Thursday, 18 September 2008

Innovation: Courage to Create Success

Sometimes the first ingredient we need for innovation is courage; courage to go with our convictions, even in the face of opposition.

3M is a global company with a reputation for creativity and innovation, but anyone who has worked in almost any ‘creative and innovative organisation’ will tell you that reputation and actual practice are often poles apart. Sure, they like to take the credit for their public successes but what they don’t publicise so freely is just how much perseverance, tenacity and sheer dogged single-mindedness the individual champions of the case have to be in order to make their individual success a company success.

I was reminded recently of the account of Richard Drew, an iconic figure within 3M culture and the person responsible for not one, but two truly innovative products that put 3M well and truly on the map, both as an organisation and later as an innovative company.

Drew joined 3M with a less than glowing background of being a college dropout who played banjo in dance bands at night whilst studying engineering through a correspondence course. He had an entry level job as a lab technician. One of Drew’s tasks was to take batches of 3M’s Wetodry sandpaper to a nearby St Paul automotive body shop. At the time (1921) two tone colours were all the rage for cars, and on one of Drew’s visits a painter was cursing and swearing because he had just ruined a paint job. There was at that time no way of ensuring a good line between the colours except through the use of glues and paper etc.

Drew saw the problem and decided to come up with a solution.

Now it would be great to say that he was supported by the company for his efforts, but he wasn’t. 3M was a sandpaper manufacturer not a tape manufacturer so Drew had to ‘go underground’ to do his work, experimenting with all sorts of oils and resins to produce a superior adhesive. He was told to stop on at least one occasion and agreed until the attraction of his own little project became too great and he started again. When he had come up with a good prototype, he needed to manufacture the finished article for which he needed a specific piece of machinery. He was refused. So he used his initiative and used a series of $99 sign-offs (he was allowed to authorise payments up to $100) which slipped ‘under the company radar’ to buy the machine.

In 1925, Richard Drew successfully produced the world’s first masking tape with a pressure sensitive adhesive backing … and the rest, as they say, is history. Well it would be if Drew hadn’t come up a few years later with another invention of the first see through adhesive packaging tape, Scotch Tape, again after persevering against the odds.

Of course today, the name of Richard Drew is synonymous with the innovative spirit of the company, but at the time he was making it big for the company through his determination and conviction to succeed, it was a battle; a battle which involved stepping around the rules, lying low, persevering against the odds.

Innovation is often a rough path which is only seen and appreciated by the end-results of products or processes, not during the actual process of arriving (except by those who are driving it).

So the next time we are looking for innovation in our business, we need to remember that it is often a long and winding road, and a road that will require a lot of sweat and toil along the way, not only with the project at hand but with all the devil’s advocates and ‘jobworths’ who tell us that it won’t work. This is why we need to lok at adopting a creative and innovative culture which understands the processes, pitfalls and obstacles and which helps, not hinders the process which is the lifeblood of company survival and expansion.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, 11 September 2008

What Are We Worth?

Perhaps a bit of a rhetorical question, but I assure you there is no catch.

Our sense of value and our value system are both complex entities, arising from our life history. Most of us have had knocks of one kind or another: bereavement, redundancy, failure in achieving something we were aiming for, family breakdown, work pressure … the list is very long.

Thankfully, many of us can recover from these blows, some more quickly than others. However, for some people a combination of blows arrives at the wrong time (childhood, especially adolescence) or too close together. In those cases the impact can be catastrophic. Someone full of hope and confidence one day can turn into a shy recluse with no sense of direction the next, whilst others kick out at anything and anyone who gets in the way or tries to help. Their world has literally been shattered. I remember a good friend at school who for no apparent reason started picking on anyone and everyone, eventually causing total classroom disruption resulting in suspension. We thought he was an idiot. It was only years later that we discovered he’d come downstairs to breakfast one morning to find his mother packing the car to leave. Bang! Just like that: out of the blue without warning. The emotional cost took years to repair and included many broken and dysfunctional relationships along the way. We were also forced to think about our lack of response.

Sadly, my friend’s situation is mirrored with alarmingly increasing frequency today.

But I also remember another couple of other friends who always seemed so confident, almost cocky, about their life and where they were going. And they did go! Both became very successful in their respective fields; one as a scientist, the other as craftsman. Why were these two so different? I think much of it came from what was being fed into their lives. Their parents were always encouraging them to try something new, go for something they couldn’t achieve. And if they failed? They could always have another go.

Now I know it is naive at best to simplify all situations to a single formula, but it is generally well accepted that a person’s self-identity is forged through their life experiences and relationships. Repeated criticism or comparison with other people results in loss of confidence and unwillingness, often through fear, to try something in case we fail. It also leads to the perception that ‘I am worth nothing.’ The opposite is true, with those receiving encouragement (including correction) achieving a more balanced and fulfilled lifestyle. And success is often thrown in there too.

It is also accepted that what we practise at school becomes a lifetime habit. Our businesses are plagued with people who continue to play out their school scenario, as bullies and manipulators, or as doormats. They have a misguided sense of self-importance or self-value; either too high or too low. Self-confidence is a good attribute when held in balance with other life skills. But too much or too little can be disruptive and at its extreme, devastating.

And the problem extends further into society, where we see the impact of people who are unable to respond to their circumstances or surroundings.

The great news is that we all have intrinsically equal value and worth.

The bad news is that others, or we ourselves project a value which then puts us on a sliding scale, based on what we can do, or our cash value in terms of income or cost to society. These false measures need to be clearly delineated from intrinsic worth and value. Of course, when we enter into a job or role, there is a basic need to be able to perform that role competently, and hopefully bring something extra as well. But that has to do with our value to the employer: it does not affect our value as an individual.

So where am I going with all this?

Our childhood influences adulthood, in terms of how we think and how we act towards ourself and others. That childhood will have been influenced by positive and negative inputs which will also have influenced our perceptions. Those perceptions, in turn, influence how we operate at work, at home or with our friends. However, these perceptions and responses are habits formed through the practice of life and like any other habit, they can largely be reshaped and changed into new habits. We don’t really have an excuse for, ‘Well, that’s me and that’s the way I am [forever and always shall be].

We each have a responsibility to look at ourselves and see how, where and if we need to change these habits: thought patterns, attitude to others, attitude to ourself, emotional response.
And therein lies another issue; we are generally very poor at emotions!

Most of us have gone through life with the good old British stiff upper lip, being afraid to engage, let alone express our emotions for fear of what we may discover. And our education system does nothing to help, effectively switching off emotional engagement by the age of 11, leaving many ill-equipped to handle life. I know I’ve used the analogy before, but it’s like an athlete who only trains one half of their body for a 100m sprint final. It’s absurd to even consider, yet we do that everyday with children from as young as 3 or 4 years old, up until they are 18 or older and then we are surprised that they can’t handle life.

So it is little wonder that poor self-worth and low self-esteem are cancers in today’s world.

Thankfully, creativity allows re-engagement with our emotions and therefore, provides a safety valve for when pressures and trials arise. It is something we all possess and something we can all discover and apply. I believe that passionately and it is one of my key motivators and driving forces.

And by applying that creativity across our businesses, in practice, planning and development, implication, sales and marketing, management structures, team structures … through the people we have, the future, as one mobile company proclaims, is bright. Our who business benefits:
  • Within the business, our people will feel more fulfilled, more engaged, more appreciated, they will be more willing to contribute, more willing to work harder and longer hours (if required), the atmosphere will change for the better
  • Outside the business, our customers will notice the change and the wider social net will benefit.

On a scale of 0 - 100, we all score 100 for worth, but sadly, many score less than 20 when it comes to self-worth or valuing others. And that must stop.

Until next time …

Postscript: Wouldn’t it be great if our governments actually believed in the concept for our education system; not for political gain but for the good of the nation, and empowered those with the appropriate skills and vision to make it happen!

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Creativity: The Other Global Crisis

Perhaps one of the most eloquent and engaging speakers I have heard is Sir Ken Robinson. he has this style which instantly puts one at ease whilst totally drawing us in to what he has to say. If you want an example, pour yourself a coffee and Watch Ken Robinson Talk to see him in action (opens in a new window ... use the 'Close Window' button after viewing).

In one of his more recent appearances he continued to present some uncomfortable facts which will impact us all unless things change. Here is a sample of out-takes from his talk. Full article here (opens in a new window).
  • The world is facing a crisis of human resources ... "I believe that fundamentally we have both underestimated and continue to misuse - if not actually abuse - many of our most important talents; our talents, our children's talents, and the talents of the people who work with us. And unless we fix [this crisis], I feel we're not going to make much progress fixing the other one."
  • Both crises are the result of our "industrial mindset," which is incompatible with modern society and modern business. Both manifest themselves in terms of imbalances. In the natural world it is the imbalance of gases in our atmosphere, although human activity is also disrupting many other ecosystems. In society we have legions of people dislocated from their own talents, legions of people suffering from all kinds of anxiety, legions of people in dysfunctional communities. And there is an enormous cost of handling this.
  • In California (Robinson's new home town) spends $3.5bn a year on the state university system; it spends $9.9bn on the state prison system. Similar figures exist for other Western countries, as well as other US states. The UK spends millions of pounds a year on remedial education, to try to get kids through a system which many of them are bucking against. And we spend millions of pounds a year on career counselling, because people have not found their way.
  • The result for educators, employers and HR professionals is that it is vital to have an understanding of "the ecology of human resources.
  • As a society, we must improve our understanding of human capabilities. We believe mistakenly that creativity and intelligence vary in inverse proportion to one another. The things we take for granted as being true are the real problem; the enemy of making the best of ourselves is common sense.
  • Thankfully creativity is not dead but merely latent, in most adults.
  • Work by Land and Jarman showed that in a smaple of 1,500 children aged 3-5, 98% ranked as "geniuses" in divergent thinking. In children aged between 8 and 10 years the figure fell to just 32% and by the time children had reached between 13 and 15 years it had declined further to a mere 10%. In other words, children become less creative as they grow older. What coincides with this period of development, aside from hormonal changes and socialisation, is that they enter formal education where they have learnt a) there is one answer to every question, b) don't look, because that's cheating and c) don't copy from anybody else, because that's cheating too ... even though outside of school we call this collaboration.
  • This mindset goes well beyond school and college. Land and Jarman also performed a control test of two-thousand adults (aged 25+) where only 2% ranked as geniuses. We don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it, because of the ways in which we become institutionalised and socialised. Education is a big piece of this, but work is an even bigger piece.
  • Creativity is most frequently associated, in the workplace, with innovation but it is equally important in helping society cope with, and harness, technological advances. No matter what we do or where we do it, technology is going to swamp us: new information systems are going to subvert all the things we take for granted.
  • The over-25s think we're OK, but we're not that great. We have learnt digital technology like a second language, so we kind of speak phrasebook digital compared with our children. IT systems are becoming more and more pervasive, but they're not fundamentally avoiding the powerful need for better and better use of human resources. To the contrary. Human resource is the only way we can engage with these things properly ... and at this moment we are locked into an industrial mindset about our own capabilities.
  • Business people can help to nurture creativity and imagination by thinking of organisations as organisms rather than organisations A better metaphor is from agriculture. A farmer can't make a plant grow. A plant grows itself. A good farmer provides the conditions for growth. And a great plant doesn't just grow from the top, it grows everywhere simultaneously, as do healthy organisations, which have a reciprocating relationship among the parts.
  • There is a huge difference between a creative team and a committee: great creative teams require real expertise among managers and leaders to work. It's a skill-set that we need to be teaching managers and leaders.
  • Great teams, large or small, are deliberately diverse: they have people from different backgrounds, experiences, ages and responsibilities in the organisation. The processes employed by these teams ensure that their diversity is not an impediment but a resource.
    The best senior managers are those who are not afraid to let teams congregate for specific tasks and then disband, to form other teams as necessary, perhaps one of the best ways to spread cultural information around the organisation.
  • It is essential to create the right habitat, in terms of culture and environment. Anyone who is serious about making more of people must be serious about the environment in which they work. And not just the colour of the walls: innovative organisations have a rigorous approach to questioning algorithms of behaviour and changing the environment as need be.
    Challenging stuff.

What I think is obvious is that we have a long way to go. BUT we need to make a start, no matter how small to change the inertia of creative decline. and just perhaps some of our organisations and social structures will be rebuilt into healthy living cultures.

Until next time ...

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Success in Failure; Humility in Leadership

Whilst hopping around the Internet recently I came across a great article on The London Business Forum website from an interview with Sir Richard Branson. As I read it, I was struck by an individual who is totally passionate about what he does whilst also being ready to learn, change and improve.

I remember Richard Branson being set-up for a fall on more than one occasion by our beloved British Press. When he was trying something new or attempting a new record, the snipers of the true British spirit shot … and if he failed, the “I told you so” or “You read it first in the ***” kinds of headlines prevailed. It was more important that he’d failed than what he’d attempted. And yet, if we talk to any successful businessman, failure is always on their list and it’s seen as part of their road to success (and perhaps that is why so many of our current journalists will never be successful … but that’s another story!).

Anyway, please enjoy the following except from Sir Richard’s interview:

‘Many of the audience wanted Branson to dispense some entrepreneurial advice, and he didn’t disappoint, mixing the common-sense with some fascinating and salutary anecdotes. “The importance of protecting the downside,” was a key lesson to learn, he said. This is why, when he cut a deal with Boeing to buy his first second-hand 747, it included an option to sell the plane back after one year. Boeing’s only concern, he said, was that Virgin “wouldn’t live up to its name but would actually go all the way.”

Similarly, he had a valuable tip on how to retain entrepreneurial dynamism while you’re growing: as soon as the number of staff hits 100, split the firm in two. In this way, he said, Virgin Records ended up being 20 different companies that “didn’t even share switchboards”. It’s a philosophy that Virgin still tries to observe in spite of its gigantic size. Of the group’s 200 branded companies, “none of them are massive in any particular field,” Branson said, and each has to stand on its own two feet”. The people who lead each business are managing directors, and are incentivised accordingly. “Virgin has created about 200 millionaires over the years,” he revealed.

The moment you go from one company to two companies, you’ve got to start learning the art of delegation, he added. “So what I try to do when we set up new businesses [is this]: I’ll go in, I’ll immerse myself for a month or two, I’ll learn all about that industry, so that if a managing director does come to me and wants to talk to me about mobile phones or trains, I’ll know something.”

True delegation means giving people the freedom to make mistakes, he said. “[My parents] would always look for the best in what [I] did. They were great believers in lots and lots of praise… And I think if you’re the leader of a company, this is even more important. You shouldn’t be looking for people slipping up, you should be looking for all the good things people do and praising those. People know when they’ve slipped up, they don’t need to be told.”

Another defining characteristic of Branson’s personal management style was his willingness to be humble, and to listen to criticism, where staff and customers are concerned. “I do try to make an effort,” he said. “If I’m on a Virgin plane, I’ll try to meet all the passengers. I’ll have a little notebook in my back pocket. I’ll meet all the staff.” He stressed the importance of tiny details, saying that only by getting these right will you end up with “an exceptional company rather than an average company.”

Ultimately, business is not about “balance sheets, money, profits and loss,” he argued. It is about “creating something you’re really proud of, something the people who work for you can be really proud of… the actual business aspect is simply there to be mopped up at the end.”

The fact that he never got a tight grasp of financial matters was probably a benefit, he suggested, in that it persuaded him never to bring in accountants too early in the development of a venture. “You’ll get one firm of accountants that will tell you, based on their own preconceptions, why starting an airline is a ghastly idea and every other airline fails and you’re going to lose a lot of money. You’ll get another set of accountants who’ll tell you why they think you’re going to make money. But they have no idea one way or the other.”

Far more important is to create something that you, yourself, really want and value, he concluded. “If it’s exceptionally good then people will always turn up and use it.”
Perhaps it’s time to regain and re-embrace some of the old ‘British Spirit’ without being ashamed (and without extreme nationalism). And it’s time to put to death the insipid political correctness that will undoubtedly ruin so many ventures. We are not all the same. Celebrate the fact and be prepared to try to succeed, even if we must embrace failure.

Above all, be prepared to be humble; to learn, to change, to improve … and to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers on our own, but they are often in our colleagues, friends and family if we are prepared to look.

Until next time …

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, 7 September 2008

How Creative is Creative?

I often get into discussions about creativity and I'm amazed how few understand what the word means. Most seem to apply the term creative to a strange breed of artistic misfits, 'the creatives' who don't really fit in but are a necessary evil for success of the business.

But many people are really surprised when I begin enthusing about each of us being creative. I see furrowed brows as they wrestle with the idea that they may possess something that is so 'out of the ordinary.'

But is it?

I guess that for many of us the idea of creativity is alien because we haven't engaged it since primary school. Thankfully, there are those who have managed to retain their creative skills, through hard work, battling against the odds, a good teacher/tutor or just out of passion for what they do. From them we can all learn a lesson. To them, creativity is nothing special; it is a part of who they are and what they do.

And I think therein lies the secret. As we engage with our creativity more and more often, our practice becomes a habit, and our habit begins to influence whatever we do, wherever we do it. It is no longer something out of the ordinary; it becomes part of our ordinary.

So how creative is creative?

The answer is different for every person. I think that the question is not one of quantity but quality and of how we apply what we have.

What we need to do is discover and identify just what our creativity is ...

Labels: , , , , , , ,