Tag Archives: innovation

The one with coffee and paranoia

Last Friday I spent my afternoon at an internal event focussed on Innovation. A combination of speakers and workshops seemed to energise a diverse room on a Friday afternoon and given the event was internal we were lucky to be joined by Professor Mark Dodgson a leading academic on the subject who is a visiting professor at Imperial College London but more of him in a moment…

The opening session was delivered by one of my colleagues, Mark Thurston who had used a TED talk delivered by another academic Steven Johnson who is preoccupied with Innovation. If you have 19 minutes to spare it’s worth a watch but in essence he debunks the notion that great ideas arrive in eureka moments but more than they grow by individual nurturing and through discussion and interaction with others who challenge and build on the idea. He uses the phrase ‘liquid networks’ and cites a step change in Innovation occurring in 17th Century England which may correlate with the opening of coffee shops and a switch from depressants (due to poor water quality most people drank alcohol all day) to stimulants such as tea and coffee. Coupled with the design of coffee shops to encourage discussion and interaction.

The Grand Cafe, Oxford, opened in the 1650s

He then goes on to talk about events of 1957 when the Russians successfully launched Sputnik 1 into space. In their paranoia to prove that the launch and orbit wasn’t a hoax the Russian authorities made it widely known that the signals sent to and received from Sputnik 1 were being broadcast on a readily available frequency. A group of keen young scientists decided to try to listen to the signal and using some nee-naw (Dopler effect) calculations worked out the position of Sputnik as it travelled around the Earth.

This triumph of the geeks spread around their University and another researcher asked if they could reverse the effect – instead of tracking a moving object in space from a fixed point on Earth, could they track a moving object on Earth from a fixed point in space. The work that followed was in favour of the US government who were attempting to track Submarines and this was the genesis of the global positioning system that so many of us rely on regularly to do many things…including finding coffee shops!

Later, when Professor Dodgson took the stage he shared some incredible insight in how the tragedy of 911 has pushed design engineers Arup to rethink how people can be evacuated from tall buildings in emergencies and how these innovations are part of the Freedom Tower. Weirdly, the answer came back to challenging one of the rules we all take for granted – using lifts in case of emergencies but lifts with modification and capability to allow them to function effectively in an emergent situation. He went on to describe the challenge Arup faced in convincing not only their client but potential tenants and insurers of the building that this was the right answer – basically they got them all to re-solve the problem with them!

The Freedom Tower, Lower Manhattan

He cited the oft told story of IBM and it’s transformation from a product business to a service business but also shared a fact that brought innovation into context in FMCG – 66% of Nestle’s turnover comes from products that didn’t exist 10 years ago – what I believe is referred to as a burning platform! When asked what his work had taught him about companies that were great at innovation he talked about making it part of the culture, that it needs to be part of the strategy, having clear and accessible process but the biggest need he cited was leadership – without senior leaders who are evangelists about innovation it will not succeed.

He ended his session with what he believes is the biggest opportunity for innovation that is still in it’s infancy – the mobile phone. He didn’t wax on about Apple vs Android or Samsung’s new handset but shared 3 simple numbers: there are 7 billion people on the planet, there are 6 billion mobile phones and there are 2 billion bank accounts. The opportunity to make money ‘mobile’ could literally bring the developing world galloping into growth. He shared insights on the impacts of microfinance in developing countries and the impact it is having on those who haven’t been able to save, borrow or trade outside of a limited environment.

All in all it was a fascinating afternoon and it left me excited and optimistic that whatever the news says we as a planet and a race will support and challenge each other to innovate our way out of it. The other thought I had was the irony of  how the paranoia of a group of Russians during the cold war could, inadvertently, through the chain reaction of GPS and it’s impact on mobile change the face of the world by allowing 5 billion people access to structured finance…

Not a bad thought for a Friday…

P.S. If you are reading this having seen it linked in Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin – welcome to the Liquid Network!!


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The one with the wild rabbit

On occasion I loath the power of advertising. Not the pernicious, influential, sub-conscious messaging and influencing – that’s just the game. The bit I loath is the fact that on occasion something just lodges in my brain and lays dormant just waiting to pop out. Today I will inflict such an instance on you. It concerns Hennessy brandy and it’s Wild Rabbit campaign…

It was a Saturday afternoon in May 2012 (yes it’s been lodged that long) and I was lucky enough to be sat in the back of a taxi in New York heading towards Greenwich Village and I noticed a billboard that looked something like this (but without the palm tree – it was New York!!)…

 hennessey wild rabbit billboard

And it intrigued me enough to find the website and follow the thread of the campaign. The central tenant of which is this:

“In Cognac, France, where Hennessy is made, rabbits run wild. But the intriguing animals are rarely seen. Over time, people invented tales about them; Tales about a creature that lives in people’s minds.

This elusive Wild Rabbit, is thought to drive people from one success to another. For nearly 250 years Hennessy’s Wild Rabbit has been to build on our expertise and push our world class cognac ever closer to perfection. Constantly chasing. Never stopping. Never settling.


I had forgotten all about the advertising campaign (and apologies to Hennessy I’ve still not bought any brandy) but fast forward to February 2013 and I was reading a report on some research carried out by the talent consultancy Korn Ferry. It was based on the survey results of speaking to 109 business executives and getting them to rank which of Korn Ferry’s competencies they believed were their prorities in the post-financial crisis world (I must have missed the memo that it’s over). They were comparing it with data collected in 2007 and the pre-crisis post-crisis comparison looks like this.

Rank Pre-crisis Post-crisis
1 Customer Focus Dealing with Ambiguity
2 Drive for results Customer Focus
3 Motivating Others Manage Vision and Purpose
4 Priority Setting Strategic Agility
5 Problem Solving Managerial Courage
6 Timely Decision Making Perspective
7 Strategic Agility Priority Setting
8 Organising Motivating Others
9 Command Skills Drive for Results
10 Business Acumen Listening


On initial reading I was interested to see the absence of command skills post-crisis and to see that courage had appeared in the list. It was no surprise that dealing with ambiguity went straight in at number 1 and I suppose I was a little encouraged with the climb that strategic agility had made and the importance placed on managing vision and purpose.

However, the more I thought about it the more I thought the list was lacking anything truly inspirational – I mean, a lot of what these 109 executives are rating are to a certain extent the key skills of managers but what of leadership? I am not intending to have the leadership vs. management debate here but for me both lists were missing any kind of magic – where were the game changers?

This list and the blog post it was going to provoke have been bouncing around in my head for a few weeks and somewhere in the bouncing I came back to being sat in that taxi on that Saturday afternoon and being intrigued by the concept of the wild rabbit.

Maybe it’s just my divine discontent gene twitching again but I can’t help thinking that an organisation lead by those list of 10 will hardly be blowing the doors off anything. Where’s innovation? Where’s inspiring people? Where’s the global edge?

One could argue that courage+customer focus+strategic agility may blow the doors of something but I struggle with the notion that an organisation recruiting to that shopping list will have find themselves with a group of very competent senior managers but no magic.

In sitting and thinking about it you could play with the idea of the wild rabbit and think of IBM transforming itself from a business machines company to the knowledge and service offering they have now, probably most people would quote Apple’s disruption of the music market and the e-commerce examples are numerous (altogether after 3 – Jeff Bezos). But think about stuff that’s happening now – Random House and Penguin merging to ‘suit up’ in the battle of content vs. distribution… Think of the Co-op changing from an also ran to the ethical food retailer. There are probably loads of great examples but the example that both lists make me come back to is Kodak

Chapter 11 or Wild Rabbit?

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The one with the lion’s den and no christians

A few weeks ago I found myself waiting around in a hotel. I was meeting some colleagues and found the drinks point and was contentedly making a cup of tea. In the same lounge were 4 people who were obviously having some kind of work session talking animatedly about their plans.

In blatantly eavesdropping on their conversation I heard mention of the ‘whack pack’ a cheap and easy tool I’ve seen used to try and give people stimulation for creativity (think De Bono’s hats) at which point I started to pay more attention. Eventually my eavesdropping became interruption as I engaged them in conversation about what they planned to do.

One of them went on (with obvious signs of excitement) to share how they planned to take a large group of employees at a certain management level within a financial institution and ‘make them more creative’. It seems the institution in question wanted to increase innovation and encourage entrepreneurship within their organisation and the response was a 3 day training course on creativity. The course, I must admit, sounded like it would be fun and the people were clearly passionate about giving the participants a well planned programme but I left their conversation thinking how much time and effort they were likely wasting.

For me this illustrates the disconnect between learning & development and organisational development and where well intentioned L&D practitioners waste passion, time, effort and money on interventions that in generating change and traction are about as much use as a chocolate fire guard.

Most organisations, as they should be, are set up with the governance and processes to successfully operate the activities that deliver their business outcomes. In most cases neither the governance nor the processes are set up to adapt to people from around the organisation coming up with great new ideas about things that could be done better or should be done differently. Firing up a whole group of employees with the tools and motivation to ‘be more creative’ I would liken to chucking them into the lion’s den with a complete absence of Christian support.

It is my belief that to successfully drive innovation within an organisation it is not creativity that needs to be addressed (walk around your business tomorrow and ask if anyone has any ideas – there’ll be loads) it’s how the organisation successfully considers those ideas, turns them into plans, funds them and executes them into sustainable change that is the challenge in being more innovative. In other words how does the system adapt to the change required that requires focus not the impetus for change.

In carrying out my project research most of the intrapreneurs I talked to hardly focused on the generation of ideas or discussed a shortage of ideas. It was how they successfully got them through ‘the machine’ and sustained personal commitment and organisation support that received the most focus.

I would get down on bended knee, or at least ask with some emphasis that in considering any similar significant investment in learning that L&D practitioners think not just about the Daniels but also think with some care about the lion’s den and realise that unless both are addressed change is unlikely to happen.


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