Friday, February 25

Are you Genuine and Mature?

I recently attended an event at which one of the speakers invited audience response along these lines:

"Which of the following best describes your organisation?
"1. Says it's not interested in innovation
"2. Says it's interested, but doesn't really mean it
"3. Is interested in innovation, but doesn't have a meaningful plan
"4. Is interested in innovation, and has a plan"

It occurs to me that this question could actually form the basis for examining organisationsa sort of poor man's "maturity model" for innovation, if you'll indulge me!

So where would we place our own organisations on this scale?   And what's to be gained by so doing?

If an organisation rates itself thus, there are some serious questions to be asked.  First of all, we'll probably find that "Disinterested Plc." is already investing in non-operational matters, so by many people's definitions there will actually be plenty of innovation going on.  If there isn't, the company can't be sustainable in the long-term.  Even if there is, the lack of recognition suggests that more focus might improve results.

Companies which feign interest in innovation may just be trying to protect their reputations in a market which has suddenly become obsessed with the term "innovation".  I'd worry more about "" than about "Disinterested Plc.", because the latter is likely to be more open-minded. sounds to me like an organisation lacking in integrity, so probably has bigger problems to worry about anyway.  Perhaps it devotes a lot of time to finessing, subterfuge and in-fighting?

"Well-Intentioned, Lost Ltd." (WILL) could well be on a journey, but it's not clear in which direction.  With any luck it's recognised the need for developing creative propositions, but not yet found the time, budget or cultural motivation to take the subject seriously.  If so, it's likely that will change in time.  The alternative is that WILL has evolved from a product to a services company (haven't we all?)  If so, then perhaps it has always believed in innovation, but has struggled to apply its former R&D specialism in a services context, and may never realise that aspiration.

Organisations like "Now We're Cook-Inc." are clearly in a good place, and should thrive for as long as their competitors remain less effective.  The important art here is balance:  It would be easy for an evangelistic company like this to allow its excitement about "new stuff" to dominate, and allow margins to erode, and leadership attention to divert entirely away from matters operational.  

So on reflection, perhaps there's a fifth level of maturity, where innovation is a natural function of the business, self-improving and self-optimising, sensitive to external "PESTLE" forces.

What do you think?   Do these levels make sense?  Where do you sit, and why?

Thursday, February 17

Learning to Think

It's funny how things come in threes (apparently).  This week the theme seems to be education ...

1.  Lately I've been considering how little coverage of the subject of thinking featured in my schooling.  It was an unspoken rule throughout that thinking was something you just did, and you were either good or bad at it.

Our old friend de Bono would argue that there has been a major deficiency in Western education over the years, in that we've been focusing solely on left-to-right, critical analytical thinking (so-called Socratic method).  I feel there's something in this.   In response to this problem, he developed his CoRT programme for schools, designed to help children find alternative and better ways to think.

But having quickly trawled the web to bring myself up-to-date, I found evidence of change at  Not being a regular at schools these days I've asked for more details, and if I find evidence of strong take-up I'll post again on this subject.

2.  Whilst mulling this over in my mind, I found myself en route to an open forum at the House of Commons on Wednesday morning.  The event was run by NESTA, and centred around its publication "Creative Clusters".  Although I didn't spot education as a major theme of the report, many of the audience were extremely exercised about the policies of the cross-party panel of MPs, which they felt threatened education in support of the creative industries.   They're right to worry: the creative industries are footloose and could migrate away from the UK more easily than other sectors. 

(I've yet to understand exactly why Feargal Sharkey was there.  He was only two seats away, so perhaps I should have asked him?)

One of the MPs on the panel was Damian Collins (Con) who regaled us with stories of his time at Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency. 

3.  Lo-and-behold on the train home I found a Times article quoting the CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi.  Apparently Kevin Roberts has recently said:

"Originally I thought business schools gave you a fantastic toolkit, a great framework, but sent you out with zero creativity and innovation skills.

"But as I gained knowledge about business schools and the MBA, I realised that not only is there a lack of creativity and innovation, but also they miss business-savvy judgment and decision-making skills."

If we're to take any of this at face-value, it seems a shake-up is beginning.  There's room for improved education about modes of thinking other than the analytical at primary schools (where the really deep changes can take root), in secondary and higher education (where we all too often follow the paths prescribed by others), and certainly in vocational education such as the MBA (where we should have long ago recognised that effective business leadership demands individuals to apply creative thinking as a matter of course.

Thursday, February 10

The Left Hand MUSTN'T know what the Right Hand is doing

We often chide the organisations with which we work for their apparent poor communication.  If the "left hand doesn't know that the right hand is doing" then that's a bad thing, yes?

In the dissemination of information, it certainly is a bad thing.  But the purposeful separation of concepts in the initial stages of innovation can be a very powerful tool indeed, especially where functional divides are already deeply entrenched.

It's best to explain this paradox by example:

I often see product developers exploring opportunities in early collaboration with operational or IT staff, and just occasionally there's an immediate meetings-of-minds.

More often though, when the two groups meet too early we find that embryonic business ideas are killed-off quickly by a storm of parochial objections, and valuable process and technology assets just seem meaninglessly abstract in the context of the business opportunity.

If instead, we first support different groups in exploring their own worlds, we may find that when they do join forces:
 - There's much richer raw material for each to share
 - There are many more chances to link the two worlds (see figure)
 - There's a greater likelyhood of mutual respect and future engagement

But the two "hands" in the metaphor needn't always represent marketeers and technologists, they could equally well be ...
... analytical problem-solvers and creative problem-solvers,
... upper management and trainees, or
... researchers and service teams

We shouldn't think of this philosophy as counter-collaborative; in fact it allows us to guide the overall creative effort so as to make collaborations richer and ultimately more successful.  Initial introspection amongst the separate teams should last hours or days, never weeks or months, and should not be considered a valid end in itself.

Wednesday, February 2

"Meetings kill creativity." Discuss ...

Just yesterday I read an article titled "Is Your Calendar Managing You?"   The material therein is nothing new: it's been the topic of many a management diatribe over the years.  But its relevance to creativity at work is actually rather profound, and that justifies a little dedicated attention in this column.

We're all really, really, really busy.  It goes without saying.

But should our calendars be full if our appointments don't directly support our avowed priorities?

How sensible is it to spend an hour each week updating a weekly activity report, when most of the tasks referenced are only of nominal importance?

How vital is it that we attend three status meetings every Tuesday, spending 70% of each meeting hearing our peers slip their actions, and then excuse the slippage in ever more elaborate ways?

How critical that we review that 12th technical specification, when others will contribute much more meaningfully to the process?

Chris Guillebeau is famous for telling us that only around 20% of traditional white-collar work is actually useful.  I find it hard to disagree, but at least I now try to challenge-down the offending 80% of my own work, and often that of my clients too.

If we let it, our diary will fill with meaningless work.  And if we're not thinking straight, we'll consider the depth of that time commitment to be a minor victory!

So if you're spending 30 hours a week in meetings (and still finding time to read this blog) then consider the following for a moment:
  1. Saving just half that time would give you three hours back each day.  You could use 90 minutes to get some of the actual work done, and still have 90 minutes free for thinking, to sharpen your edge.
  2. Attending fewer meetings would keep more of your mind from meaningless junk, and perhaps permit a bit more space for intelligent views to form.
  3. Optimum creativity demands a bit of leisure time, to open the mind
  4. Creativity can be stifled by repeating the same old patterns time-after-time.  The synaptic pathways in our brains deepen, and we become "old dogs" before our time.

If you've been paying attention so far, you'll have developed a nice counter-argument for me:  "Surely," you'll say, "the best creative ideas are arrived at in meetings?"

Having reflected on this extensively in the past, I don't think your canny counter-argument is as clear-cut as we first imagine.  Firstly, what's required for new ideas is a blending of disjoint concepts, and that needn't happen in a face-to-face meeting.

Perhaps more fundamentally, we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which we can be creative alone.  With a little preparation and training this quickly becomes an invaluable skill, and certainly something I'd be loath to trade-in for another "Morning Prayers".