Innovation: the importance of ‘why’

My friend Mary Abraham has written a characteristically perceptive post about the lessons innovators should learn from the pyramid builders. It is both interesting and useful.

Mary’s lessons can be summarised thus:

  • Innovate by using a series of disciplined experiments that are thoughtfully designed and carefully executed.
  • An experiment that is not examined for lessons learned is a failure — regardless of its actual outcome.
  • As you innovate, collect and share your knowledge to support further innovation by others.
  • Ensure that there is a clear and compelling vision of the intended results of innovation effort, and complement this with clear communication throughout the project.
  • Choose a sponsor who knows the value of second chance in the hands of an intelligent innovator.

Organisations that say they are innovative often display some of these characteristics. Very few manage all of them. In my experience, the one that is most commonly missing is the fourth — clarity of vision. Without this, successful changes can only be haphazard.

Curiously, the need for vision is often ignored (or assumed) in popular accounts of innovation processes. Consider this presentation by Tim Harford, for example.

Harford’s account contrasts two modes of innovation: long shots and marginal gains. Long shots are illustrated by game-changing great leaps forward like the Supermarine Spitfire, penicillin, and the work of Mario Capecchi creating the ‘knockout mouse’. They tend to be fuelled by the vision of their inventors or creators, but that vision fits within a broader social or community goal (improvements in military strength, reductions in disease and infection, or deeper understanding of genetic causes of ill health).

Marginal gains, on the other hand, are exemplified by the approach of Sir Dave Brailsford when he was performance director of British Cycling and team principal at Team Sky:

examining every aspect of performance to extract small advantages, which collectively add up to a decisive winning margin.

Some of the changes that Brailsford prompted are obvious (making bikes more aerodynamic, and so on), but the most eye-catching were things like: ensuring the team had their own tailored bedding rather than using those provided by hotels (so that their posture while sleeping didn’t affect performance the following day); requiring all team members to use hand-sanitisers (so that the risk of infections was reduced); or heated shorts (worn by track cyclists between races to make sure that their muscles stayed in the best condition to ride in semi-finals and finals).

Brailsford himself explains the philosophy in this video.

It is not an accident that the video combines two aspects of the management change that Sir Dave Brailsford brought to British Cycling. The CORE principles that he describes created a culture within the team that supported marginal gains. The culture defined the focus for the team: to do everything necessary to win races. That culture and vision helped people understand why marginal gains were important, and also gave them the means to describe why a particular suggestion would contribute to success.

The idea of marginal gains has become commonplace within organisations wishing to promote innovation. I have seen it used by law firms as a way of prompting people to submit ideas for improvement. Sadly, however, few firms have defined the purpose for which improvement is sought. There is no vision. (The cultural piece is often also missing, which doesn’t help either.)

Without clarity of vision about what needs to be improved, firms using marginal gains as a tool will often find that ideas are generated in a scattergun fashion. When the firm can’t express its own vision, it is left to individuals to find their own. Those individual perspectives aren’t always well-informed, and so can be misleading. Some people won’t be able to identify a purpose at all, and so will be unable to suggest changes (even though they might have some great ideas when prompted). As a result, fewer suggestions are forthcoming and, at worst, some of proposed ideas will pull in such different directions that little or no overall improvement is possible.

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