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.
A recent study by Andy Cosh and Joanne Jin Zhang of the UK Innovation Research centre set out to examine how companies were using open innovation. The report makes a thought-provoking comparison of the innovation styles of companies. It indicates that those companies that are active in open innovation in both giving and receiving ideas achieve higher rates of innovation and of revenue growth.
A survey was sent to 12,000 UK companies and 1202 responded. The authors categorised the respondents as falling into one of three categories which had similar behaviours and practices:
- Traditional companies made no external knowledge transfers and had few formal collaborations with other organisations in search of innovation.
- Hunting-cultivating firms engaged in external sourcing of knowledge and had formal collaborations but made no external transfers.
- Ambidextrous companies were defined as those that had engaged in hunting and cultivating but also transferred knowledge and technology externally. They are typically very engaged in partnering and collaboration.
Companies that serve local markets tend to traditional in their approach whereas national and international companies (whatever their size) show greater openness and ambidexterity. Traditional companies tended to have lower growth ambitions than hunter-cultivators or ambidextrous companies.
The ambidextrous firms had a higher percentage of employees with first or higher science or engineering degrees and a higher % of staff engaged in R&D. However, the hunting-cultivating firms spent the highest % of revenue on R&D. Despite this, it was the ambidextrous firms who introduced the most innovations. Furthermore although the hunting-cultivating firms grew significantly faster than the traditional firms, the ambidextrous types showed even faster growth. The researchers found no association between the choice of open innovation style and the size or age of the companies (although there were clear differences between sectors).
There is a detailed review of outbound open innovation activities. Firms engaged in external transfers for both financial and non-financial reasons – enhancing reputation was a frequently cited motive. Different kinds of revenue sources were favoured by different size firms – larger firms preferred out-licensing, smaller firms preferred R&D contracts while micro-firms gained most external revenue from spinouts.
There are many detailed results and conclusions in this report. The clearest is that companies that choose an open style to internal and external exchange of information, ideas and technologies achieve the highest rates of product innovation and growth.
Sustainability is now accepted as good corporate practice. It has taken a while but we have all come to understand that the planet is a valuable resource that should be treated with care. It is now recognised that we need to design sustainability into our products from the start, not just add it on as an afterthought. So how can we do this? Here are some fine recent examples of product and service innovations that incorporate sustainability.
- Replenish. Most household cleaners consist of a disposable plastic bottle, a detergent and a lot of water. Shipping a product which is 90% water through retail stores does not make a lot of sense. Replenish is an innovative reusable cleaning product. You simply buy a detergent refill and add water.
- Shwopping. Marks and Spencer launched a project which aims to reduce the volume of clothes that are thrown away to landfill, whilst supporting the charity Oxfam. Customers can bring unwanted pieces of clothing and place them in bins known as ‘Shwop Drops’. The clothes are then given to Oxfam to re-use, recycle or re-sell. In the last year some 4 million items have been Shwopped in over 400 M&S and Oxfam stores. This has helped Oxfam raise £2.3 million for its many good causes.
- Newlife Paints. What do you do with your unfinished tins of paint? The average household in the UK has 17 tins of partly used paint. These tins typically reside in the garage until they are eventually taken to the tip and then into landfill. Chemist, Keith Harrison, decided to do something about this environmental nightmare by creating Newlife Paints which collects and recycles tins of paint – repackaging them and selling them in a range of 32 colours.
Sustainability is more than just recycling. It is about creative design in products and processes that encourage and reward good behaviour by consumers. And the consumers seem to like it.
With thanks to Chris Sherwin of Seymourpowell for pointing out these examples.
If you want to innovate with a process or a service then try focusing on this word – rearrange. Describe your current process as a series of steps. Draw them out as a block diagram. Now try moving the blocks around and see where this leads.
Ray Kroc delivered a major innovation with the concept of fast food at MacDonald’s. The process steps for a conventional restaurant are something like this:
- Customer selects choice from menu
- Waiter takes order from customer to kitchen
- Kitchen prepares food.
- Waiter delivers food to customer
- Customer consumes food
- Waiter presents bill
- Customer pays
Kroc rearranged this process. The fast food model at MacDonald’s is:
- Kitchen prepares food in advance
- Waiter takes order and presents bill
- Customer pays
- Waiter delivers food to customer
- Customer consumes food
On-line check-in for flights is another example. Previously we went to the airport and stood in line to check in for our flight. Now the order is rearranged; we check in on-line at home and then go to the airport. By getting the customer to check himself in, time is saved and the process is improved.
Every process in your business should be examined and the question asked, ‘How could we rearrange this?’ Make a list of who does what tasks when. Then play around with possibilities. What if we did this stage earlier or later or not at all? What if we got the customer to do this part and a supplier to do that part?
For hundreds of years shops had the same process. The customer told the assistant what he or she wanted. The assistant fetched the goods. The customer paid for the goods and took them. Then in the 1920s Michael Cullen decided to rearrange the process. He asked, ‘Why not let the customer fetch the goods instead of the assistant.’ He created the world’s first supermarket, the King Cullen store in New Jersey.
The UK retail giant Tesco faced a challenge when it entered the Korean market. All the best retail locations were taken by the incumbent market leaders. Tesco took an innovative approach and rearranged the process. They rented space on subway walls and created virtual stores showing pictures of popular items with QR codes. Commuters waiting for their train home can select and order the goods they want using the camera on their mobile phones. When they arrive home the goods are delivered.
There is scope for innovation in every process; even such a well-established process as shopping. Take a good look at your processes. Apply the verb rearrange in an imaginative fashion. It might lead you to create an innovation as dramatic as fast food or the supermarket.
What do you do if you find yourself in a position like Kodak when an external innovation threatens to put you out of business? List your core skills then adapt or die.
Daniel Peter, who was born in 1836, was a Swiss candle-stick maker whose business started to suffer because of the new invention of oil lamps. He had a factory that could pour liquid candle wax into molds. How could he adapt these skills? He decided to make chocolate bars but he wanted to do some to differentiate his product from the competition. At that time chocolate was dark and bitter. Daniel Peter tried to develop a softer chocolate by adding milk but he found great difficulty in removing the water from the milk. His experiments ended with mildew forming on the chocolate or with a rancid product.
Eventually he heard of another man in the same town who had developed condensed milk as a baby food. That man’s name was Henri Nestlé. Using condensed milk they were able to perfect a method for the manufacture of milk chocolate. In 1879 the pair formed the Nestlé Company. Their new product proved immensely popular around the world. Daniel continued to work in the Nestlé factory until his death in 1919.