harder until the pupil reaches the top of their ability. She will then be given questions she cannot answer. Chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust Helen Fraser told The Sunday Times the idea would help girls understand that ‘being perfect is the enemy of learning’.
Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, said in the Daily Telegraph: ‘Tough tests for both boys and girls to really challenge them are a good idea, and it is good to have questions that only very few – or perhaps none – can answer. The tougher the questions, the more children are likely to develop to meet them, and a by–product of that may be that children learn that you can’t succeed in everything and if you fail, the rational thing to do is ask why.’
Teaching knowledge is a good thing but it is not enough. We need to equip young people to handle the possibility of failure and to realise that there are no pat answers for most tough questions. We should encourage problem analysis and lateral thinking. We have enough Mastermind champions; we need more James Dysons.
Here is a short management meeting icebreaker that leads to an instant assessment of some of the good points and improvement areas for your organization. Assemble a mixed team from different departments and then ask everyone to write down their answers to three questions. At this stage people need to work silently and on their own. We do not want discussion or consensus – we want individual ideas.
1. What three words would customers use to describe us?
2. What three words would competitors use to describe us?
3. What three words would our employees use to describe us?
The words can be positive or negative. They are usually adjectives but verbs or nouns are allowed too. It helps if the words are written on post-it notes.
Now collect the words and group them into positive and negative sets. Form small teams of say four or five people and ask them to choose and prioritize what they consider to be the most important words from each set. The resulting lists typically show both real and perceived strengths and weaknesses and they naturally lead to further discussions with questions like:
- How can we build on this strength?
- How can we communicate this advantage?
- How can we combat this problem area?
- Who could we collaborate with to compensate for this weakness?
If you want to try a shorter (and more entertaining) version of this exercise, then ask these two questions of the group:
- If this organization were an animal, what animal would it be?
- If this organization were a vehicle, what vehicle would it be?
The answers are often amusing and revealing. People who might hesitate to admit that their company was slow to react, complacent and risk averse are happy to describe it as being like an elephant, a hedgehog, a double-decker bus or a tractor. But don’t assume that you understand what each metaphor means – ask the person to briefly explain why they said the company was like a parrot or a submarine. I have also heard businesses described as being like a jellyfish, a platypus, a stealth bomber and a fold-up bicycle. Each of those of was a personal insight that could potentially lead to a fruitful discussion.
We are living in an increasingly litigious age. The number of lawsuits brought against the British National Health Service has doubled in the last four years. The fear of litigation and the real possibility of been found guilty of medical malpractice are inhibiting hospitals and doctors from trying promising new ideas in the treatment of deadly illnesses.
Lord Saatchi has introduced into Parliament a Medical Innovation Bill which aims to encourage responsible scientific experimentation in medicine. As he points out, currently the law prevents the process of scientific discovery. Thousands of people die each year from cancers but each sufferer must be given the standard treatment even when it is well known that the standard treatment is largely ineffective. Any doctor who deviates from the standard code of practice is likely to suffer a verdict of medical negligence because the present law defines medical negligence as deviation from the standard procedure. But innovation always involves deviation from the norm. By prohibiting deviation, the law is prohibiting innovation with the long term result that cures for cancers are delayed. Doctors know that the current methods lead to little benefit yet they cannot try new approaches for fear of litigation.
The legal judgment in Crawford vs Board of Governors of Charing Cross Hospital (1953) states ‘the practitioner who treads the well-worn path will usually be safer, as far as legal liability, than the one who adopts a newly discovered method of treatment.’ As Saatchi puts it, ‘Doctors deciding how to treat a particular case start with the knowledge that as soon as they move away from existing standards within the profession, there is an automatic and serious risk that they will be found guilty of negligence if the treatment is less successful than hoped.’
Lord Saatchi’s proposed Bill will differentiate in law between reckless experimentation and responsible scientific innovation. Any proposed innovative approach has to gain prior approval from the hospital’s multi-disciplinary team. It will free doctors to make informed decisions that deviate from standard practice and therefore it should significantly increase the chances of finding a cure for cancer.
In medicine, as in business, applying standard practice means applying yesterday’s solutions. Innovation means trying to find tomorrow’s solutions. It involves risk and failure but if we stick rigidly to the current methods we will never reach the innovations we need.