The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is a mystery and a tragedy. We have no plausible explanation yet. However it seems possible that some useful innovations will emerge from this. One is that all planes will be fitted with communications systems which cannot be turned off.
It appears that this disaster was caused deliberately by whoever was flying the plane. Indeed far more airplane crashes are caused by pilot error than technical or other faults. So perhaps this event will lead to another innovation – pilotless planes. Automatic pilots already do most of the work so why do we we need humans in the cockpit? The main reason is to reassure passengers. Perhaps we need a campaign to overcome this obstacle to innovation.
We do not need drivers on shuttle trains at airports or on elevators – why do we need them on underground trains and airplanes? A plane is more complicated but the evidence shows that in nearly all cases computer software can handle that complexity better than humans. And if a crisis requires human intervention then the plane can be flown from the ground by an expert pilot through telemetry. It is time to challenge the conventional approach. Maybe some good will then come out of this calamity.
It seems that when it comes to innovation you can either ride with the change and benefit or oppose the change and be run over. You are either the diner or the dinner.
Smith Corona made beautiful typewriters but word processors put them out of business. Encyclopedia Britannia made excellent encyclopedias but Wikipedia killed that business. Kodak were leaders in photographic film but consumers now prefer Instagram to prints. Warner Brothers and EMI were destroyed by music downloads and iTunes. We continue to see that innovation leads to winners and losers.
A recent Reuters report describes how taxi drivers in Milan, Chicago and Paris are vigorously opposing the use of the Uber service – a mobile app that allows users to summon a chauffeured car. It bypasses one of the best established of closed shops. In places like Milan taxi permits are handed down from father to son or sold for six figure sums. The unions want to jealously guard their privileges but history tells us that they are fighting a lost cause. They would do better to develop their own mobile apps and try to beat Uber with a better service.
Mark Twain said, ‘It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble; it is what we think we know for sure.’ The things we are certain of are the most dangerous assumptions we hold. That is why great innovators do not trust experts, or theories, or spreadsheets or models. They trust experimentation and empirical results.
Video clip here Paul Sloane at the Like Minds Conference
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