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.

Rethinking sport and life

My monthly copy of The Word magazine arrived last weekend. As usual, it is full of interesting articles about music, film and books. This month, however, there is a bit of a sporting flavour. This is provided by an interview with Ed Smith, who has combined a glittering academic career with top-level professional cricket, including playing for England. The interview itself is in epigrammatic form, but a number of Smith’s comments rang true with me when considered in a business context. Here are some excerpts.

Beware Academies — You could take the Platonic or Aristotelian attitude to creating winning sportsmen. The Platonic one is that you have an academy and you tell them how to do it. The Aristotelian one is, let them find out by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. … Sometimes I think that rebranding something as an academy gives it some legitimacy. It gives it none. Too often you get enshrined versions of mediocrity or systematised blandness.

When we think how people learn in organisations, we are often torn between Plato and Aristotle: between the training curriculum and learning on the job. I don’t think Smith’s point is that we should turn our backs on the Academy and embrace enlightened amateurism exclusively, but that we need to think carefully about the outcomes of different types of learning experiences. We also need to consider whether the people in the Academy are actually the right ones.

You have to trick your conscious mind — Bob Dylan said creativity is not a freight train on the tracks. It’s not something you can control. The best thing you can do is not get in the way. Most creative people have a cooperative subconscious. They keep their subconscious and rational minds aligned. The problem is, professionalism wants to understand how that works. You get some young player who’s very inconsistent and try  to make him consistent. …[Y]ou take somebody who is intermittently brilliant and you make them never brilliant.

This is a really perceptive comment about how we nurture brilliance of any kind. Often the hothousing of talent actually flattens it. Just like plants, people become more vigorous when they are subjected to the buffeting of their natural environment. When we take them out of that environment, and isolate them from the wind and rain (in the case of plants) or failure and feedback (in the case of people), we make them weaker rather than stronger. In the end, Smith is probably right that individuals are probably better off managing their own creativity and brilliance. When organisations get involved, they run a real risk of losing the brilliance along with the mystery.

It’s not about passion — Anyone can go around beating their chest; it’s winning that’s so damn hard. … I don’t pay good money to watch a conductor stamp his feet. I pay to listen to good music. The choreographer George Balanchine once said that the more he wanted passion, the more he found himself having to talk about precise, very technical things.

This last sentence is a real gem. So often we see so-called ‘gurus’ or leaders talking about the need for passion, but with very little behind it. Balanchine’s remark is much more useful. People cannot deliver with passion and flair (for the benefit of their clients, the firm or themselves) if they go not have a perfect grasp of the technical details. Some of them will never be able to show that passion anyway, but even so they would still have deep technical competence. That has a value in itself. Passion without command of the detail is worthless.

Unfortunately, the interview is not online, so if you want more you’ll have to buy the magazine. Alternatively, Smith’s recent book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, apparently covers similar ground.