Apr 10

How to be more innovative

symphony

symphony by paul (dex), on Flickr

Innovation is generally held to be a “good thing”. Companies that are innovative or that produce innovative products are lauded with praise, awards, not to mention investment funding. Innovative individuals are highly sought after and richly rewarded.

So how can we be more innovative, in our personal and corporate lives?

  • Find new ideas

Most of the good ideas are already out there, you just need to find them. Some of them are protected & that’s fine, respect that. But may more aren’t, so use them.

An important concept here is that of being a “boundary spanner”, of having eclectic interests. Research has shown that in looking for innovative solutions, individuals that had weak ties to many different disciplines were more effective than those that were tightly bound to a single one.

  • Assimilate those ideas

No not the Borg, but you need to be able integrate any new information with what you already know. There’s no point reading the latest article in hyperbolic geometry, if you failed Maths 101. This is the foundation of constructivist learning models (but that’s for another post).

The important thing is to be able to relate the new knowledge you’ve acquired to that which you already know in some way. This may sound like a contradiction to being eclectic, but it’s not. Remember, you’re not looking to be a global expert in the new topic but you do need to understand enough to be able to address your challenge.

  • New solutions

After all, the name of the game is innovation, so we’re looking to adapt our newly assimilated knowledge to produce a new product or service. Many of the most innovative products in recent times haven’t been ground breaking in their fundamental technology, but they have combined and adapted technologies in highly innovative ways.

Think iPhone, Toyta Prius, Facebook, etc.

Remember, innovation is different to invention.

  • Show me the money

This doesn’t necessarily mean a Dickensian, Mr Burns kind of exploitation. But you need to translate your new solution into a business proposition, otherwise it’ll remain an idea.

Note: While the points above are in a list (because that’s the easiest way of presenting them in a blog) they are not sequential and linear. It’s also worth noting that most innovation is a team sport, so make sure that within your team you have people that can find new ideas, bring them within your group, use them to solve problems and then commercialise those solutions.

Further Reading

The above ideas are collectively understood as “Absorptive Capacity” and have been applied to individuals, teams, divisions, companies and whole regions. A good place to start is wikipedia (as always) and follow the trail from there. The key academic texts are the original article by Cohen & Levinthal (1990) & the expanded theory from Zahra & George (2002).

  • Cohen, Wesley M; Levinthal, Daniel A, (1990), “Absorptive capacity: A new perspective on learning and innovation”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 35, Issue 1, pg 128-152
  • Zahra, Shaker A; George, Gerard, (2002), “Absorptive Capacity: A Review,Reconceptualization,and Extention”, Academy of Management Review, Vol 27, Issue 2, pg 185-203

The comments about weak network ties come largely from Tushman (1977) and developed by Hansen (1999). The background Wikipedia article on interpersonal ties is here.

  • Morten, Hansen, (1999), “The Search-Transfer Problem: The Role of Weak Ties in Sharing Knowledge across Organization Subunits”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 44, Issue 1, pg 82-111
  • Tushman, Michael L, (1977), “Special Boundary Roles in the Innovation Process”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 22, Issue 4, pg 587-605

This is a different style of post to previous ones I’ve written. I’d be very grateful for comments on areas that need expanding / simplifying or just explained in a different way.  I hope to be writing more articles along similar lines as my current work with the iNETs is bringing all of this into sharp focus (if only from an academic research perspective).

Thanks

John

Nov 15

Ignite Bristol 3

After the excellent Ignite Bristol #2, I wanted to have a go myself. I decided not to present anything connected to the ‘day job’ and thought that Octopush would make a great topic.

Ignite is a beautifully simple concept;

“Enlighten us, but make it quick”

Specifically 5 minutes quick. And you have 20 slides, that automatically advance every 15 seconds, whether you’re ready or not!

Octopush was an easy choice. Its not that widely know so I’d be enlightening folks about a new sport to them, and it has great entertainment potential! This is a dissection of how my talk was put together.

Any presentation takes much longer to put together than deliver. I had a broad outline for the talk fairly quickly but making sure I had enough to fill 5 minutes, without over running or leaving … long … pauses … took a lot longer.

There needed to be a gentle introduction, assuming no one in the audience had ever heard of the sport. I wanted to give a bit of history, talk about the equipment and the basic rules. In the end I didn’t really cover the rules, but I think there was enough other information, and some entertainment.

I had a great title that I borrowed from Sam’s undergraduate psychology dissertation “Octopush: Whether ’tis nobler to push lead’. We’d just had the World Cup and Paul the “Psychic’ octopus was all over the news so that was a good opening slide. I was doubly lucky (though Paul was less so) as he died on the Tuesday before the talk. That required a bit of a last minute re-write but actually made the introduction much smoother.

For some time I then had a slide referencing the Shakespearean aspect of the title, but somehow that never quite worked for me in this context. It was only when I went back to the slides after putting them aside for a couple of weeks that I decided I really wasn’t happy. I took another angle on the ‘pushing lead’ and found the Pencil Museum and that gave me my second introduction slide and a good link into the fact that the lead I was pushing was a hockey puck, specifically underwater hockey or octopush. So that was slides 1 & 2 sorted out, though slide 2 as shown was almost the last one into the deck.

I wanted to have some humour but I know that I’m not a natural ‘funny man’ so decided to let my slides do the jokes and play the straight man. The first picture of an octopush game, taken by me at the Student Nationals in 2009, was intentionally not a great picture but gave the first ‘joke’ of not being a great spectator sport. Slide 3; and getting into my stride.

Slight aside; the guy that introduced me to Octopush way back in Gibraltar (Steve Warren) now runs the fantastic Ocean Optics.

The pretty picture of the fishes was a good ‘filler’ slide to introduce some of the history, but I couldn’t get everything into 15 seconds so put in the diver shot & made a joke about UK diving at the same time. The exact invention of octopush is genuinely lost in time (though it is mentioned in the club’s magazine which is how we know the year). However, I was introduced to octopush by pushing a diving weight around with a snorkel so figured that was a good story to go with. Slides 4, 5, 6 & 7 sorted.

Finding the photo of players in 1977 was a godsend as it made a great link and showed some of the older kit.  I could then talk a bit about the modern kit. The image of the Dacor Bandit mask was one I’d used over 10 years ago when I first did the Plymouth University club’s website, its still a great mask and one of the lowest volume ones on the market. I can’t remember where the ‘wet poodle’ bit came from but I do remember using my Dad’s Jet Fins and they were as heavy and hopeless as described. However, the reason they’re not used in Octopush is more to do with their metal buckles than anything else. Slides 8, 9, 10 (halfway), 12, and 13 sorted.

And no, I haven’t forgotten slide 11 (the four pucks in a row). That one came quite a bit later when I realised that I hadn’t found a decent photo of their evolution. The octopush puck, along with the bat, is genuinely unique to the sport and represents a significant part of what makes the modern sport. Officially the pucks belong to Sam Harding (@samharding), I ‘m not much of a collector. :)

Fortunately, there are some really good photos of Octopush on the web and I was able to find a couple that show how the game is played at international level. The bit about having around 20 seconds to do something useful with the puck is true, and something that most people don’t believe. I’d found the closing shot of the puck flying towards the camera that would give a strong visual finish. Slides 15, 16 and 20 sorted.

The eagled eyed will have noticed that I’m still a few slides short!

I had lots of content, but not many laughs. The ‘Answer List’ was something that Sam & I put up on the Plymouth University Octopush Club website back in 1998/99 and I think was originally taken from a newsletter. I wanted to have a shot of me playing to prove that this wasn’t completely made up, there aren’t any decent in-water shots but the shower photo does the trick I think. That gave me 18 & 19.

I was still a couple of slides short, but hadn’t really talked about the game or its rules so pulled slide 14 in as a link from the kit description to the great photos of game play.

Finding a picture of a puck ‘in flight’ was a nightmare! I ended up with a couple of YouTube videos and screen grabbing them, paused at the appropriate moment. I eventually had nearly a dozen frame grabs with blurred orange, green or pink blobs on them. As I mentioned in the talk, orange is medium hardness, you also have green for the hardest coatings and pink for the softest (though its still coating a metal core so ‘soft’ is a relative term). I had my final slide (17), and a new respect for video editors!

So that gave me my slide deck and basic framework. A couple of trials identified where I had too much to say, and overran, and where the long pauses were. Fortunately, I had begun this some time before the event so was able to put everything to one side for a couple of weeks and come back refreshed to put together the talk as delivered (mostly as prepared) on 31st October. Right until Sunday afternoon I was refining the talk and making small changes.

Was it worth it?

Definitely!

But what do you think?

Aug 06

Management vs Money – which is more important?

Montmartre

John Althouse Cohen, 2005

This is an age old problem for the company starting out (or indeed growing rapidly). Obviously a complete lack of top-notch people or abject poverty are both unlikely to lead to success.

But where should your focus be?

This recent piece from Startup Professionals Musing comes down pretty firmly on the people side of the argument. Even with all the caveats about being a US review of investing, the broad findings are valid here in the UK as anywhere else.

With that in mind what can you do?

Well you should get out and meet people that will either be those high quality people, or know them and can introduce you. Make yourself known to the local University incubator teams, go along to your local Open Coffee such as <shameless self-promotion>Open Coffee Bristol</ss-p>, try searching Google for <your town> entrepreneur / startup / etc.

Or go to one of the events specifically put on to help bring growing companies together with exactly the right kind of people to help the do even better.

One such event is the Angel News ‘Pitching for Management not Money’. <Disclosure; I promised Modwenna I’d help promote the event but there’s no financial return to me, and the tickets for this first event are free anyway!> The first of these events outside London (in partnership with Intramezzo and Boulevard) is taking place on Monday 28 Sept at the Smith & Williamson offices in Bristol. Sponsorship from Burges Salmon and Business Link means the tickets for both businesses and prospective executives are free.

If you’re not already registered with Angel News there are a couple of links below to sign up for this event, hope to see you there.
http://www.designcity.co.uk/invites/p4mnm_280910_comp_bris.html
http://www.designcity.co.uk/invites/p4mnm_280910_aud_bris.html

Jun 06

Improv concerts & what social media can learn from them

Yesterday evening I attended the live premier of a BBC Concert Orchestra & Festival of Nature commissioned concert. (Disclosure: Science City Bristol are sponsoring the Science Cafes @ Festival of Nature, but I’ve not been involved in this concert, other than attending.)

The performance was in two halves; a short sequence of clips from the BBC Natural History Unit with the orchestra playing live, short chat with Q&A and then a repeat performance. Why two performances, and what’s it got to do with social media?

Well, the orchestra wasn’t the full BBC Concert Orchestra, 5 members of the orchestra and a composer were joined by 24 young people from schools across Bristol. They met for the first time on Tues, worked for 3.5 days and gave the performance on the Friday. They hadn’t seen the film clips beforehand, and they hadn’t played as an orchestra before. They also didn’t have any written musical score at the performance; it was all played from memory and partly improvised. And it sounded fantastic, both times!

December 28, 2009 by manning999

The key came during the Q&A. When they first watched the film and asked the young people about the music to go with it, there were lots of suggestions about a cymbal crash here, some flute there, and so on. Lots of focus on the individual instruments and notes, but no ‘bigger picture’. The first thing the composer and the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Learning Team did was to re-view the films and talk about that bigger picture, the emotions they evoked or wanted to bring out, the sense of majesty (Humpback Whales) or playfulness (Giant Otters).

Once they had those broad messages and the overall framework of the pieces, then they began to experiment with chord sequences and harmonies. By all accounts it was a very egalitarian approach with ideas being voted on, and continuous refinement selecting or disposing of small parts that worked or didn’t.

In the final performance, most of the music was played from memory, but there were still flashes of inspiration by individual orchestra members, and because they’d gone through that development process and the ground rules were clearly laid out, those individual flourishes could be included without grandstanding or throwing everyone else into confusion. They were all listening intently to each other throughout the performance, as well as having great fun.

You can see the whole thing (well a recording of the concert mixed with the films) on the BBC Big Screen in Millennium Square as part of the Festival of Nature (12-13 June 2010).

Business as music

The parallels with some types of business are quite striking. They had a CEO that was clearly in control, and he empowered this team to do what they do best. They worked on a shared vision and understanding of the broad task at hand, and willingly contributed ideas to other sections if it made the overall performance better. In the actual performance they were working to agreed boundaries but within those boundaries there was freedom to do what was best at that particular instant in time.

Social media as music

Too often people talk about social media in the same way as the young people first approached the films. We could use twitter to send out little updates, and that would link to our Facebook page, and we can pull in our blog rss, and mash up with a Google map, and…

Twitter is not a Strategy

There needs to be a bigger picture. Even if all you’re doing it trying out these tools to see how they work for you or your business, you need to have some thought as the purpose. You also have to have some thought as to the socially acceptable way of doing things. The musical rules that the BBC used were a based on a heptatonic scale, rather than the pentatonic scale. Neither is right or wrong, but you can’t do both at once (at not without calling it ‘experimental’). :)

There’s nothing wrong with breaking a few rules, that’s almost the definition of being a stand-out excellent entrepreneur / artist / individual. But you really need to know which rules you’re breaking and to what purpose.

Of course, with social media the rules aren’t quite the same as in other forms of social interaction, and as new tools come along they can mutate. Fortunately one of the rules that has completely reversed is lurking, allowing you to observe behaviour before you dive in.

Once you have that bigger purpose, knowing what the rules of participation are, then you can choose which tools / instruments will deliver the required performance.

Plans are worthless. Planning is essential. – Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, & many others

And of course things won’t go according to plan, but that’s where having the clear shared sense of purpose means that people can act without having to fight through layers of bureaucracy. And they can act honestly as human beings rather than PR spin-doctors or script-reading robots.

What’s your social media strategy? Listen, plan, listen, act, repeat; or deliver a stream of ‘messages’ across all channels in a blitzkrieg approach?

Aug 08

Outside interests

In addition to our various ‘day jobs’, Sam and I also maintain a number of outside interests including various catering engagements.

Some time ago, Sam began helping with the staff and artist catering backstage at the Cambridge Folk Festival. A couple years ago I joined her for the first time and we were back there again this year. While some of the backstage crew are ‘professional’ (in that they travel around all the festivals doing lighting, sound, etc) most are loyal to the Cambridge Folk Festival and only meet once a year.

Everything starts about a week before the music begins with rigging marquees, setting the infrastructure to cope with the influx over the weekend. We pitched up on Wed when Sam began serving egg & bacon butties from ‘Bob’s Country Bunker’ (a porta-cabin with a hotplate, grill, fridge, and not much else by way of catering equipment). By the end of the day the main catering Marquee was full of the cookers, fryers, hot plates, storage, boilers and serving equipment that is a functioning kitchen; including the kitchen sink! A walk-in fridge and a separate walk-in freezer kept everything nicely chilled, whatever the temperature in the kitchen.

Our routine was then 6am (breakfast served from 7am) until 10pm (last dinner serving at 8pm but people always turned up late); either preparing, cooking, serving, or cleaning up. At it’s peak we served 438 for Sunday dinner in just over 4 hrs (including stragglers).

It wasn’t all hard work. There are four ‘gators’ (4 or 6 wheel drive buggies) that are used to transport the heavier bits of equipment around the site. Tradition is that on the Sunday they hold a fancy dress parade with each of the gators being ‘decorated’ by the Sparky’s (electricians), security, stewards, and artist hospitality teams.

Apologies for the ‘sideways’ view, Qik doesn’t seem to let me rotate the image.

We were also blessed with the. best. toilets. ever.

Update:- someone has asked and no the music isn’t post-production, its piped from the black loudspeaker you can see beside the fluffy hand towel. Without smell-o-vision you can’t tell but the hand-wash was a fragrant lavender.

It’s also worth noting that these are on a trailer, just like other portable loos (only posher)! :)

It isn’t all festival food.

My sister was also over recently from Boston with my newly born Niece (7 months old) for her Christening at Mum’s local church. Sam did the cake and constructed the baby from Marzipan & icing, and the lettered bricks from icing blocks and letters piped individually to spell out “Evangaline” and individual “e”s on each of the 70 cupcakes.

cake

baby