Technology Is Not Innovation.

[The following is a version of a talk I delivered to HQN members on 17th May 2023 on the subject of blending old and new approaches to create meaningful improvement and change]

Digital evangelists often imply that technology will solve all our problems. By slavishly following this advice we risk embarking on the worst kind of technological solutionism that ignores the richness of skills, assets and sheer talent that exist already in our organisations and communities.

We can focus on technology as a solution when at best it is an enabler.

Technology is not innovation. Innovation is not technology.

Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. Innovation is often what comes after technology. Today you will use your smartphone in ways never dreamt of by its inventor.

Of course the technology is important, because we will come to rely on it more and more in order for our communities and organisations to continue to thrive in the future.

The UK has a declining birth rate, exacerbated by the housing crisis.

The average age at first marriage is now 31, compared with a 20th century low of 23 in 1970.

There are currently around four working-age people for every pensioner in the UK.  But based on current projections, in just one generation’s time – in 2053 – there will be fewer than three working-age people for every pensioner. 

If you want to imagine where this could be heading look at Japan where the median age is 48 and by 2050 over half the population will be over the age of 53.  In Japan the newest technologies have inspired public and private sectors in the fields of health policies and innovation, to provide older people with a better quality of life. They have had to, there simply aren’t enough people to go around otherwise.

So we are going to see a continued acceleration of attempted technology solutions to all sorts of problems, and we risk being swamped by them. The challenge as always will be how we integrate successful new technologies with legacy business models.


AI is nothing new and we all use it everyday without ever thinking about it. Tools like ChatGPT, that can increase efficiency and reduce costs for businesses, are now available free to everyone. Getting new technologies into the hands of those best placed to make a difference with it was always a barrier to bottom up innovation – it was high cost and hard to use. That has all changed.

So what would a digital counterpart of our organisations look like? What would it tell us about how we work? How it could be improved?

A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical object, process, service or environment that behaves and looks like its counterpart in the real-world. Tesla creates a digital simulation of every one of its cars, using data collected from sensors on the vehicles. In Singapore they’ve made an alternate copy of Changi Airport that updates in real time.

However, whilst every car that rolls off the Tesla production line has a twin tracking its lifecycle from birth to death almost every house constructed in the UK has none of this technology built in. An investment that will last between 70-100 years is being handed over to the resident in the same way it was in the 1960’s.

Digital twin technology has now been democratised to the point where just about any organisation can tap into the benefits. So why aren’t we doing it?

It’s almost ten years since comments I made about the potential use of drones in the housing sector nearly caused the sky to fall in. However, my assertions have proved to be correct albeit a little premature: drones working together can create large 3D-printed structures made of foam or cement. The experiments are paving the way for a future where swarms of drones could help construct extremely tall or intricate buildings.

As a minimum every building surveyor should be a trained drone pilot. Sending a surveyor out without a drone in 2023 is a missed opportunity.

The blending of reality with artificial intelligence and offline and online social networks is genuinely exciting. In Amsterdam they are a creating a city selfie that brings existing policies, projects, initiatives and
start-ups together with stories, histories and images from diverse neighbourhoods. Overlaying this with visions, proposals and new initiatives for transforming the city creates a genuinely participatory economy accessible to all citizens.

The young woman in the photo has never existed. The pane of glass she is looking through was never created. The lighting never switched on. None of it is real, it’s an image created in Midjourney – a text-to-picture artificial intelligence (AI) service developed by an independent research lab of the same name. It is putting huge creative capacity into the hands of non-creatives. I love the idea that generative AI could help non-experts visualise unusual social and housing projects, in such a realistic way that they seem buildable.

For all the talk of technology, let’s remember we are human businesses and we exist to help other humans do better in life. It’s our only real purpose. So let’s think how we can use technology to leverage the huge talents and skills lying within our communities. Putting it directly in their hands will yield far better results than putting a firewall around your organisation or outsourcing to consultants.

Finally, let’s go back to Japan. We are often implored to be more like Google, or Amazon or Apple. For the social sector a far more relevant north-star exists in Nintendo. They are a legacy organisation that were formed in 1889.

One hundred years after their birth a video game designer called Gunpei Yokoi changed the world with the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy. It took gaming out of the hands of geeks and paved the way for the industry to become the most profitable and popular form of entertainment.

However the Game Boy was far from best in class. Its black and white display was made up from old technologies well past their sell by date. Gunpei called his philosophy Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. 

Withered: mature technology which is cheap and well understood.

Lateral thinking: combining these ideas and technologies in creative new ways

Innovation doesn’t actually need to be cutting edge. Rather it needs to be simple, useful and to make someone’s day that little bit easier.  Our sector has loads of withered technology, it just needs a little more lateral thinking.

Be more Nintendo.


Work Is Mostly Mundane. And That’s Not A Bad Thing

Words seemingly lose their power through overuse, and nowhere is this more proven than in the workplace.

The average corporate strategy or plan is full of what are known as crutch words – that collection of phrases we fall back on when we’ve lost our footing while speaking. We grasp for familiar words to fill some space.

These crutch words include things like customer experience, agile working and high performance used in contexts in which, if you scratch the surface, you’ll see mean absolutely nothing. Arguably though, no one word is as used and abused as innovation.

Things are labelled as innovations that are nothing of the sort: every strategy is in search of it, the thought of being seen as not particularly innovative is career threatening.

So is innovation overrated?

Jason Fried maintains exactly that in one of his excellent provocations, saying the unsayable. The unsayable being the thing that deep down everyone knows to be true but saying it out loud would render them as a stick in the mud, a blocker or a relic.

“Innovation should almost never happen. It’s incredibly rare. It mostly happens by accident, not by intention. It’s wonderful when it does, but you merely fluctuate in and out of it, it’s not steady state.

Work is mostly mundane. It’s mostly maintenance. It’s mostly local improvement and iteration. Work is mostly… Work. Any innovation is an outlier, nearly a rounding error.”

Some of this is spot on. Innovation is incredibly rare, so the constant talk of it being common place, something our organisations do everyday is disingenuous. As I tweeted, ‘innovation’ is too often someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about avoiding doing the job they should be doing , and distracting everyone from the things that would actually make a difference to customers in the process.

Bruce Nussbaum declared that innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve.

That’s why you get people here, here and here (quite understandably) calling for us to ‘just get the basics right’.

An outright focus on innovation, or even worse, agile methodologies, can lead to a lack of focus or even blatant disregard for the basics. 

Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel argued this in a landmark piece written back in 2016:

“Critics point out the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

They point out that the most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies or processes that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago.

In a typical company 99% of what people do is maintenance, as it should be. 99% of the time should be spent fine tuning the system. It’s not sexy, but it is necessary.

We need to start praising the importance of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.

Workers are being sold a pup by being promised jobs that are exciting, ambitious, creative and innovative. Most work is pretty boring.

Even if you are one of the 1% and your role is more specifically around ‘innovation’ and future focus, most of it is grunt work with the occasional flash of inspiration. I had that flash in a one hour session with customers yesterday, but that’s probably it for this week.

Just like the modern world implores that we should be happy all the time (we aren’t and we are not meant to be), the modern workplace wants everyone to be engaged, energised and innovative when they simply don’t need to be.

People just need to be fulfilled

Fulfilment does not come from some fruitless search for innovation. It’s found in the little things – the everyday occurrences that come from our daily habits and interactions that make our world a little bit better, a little bit easier, for someone. Fulfilment because you attended to someone’s needs.

The maintainers of our organisations are hopelessly devalued compared to the consultants who promise a future which will never ever be realised.

So Jason Fried is right. ‘Work is not often very exciting, but it can absolutely be fulfilling. And you can be excited about that’.

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Do You Really Need An Innovation Strategy?

Without strategy you have no direction, without innovation you lose relevance

Greg Satell

Whilst strategy and innovation both play crucial roles in the success of an organisation, they are not applied equally.

A good strategy helps an organisation set clear goals, define priorities and make informed decisions, while innovation enables a company to think differently, create new products, services, and business models to meet changing customer needs.

Innovation is an essential, but frequently underfed, component of strategy as it helps organisations to achieve their strategic objectives by generating new ideas, products, or processes that can differentiate them.

If you Google ‘Do You Need An Innovation Strategy?’ you’ll get just under one billion articles affirming “Yes, you absolutely do“.

Gary Pisano has argued that companies without an innovation strategy won’t be able to make trade-off decisions and choose all the elements of the innovation system. He maintains this is the responsibility of senior leadership.

However, I’m unconvinced and I’ll attempt to explain why.

Over the past ten years I’ve been acutely aware of balancing the need to tie innovation to corporate strategy, while not being so closely bound to it that innovation becomes only incremental improvements to the status quo. I’ll acknowledge that in the past some attempts at Bromford Lab have been too haphazard and disconnected from strategy, and also at times too constrained by it.

However, having an ‘innovation strategy’ risks setting efforts apart from the organisation itself. It risks encouraging initiativitis – with more and more random innovation efforts becoming disconnected from core purpose. Innovation hardly ever works when introduced from the side. Never mind culture: strategy eats innovation for breakfast.

Also – who sets the innovation strategy? Senior leaders? An innovation team? Again that potentially acts as a constraint to bottom up opportunities that emerge from the people closest to the opportunities. Senior leaders are often not the drivers of innovation that they think they are.

The answer I think could be to develop a corporate plan that – in itself – is an enabler of innovation. Embedding the requirement for innovation in your core purpose.

The new Bromford Strategy was developed through the use of ‘adaptive spaces’ – a series of workshops and conversations with an intention to harness a degree of ambiguity within it, as it will require all colleagues to contribute to a collective shift in thinking and doing over a four year period.

Research by Mary Uhl-Bien found that successful innovations emerge from informal/entrepreneurial networks but must be supported and developed in temporary ‘adaptive spaces’ if they are to fulfil their potential for transforming formal bureaucratic organisations.

Adaptive spaces are a way of introducing more transformational thinking into organisations. They are best used for making key strategic shifts where organisations require a new mindset rather than just incremental improvements.

Adaptive spaces occur in the interface between the operational and entrepreneurial system by embracing, rather than stifling, the dynamic tension between the two systems. They do this by organising internal and external networks to spark the emergence of novel ideas and then fostering idea development and sharing.

This leads to idea diffusion across the organisation to gain formal endorsement from the operational system. In this way, novel ideas are more readily introduced, more openly shared and more effectively integrated into formal processes.

So imagine if your strategy actually facilitated the emergence of adaptive spaces for new thinking rather than forming a specific roadmap that can be easily followed almost without thinking.

Imagine if your strategy had the requisite amount of uncertainty so that it outlined some broad strategic shifts that must be made – but didn’t spell out how they would be achieved.

Essentially, we’ve tried to create a strategy that is built for exploration rather than ticking off KPI’s. A strategy that cannot be achieved without innovation.

So, do you really need an innovation strategy?

I say no.

You need a strategy that sets out a challenge and invites everyone to ask questions and go on a journey of discovery.

You need a strategy that is founded upon principles of good innovation management, rather than innovation simply existing within the confines of a room full of beanbags and sticky notes.

As Steve Robbins has said, more than one strategy is actually no strategy at all. You only need one strategy, everything else is tactics.

So you need a really good strategy that enables the right innovation tactics to achieve the end goal.

Will it work? Ask me in four years time.

Cover photo by FORTYTWO on Unsplash

Innovation Doesn’t Happen By Accident

What’s your favourite innovation myth? Michele Zanini started a good Twitter thread on this subject, to which I responded:

Trickle down innovation, just like trickle down economics, doesn’t trickle down very far.

When leaders are implored to innovate they often go for the easiest and most attractive option, innovation theatre:

  • You bring someone in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation 
  • You hold a one-day workshop to get your company to be more creative
  • You can get a cool space with loads of beanbags and motivational posters 
  • You have a hackathon

Coined by Steve Blank the term innovation theatre is where ideas – arguably the easiest bit of the innovation process – are valued more than the discipline of turning those ideas into profitable business models or concepts. This requires a level of leadership commitment that is often harder to get.

A ideas focused culture is exacerbated by the following conditions:

  • Leadership putting pressure on finding quick fixes and the realisation of short term goals — rather than exploring long term impact
  • Discussing problems, or considering that organisation itself may be part of the problem, is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness, or even as a waste of time 
  • Management falling in love with a solution too easily even if it’s not solving the problem at hand

Innovation will mean different things to different people in your organisation – there is no one size fits all.

  • The colleague on the frontline often just needs barriers to doing their job removing rather than moonshots. Removing that barrier is often all the ‘innovation’ they need.
  • The CEO fears becoming irrelevant and losing market share. They are looking for big shifts.
  • The People and HR functions want to foster an environment that promotes creativity, where people can generate new ideas that build a culture folks want to be part of.
  • Customer services want innovation management that enables them to identify and address changing customer needs and create new value.
  • Finance teams want to develop new revenue streams, or more often than not, just to cut costs.

In an innovation mature company all of these things can uncomfortably co-exist – but it cannot happen by magic. It needs curation and , yes, management. There are no shortcuts in building an innovative and productive culture and it requires operating on different levels and across multiple silos.

Because of these competing requirements and viewpoints any alien idea is usually rejected or resisted by the prevailing system. Therefore ideas that are new and that could complicate or even threaten the existing way of working means creating space where we can protect them.

It also needs protection from the organisational desire to complete things quickly. All the talk about agility is somewhat misplaced. If you work in innovation or design you’ll always see a time lag from inception to implementation. Even in the best organisations, it will take months, sometimes years, for new concepts to be assimilated into the everyday culture. Many (most) never make it.

That’s why there are always questions about how innovation or design teams spend their time and whether it’s worthwhile. When you’re working two years into the future it’s really hard to demonstrate outcomes that fit conventional performance frameworks.

There are some things you can do though:

  • Have a consistent way to define and measure innovation, so that it’s unambiguous in your company
  • Look for good problems rather than great ideas
  • Periodically assess the areas of your business so that you know where each stands in terms of innovation capability and capacity
  • Get senior leaders to identify and sponsor specific initiatives designed to address the key problems
  • Assemble smalls teams to work on the challenges. Use disciplined protocols to help these teams succeed.
  • Document, and track progress and share progress internally and externally.
  • Create a pipeline of ideas that aligns with an innovation strategy or plan. Pipelines enable companies to drive innovation momentum, solve customer-centric problems and engage in a meaningful way.

To be an innovative organisation you need to be great at defining problems, at generating ideas, at selecting and executing them, and at getting them to spread.

Innovation doesn’t happen by accident – it happens by design.

Image by Uday Kumar from Pixabay

The Creativity Productivity Paradox

You can’t endorse a top-down authority structure and be serious about enhancing adaptability, innovation, or engagement.

Gary Hamel

Employers are facing a conundrum: a generational gap in job satisfaction.

Research seems to indicate that while Gen Z and millennial workers report higher job satisfaction, they’re more likely to be looking for new roles. In contrast, older generations are significantly less satisfied at work but will stay put, contributing to so-called ‘resenteeism’. As one of the report contributors notes “the best way to keep people engaged is to create a culture of continuous improvement where their team members are encouraged to seek out new projects and skills.”

Simply put, there isn’t a great deal of joy in most people’s work at the moment.

But why? As Dion Hinchcliffe writes, the typical worker is now able to be more creative than in almost any time before. “While middle managers and team leads of yore might say that strict control and direction is required to get the proper outcome, in today’s far more dynamic, fast changing, and innovation-driven times, this no longer makes nearly as much sense. Work is becoming almost entirely what we make of it. And this is a good thing that will unleash far more personal and professional fulfillment along with much greater innovation.”

If Dion is right, that the future of work is 1:1 personalised and fully customisable, then why does is seem to be that people appear to be working more and producing less.

The problem I guess, is the system itself. The way we work doesn’t work.

As organizations grow, they become more complex, and it becomes harder to manage them effectively without formal structures and procedures. A larger organization insists on more rules and procedures to maintain order and control over its operations and its people. In addition, the larger the organization, the more specialized roles become, which can lead to increased levels of bureaucracy to manage them effectively. The end result : complicatedness.

This desire (and I say desire rather than need) for consistency and standardization, for control and accountability, comes at a cost: reduced creativity and flexibility.

As Gary Hamel wrote in an almost 10 year old but evergreen post; “Most of us grew up in and around organizations that fit a common template. Strategy gets set at the top. Power trickles down. Big leaders appoint little leaders. Individuals compete for promotion. Compensation correlates with rank. Tasks are assigned. Managers assess performance. Rules tightly circumscribe discretion. This is the recipe for “bureaucracy,” the 150-year old mashup of military command structures and industrial engineering that constitutes the operating system for virtually every large-scale organization on the planet.”

As Dr Tim Baker outlines – there is a creativity paradox here too, instead of enabling new initiatives (something everyone says they want) the interaction between manager and employee does the exact opposite – it stops initiatives and makes the employee dependent on the manager.

  • Leaders generally DO want employees to show initiative.
  • Leaders invite initiatives but employees aren’t sure they are serious so they do nothing or they submit ideas that don’t get full backing
  • Leaders fill the void and take control and the employee scepticism is validated

As Tim writes “The process in other words makes proactive behaviour harder not easier. ”  Ultimately , the actions of the manager speak louder than the words they speak.

The productivity paradox: the more investment that is made in technology, worker productivity goes down instead of up.

The creativity paradox: the more leadership support that is provided the more employee creativity is stifled rather than released.

The number one thing I find employees are seeking when talking about their ideas is someone who will listen. Number two is permission to try something out. Number three is budget.

To solve the creativity productivity paradox we need to become permissionless organisations – ones who push decision-making and exploration out to the furthest edges of the business rather than power being maintained with the very people who need to step out of the way.

Image by Robert Pastryk from Pixabay

Analysis Paralysis and The Threat To Innovation

A much delayed first post of 2023, which has been for a couple of reasons. Firstly I’ve taken a super relaxing break and switched off completely rather than my usual rambling around. I’ve been staying in one of those Caribbean mega hotels beloved by East Coast Americans looking to escape the winter freeze – and whilst that’s enjoyable -it doesn’t really get the creative juices flowing.

Secondly, I wanted to take a break from doom scrolling and the sheer misery of UK news feeds, as I recognised I was in danger of becoming overloaded, inhibited even, by the constant trauma and death spiral updates.

In my privileged all-inclusive adult playground there’s no cost of living crisis apart from the inflated cost of getting here. Covid is a memory. There’s no talk of a climate emergency and politics is a no go. “What happened to your president, the blonde guy with the hair all over the place? We digged him” is the closest it gets. No-one knows who Rishi Sunak is, and frankly why should they?

There’s a great scene in the second season of The White Lotus, in which at their first vacation dinner Harper and Ethan learn that their companions Daphne and Cameron don’t ever read or watch the news (“You can’t obsess”) and Daphne admits she isn’t sure whether she voted or not.

In a later scene that Wired said epitomised 2022, Essex lad Jack is dumbfounded when Portia expresses dismay at the declining state of world “Literally everything is falling apart”. Jack is dumbfounded. What decline? What is falling apart? “You’d rather live in the Middle Ages then, would ya?  We’re living in the best time in the history of the world—on the best f*cking planet. If you can’t be satisfied living now, here, you’re never gonna be satisfied. So let’s get pissed. Ay?” He grabs her by the hand. And off they go.

If you haven’t seen White Lotus, you should, as creator Mike White has perfectly summed up the dilemma many of us face both personally and in our organisations. Should we be hopeful or fearful for the future? And what is the best response to prepare for that uncertainty?

We know that constant exposure to the news is not good for us. “Media saturation overload” exists. Similar terms that have emerged recently include “doom scrolling,” “headline anxiety,” and “headline stress disorder.”

As news organisations and social media feeds prioritise clickbait, headlines become more dramatic and doom laden than they often need to be. Reading about negative events can even be as stressful as being directly involved in them.

A study was conducted into the impact of reporting on the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The researchers looked at two groups of people. The first group watched 6 or more hours of news coverage about the bombings. The second group were runners in the actual marathon.

Those who watched 6 or more hours of news coverage about the bombings were more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and experienced a higher level of chronic stress than people who were actually at the marathon and personally affected by it.

I see similar things happening within our organisations. As we struggle with competing crises, some real, some exaggerated, we can enter a fugue state of analysis paralysis, a state that you can find yourself in when feeling extraordinarily confused and overwhelmed around a certain situation or set of possibilities.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the phrase “Paradox of Choice” to describe his findings that, while increased choice allows us to achieve objectively better results, it also leads to greater anxiety, indecision, paralysis, and dissatisfaction. Being overwhelmed by a conflicting set of deficit based scenarios is the death of creativity and innovation as it leads to a lack of impetus. Literally nothing gets started. No mistakes are made so nothing ever is learned.

My contention is that organisations cast the net far too wide on the scenarios that affect them. By intentionally limiting the amount of information you consume, you can increase your productivity.

This is the productivity paradox of today – where growth in established economies is minimal compared to the speed of technology adoption. It seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous have clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done

I don’t do new years resolutions but looking back at the Covid and early post Covid era it seems organizations have become stuck in indecision mode as the old world model has ended and the new one is yet to fully emerge. The overwhelming response is, seemingly, no response.

The world is pretty screwed up at times, but is also beautiful and full of endless possibilities. We don’t push things forward by being doom laden but equally it is reckless to believe that our bigger problems will be solved through wide eyed naivety. 

Indeed the next few years will require discussing dangerous ideas that need to be explored in forums free of political ideology. I largely support what Musk is trying to do with Twitter but we don’t yet know whether it will be successful, as our echo chambers are stronger than ever. 

The main problem we face is that viewing the world through the lens of a collapsing health service, an aging population, a digitally distracted youth, and an apathetic and careless community is that we start to see life as an endless succession of deficits. 

It isn’t like that. Life is mostly good. When people are freed from bureaucracy they do amazing things. So let’s enable them to do it.

But right now, I’ll settle for another Margarita.

Turning Constraints Into Innovation Opportunities

As we enter a further period of economic uncertainty we will undoubtedly see a slash and burn approach to cost reduction in many of our organisation’s. An impending crisis often triggers suboptimal decision making that tends to focus on survival and forgets about investing in the future. Talent is lost only to be re-recruited again or passed to consultants at additional cost once the downturn is over.

Watch it happen.

Only 10% of companies emerge stronger from a crisis. Many go under or are forced to merge, a few manage to limp on , but just 1 in 10 become more successful.


According to Todd Ford, the successful companies are the ones whose Chief Financial Officers figure out the balancing act between surviving an immediate shock and protecting the future. They reduce costs very selectively with a focus on operational efficiency, while at the same time using their balance sheet as a weapon to boost vital spend on R+D.

As McKinsey point out, organizations that focused on innovation during the 2009 banking crisis, outperformed the market average by 30% and their growth continued to accelerate in the following years.

Clearly innovation should still play a role in your priorities, even in a downturn. In fact, economic or other constraints are great opportunities for innovation, as frugality can actually work to our advantage.

Constraints help you better understand the problem

When any and every option is in front of you, it’s difficult to decide what to do.

In a piece for HBR. Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg find that when there are no constraints, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas.

At Bromford Lab we are currently running an experiment with one of our teams where we’ve denied them any use of technology in the initial test. The solution to the problem will almost certainly have a technological requirement but making it harder for them in the beginning helps you understand the problem better.

So constraints are actually a design tool because they force a few early decisions on you.

Innovation thrives when we have constraints – as it shows us where to focus and, more importantly, where not to.

Constraints force you to be creative

We’ll all know what it’s like to start with a blank page – more often than not you won’t start anything.

Dr. Caneel Joyce, has written that “giving people too much choice limits creativity, just as giving them no choice at all does… just enough constraint incites us to explore solutions in new places and in new ways.”

She uses the analogy of a playground as a starting point for understanding the whole concept of constraints. Research found that when a fence is put up around a playground, children use the entire space to explore and play; the fence giving them a sense of safety and security. On the other hand, if that fence is removed from the playground’s border, the limits become unclear and the children stay toward the middle because that’s where they feel safe. Importantly, in team work within organisations Joyce found that the absence of clear constraints actually created conflict stemming from the unarticulated assumptions that people brought to the table.

Even stress has a benefit.  According to research done by Dr. Kelly McGongial and Professor Todd Kashdan, stress has the potential to activate the parts of our brain that are linked to critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.  Want creativity? Create a constraint for someone.

Constraints can help you innovate in a frugal way

Thinking in constraints is a key element of frugal innovation. ‘Frugal innovation’ means innovating to create solutions that are better and cheaper, from fewer resources. In India , it’s know as Jugaad, a Hindi word that roughly means ‘solution born from cleverness.’ It’s usually applied to a low cost fix or work-around. In a culture where people often have to make do with what they have it’s an improvised or makeshift solution using scarce resources.

In an economic downturn plus a major cost of living crisis can communities harness the spirit of jugaad to solve local problems? The question is whether institutions – often risk averse rather than risk seeking – would get out of the way and allow innovation to flourish.

So will organisations continue to support innovation throughout the downturn?

Depressingly, it’s unlikely.

The archaic business planning of most of our institutions exacerbate short-termism and stifle innovation in my view. The statistics from the last financial crisis back me up: only one in ten emerge stronger and more successful.

The only negative constraint to innovation is one word of just two letters: no.

Photo by Shane Teague on Unsplash

Few People Get Promoted For Asking Difficult Questions

Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted person  

Khalil Smith

Innovation must be founded on a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve. It takes a lot longer than you think too – the bad news is that all the talk of agility is often misplaced.

Unfortunately we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and having a hot take than on thinking. So we often leap to doing things rather than solving the right problems.

Relatively few businesses place value on purposeful thinking as ‘thinking about stuff’ doesn’t look like work. Some of my best work over the past few weeks has been thinking – but there’s precious little to show for it right now.

Too often we default to task-oriented leadership and “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” It’s an autocratic management style from another age that emphasises completing (often needless) tasks to meet (often pointless) goals.

This focus on production leads to ideas and plans which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.

It stems from school, where we are assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating. As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Very few people get promoted for asking difficult questions.  So our organisations become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

If you’re serious about solving the right problems, you need to be very good at hearing a lot of diverse opinions and seeking out a way forwarrd.

The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot

One of the problems we face is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Khalil Smith writes – when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus to the loudest person in the room. And in a group setting “airtime” — the amount of time people spend talking — is a stronger indicator of perceived influence than actual expertise.

What Is An Expert Anyway? 

The other challenge is organisations often have quite a narrow view of expertise. They rely on things like position in the hierarchy, titles and years of service. However – more expansive experience, like time spent with actual customers, tends to get overlooked.


The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, the idea that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable, is quite a blunt way of thinking about expertise. However, I’m betting that most people regarded as experts are positioned near the top of the iceberg.

Again – we often miss addressing the right problems as we listen to the ‘expert’ or the highest paid persons opinion. Remember – we are hardwired to defer to authority and seek guidance from the hierarchy.

Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts 

We have forgotten that solitude and taking time to think have a crucial role in problem-solving.

Between a third and a half of the population of the world define themselves as introverts. They have more activity in the part of the brain involved in internal processing: problem-solving, remembering and planning. Introverts get energy from an “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and memories.

Think about that. Pretty much half the people you come across today:

  • Don’t thrive on endless meetings
  • Don’t enjoy brainstorming
  • Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.

Due to that inner world – introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

In the networked age the surest path to success is no longer just listening to the loud and the powerful, but widening and deepening connections with everyone.

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

When Leaders Talk About Innovation, Always Be Sceptical

Declare yourself an innovation company and celebrate creativity, by all means. Then treat your employees to a little seminar in business history that emphasizes real-life time frames and the numbing necessity of trial and error, trial and error, trial and error.

Sir Harold Evans

In turbulent times beware the leader touting innovation myths. Myths like: If we just get the culture right and allow colleagues to , you know, be themselves and collaborate more and fail fast, everything will be OK.

Chris Bolton has written a great post on innovation urban myths, citing the invention of the 3M Post-It Note. The myth you’ll hear propagated at leadership conferences is that the Post-It was just a happy accident, a eureka moment when someone came up with a glue that wasn’t strong enough but was great for temporarily sticking bits of paper on walls.

Of course , as Chris explains, the Post-It story has been condensed into a pocket sized anecdote of what is a long and complex tale. It took 5 years of constant rejection for the new adhesive and another seven years in development (and a further phase of rejection) for Post-It notes to finally become a hit.

Most people in leadership positions do not know this story.

The story they know is:

If you get the culture right and allow people to make mistakes innovation will happen.

The true story is:

  • Innovation is a muscle that’s built over time – it doesn’t just happen by accident and the conditions for it need to be carefully curated.
  • Patience, and continued long term support is everything
  • Peer collaboration is vital for innovation and that needs management too

Yet there are scores of LinkedIn articles on a riff of “How Leaders Can Make Innovation Everyone’s Day Job” that seek to inspire confidence that the process of innovation is simply a recipe that needs following.

You can see why the ‘eureka moment’ stories spread – they are hugely powerful and full of drama and inspiration. But the act of creating or improving a product or service is far more often a long, hard, frequently boring slog.

Mainly this is because management just doesn’t get innovation. Managers got to where there are by managing well, not conjuring new things from discord.

So people tend to believe that the process for achieving breakthrough innovations is chaotic, random, and unmanageable, but as Noubar Afeyan and Gary P. Pisano write in HBR, this view is inherently flawed.

According to them the predominant strategy today is the “shots on goal” approach. That entails funding a large portfolio of projects in the hope that the profits from the rare success will more than pay for the cost of the numerous failures. If you invest in enough projects, the theory goes, by the laws of probability (sheer luck) you eventually will “score.” 

Instead they talk about ’emergent discovery’ defined as a rigorous set of activities including prospecting for ideas in novel spaces; developing speculative conjectures; and relentlessly questioning hypotheses.

This kind of discovery requires a culture of continual questioning, where it’s acceptable (even encouraged) to push back against the prevailing organisational dogma.

I don’t buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation but do believe that you can have a culture conducive to innovation.

For me that’s about four elements:

Just enough friction: where there are regular, intense debates. We can have unity of purpose and still disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it.

Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions,  calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.

The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure and dead ends through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.

And all of this can only be managed in the long term. Embracing patience is the key to creating the conditions conducive to innovation.

Shorthand versions of innovation truth that ignore inconvenient facts permeate at conferences or in executive presentations. We promote an untruth that innovation is chaotic, random, and unmanageable and the result of lone visionaries. “If we are just crazy enough something great is bound to happen!”

Instead we need to move to a kind of emergent discovery of loosely managed safe to fail activities that explore ideas in novel spaces. And that takes time.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

When Everything Is A Crisis, Nothing Is

Who would win in a fight between the housing crisis in one corner and monkeypox in another?

We live in a world that now has competing, intersecting, and sometimes conflicting crises.

There are the old standards like the climate crisis, and the health crisis (now inflated to a national emergency by Rishi Sunak). The long term housing crisis is now so bad we need to consider 50 year mortgages. Then there’s the new kids on the block: the food crisis, the energy crisis and the cost of living crisis.

And let’s not forget the latest global health emergency Monkeypox , to add to the other two: the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing effort to eradicate polio.

That’s six crises and three health emergencies. Then there’s the small matter of a war in Europe. There are probably more crises you could add dependent on your sector or particular hobby horse. Prison crisis? Immigration crisis? Debt crisis?

Are we truly doomed, or in danger of exaggerating everything to crisis level?

When I say exaggerating in no way do I mean to downplay their individual seriousness. But I wonder if by turning everything into a crisis or an emergency we reduce people’s ability to pay attention to them. Or worse, diffuse efforts to actually tackle them.

Language is important. To most of us when we think of emergency we’d be thinking immediate threat to life like a house fire or a car crash. The seriousness and immediacy of a problem means the speed and approach of response is vastly different.

The change of language to refer to a climate crisis rather than talk about climate change was deliberate. Back in 2019 the Guardian noted that:

“Climate emergency” or “climate crisis” should be used instead of “climate change” as climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation”.

That makes sense, but it seems strange to claim equivalence for , say, Monkeypox given the latter is largely confined to men who have sex with men and at this point has only killed 5 people in Africa.

I’ll suggest that the repeated use of the word crisis is perhaps applied a little too liberally. Indeed, the tendency to call any issue a crisis can mean we overlook opportunities for innovation.

In a crisis everyone knows the worst thing you can do is panic. The second worst thing you can do in a crisis is to throw money at the problem.

By labelling everything a crisis we risk doing both those things.

It often takes the reality of a genuine crisis to shake an organisation out of complacency. It can boost courage and give us the impetus to take actions that would be unthinkable in times of calm.

Writing for MITSloan, Elsbeth Johnson and Fiona Murray identify five interdependent conditions that characterize a crisis and boost innovation.

  • A crisis provides a sudden and real sense of urgency.
  • This urgency enables organizations to drop all other priorities and focus on a single challenge, reallocating resources as needed.
  • With this singular focus and reallocated resources, it’s now everybody’s job to come together to solve the problem, bringing a new diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.
  • This urgency and singular focus legitimizes what would otherwise constitute “waste,” allowing for more experimentation and learning.
  • Because the crisis is only temporary, the organization can commit to a highly intense effort over a short period of time.

By their definition many of the issues I’ve mentioned aren’t actual crises but are longer term systemic issues. How many of our organisations – if any – have ‘dropped all over priorities’ to focus on a single challenge. Answers in the comments section please!

Let’s look at some real innovation , in a real crisis.

The publication of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 in early January 2020 triggered the mobilisation of an international response to find a vaccine. The fast tracking of clinical trials and regulatory processes achieved in less than 12 months what conventionally takes more than ten years.

Anne White highlights some lessons we should take from this:

More collaboration. In nearly every case, meaningful progress against Covid-19 has been the result of multiple organisations working together with a unified mission.

Rethinking user research. Social distancing measures and the lockdowns could have been a barrier to clinical trials (participants couldn’t travel nor could you go to their home) , but the use of new technology and thinking differently about user engagement meant a wider, more geographically diverse, set of participants could be reached.

Better integration of digital technologies. Existing and readily available technology – video conferencing and chat apps for instance – were used to engage participants and share results. Data analytics were used to speed up vaccine development by enabling more efficient design of experiments and by creating rapid-scale production rollout processes.

Three things: collaboration, user research, digital tech as an accelerant of learning. This should be used as Innovation 101 for all our organisations going forward.

Let’s not confuse a crisis for demand issues that are often self created over decades. Many of our issues are a result of complex problems , including our way of life, societal and environmental change, and even a lack of personal responsibility.

Conflating issues into catch all crises mean it is possible to ignore the systemic issues which created them. It also means we are predisposed to adopt a silo position in attempts to solve them. Why should the NHS colleagues I was talking to a couple of weeks ago care about the housing crisis when they’ve got a health emergency with a myriad subset of crises – mental health, obesity, ageing – to deal with?

Injecting billions of pounds into crises may give some short term relief but won’t tackle the root cause or return us to a golden age. The past leads to the present. The road we went down got us here.

Widespread use of the word crisis robs it of any power and results in , at best, confusion and at worst lethargy.

By calling problems all the same we risk dealing with them all the same. Or worse, doing nothing because when everything is a crisis nothing really is.

Photo by Luke White on Unsplash

Society Has Digital Transformed, But It Isn’t Evenly Distributed

We often blame innovations for the way they make our lives faster, busier, more intrusive, but in reality our core human behaviours and beliefs are slow to change.

Marchetti’s constant, named after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, is the principle that humans settled on a 30 minute commute time to work long ago, and no matter how much we innovate transport systems we rarely break it.

This nearly universal rule of human behaviour has been observed since Roman times. Whenever a new technology (the horse and cart, the tram, the train, the car, the plane) arrives that gets people to work at ever faster speeds, towns and cities typically grow outward in a donut formation, but not so far that commutes expand past one hour per day.

From Rome in AD 275 to Atlanta in 2010 our commute times have remained stable at 30 minutes, despite commutable distances growing substantially.

Therefore most workers have been tied to the city – until now.

In a brilliant and fateful piece written just before the pandemic Jonathan English writes that the greatest promise for matching technology to the modern worker has always been the idea of divorcing work from transportation entirely: telecommuting. 

The pandemic and our subsequent digital transformation has disrupted this pattern. As the folk at Quartz describe, post-Covid people who work in-person once or twice a week may be willing to tolerate a much longer commute. The 30-minute preference Marchetti observed likely has to do with time-budgeting rather than animal instincts, says English. But if you’re working from home most days of the week, that changes the math for the first time in history.

The fact it took a global health crisis to make us think about the cost of commuting is rather sad, and is picked apart in an excellent Twitter thread from James Plunkett.

I agree with him that this is”the best and most concrete example yet of a society-wide digital transformation playing out”. This is something we need to reflect upon, he notes, as when you do digital transformation in an organisation you use a whole set of tools and mechanisms to design a system and manage the change.

Society was afforded no such luxury. There were no Change Consultants or Project Managers – the transformation happened pretty much overnight. Over a third of us switched to working from home, shops converted to digital payments (in some cases switching off cash completely), a whole new demographic learned to order shopping online. The most basic establishments developed an app. Even QR codes made a comeback.

I rarely use cash but this week I was in Northern Ireland doing a talk on this very subject , and on arrival at the venue I paid the taxi driver with a £20 note. He looked at me quizzically and said “wow, we never use this anymore.” For one moment I thought they’d changed their currency.

Pay the wifi, heat the home or feed the kids?

The problem , and there is one, is this digital transformation has been anything but equal. In fact it has built on pre-existing inequalities, and even deepened some.

For instance, not all children had at-home internet access or WFH laptop parents able to homeschool them . Thousands of children (some suggest 130,000) in the UK never returned to education after the schools reopened. Worldwide the number could be 10 million although that figure seems wildly conservative given 5 million won’t return in Uganda alone.

There are similar inequalities at the other end of the age spectrum. Analysis from Age UK shows that the pandemic has not in fact produced a sea-change in over 75’s use of digital technology. In fact it has now turned into a kind of ‘digital deprivation’ as many services have shifted exclusively online.

Whilst over half of adults in the 25–34 age group say they would be willing to turn to digital means for all their spending, only 20% of over 65’s have a positive view of a cashless society. As ATMs become less used and disappear 50% of people report having problems accessing cash.

Also many of our organisations have still not shown ourselves to be digitally capable. Polling suggests a third of people are unconvinced about the long-term use of digital in the NHS amid a need for reassurance about data security.

So whilst we have undoubtedly digitally transformed our society , it is anything but evenly distributed. Many people were simply not ready to be transformed.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated digital inequality and the gaps that still exist in digital access and capability. Therefore we need to begin a dialogue about how can we achieve a more equitable digital transformation that takes in both age and income related inequalities.

We finally went digital, but for some people it doesn’t feel any better.

Photo by Jadon Kelly on Unsplash

Built Not To Last: Could Planned Obsolescence Be Good For The Social Sector?

If you’re of a certain age you’ll sometimes find yourself reminiscing about an age where things were built to last.

My own mother swears her first washing machine lasted for over 25 years. Today,  Apple expects the lifecycle for an average product to be just four years and 3 months. In fact it will stop supporting the product with updates past year seven.

Firstly – this is almost certainly a rose tinted view of the past.  I remember several washing machine breakdowns growing up. Data backs me up – in 1971 Which? found that 50% of washing machines broke down in their first year. Today the chances of a breakdown in six years is just 12%.

Secondly – the relative cost of technology has fallen dramatically. In 1970, the cost of a washing machine was extortionate – equal to about 8% of average annual earnings. Today it’s barely 1.5%. 

In truth – today’s goods are far cheaper and far more reliable than they ever were before.

The price we pay for this innovation is a much shortened lifecycle. And it’s known as planned obsolescence.

This is a strategy in which the process of becoming obsolete— unfashionable or no longer usable – is planned and built into it from conception.

Many see planned obsolescence as a driver for innovation.  Philip Kotler has described it as

the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society—forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.

Others regard it as an exploitation of customers – driving them through a never ending cycle of wasteful upgrade or repurchase. Arguably more importantly it raises serious problems from an environmental and ecological viewpoint. In the UK alone, we produced 23.9kg of e-waste per capita in 2019 (Global E-Waste Monitor Report), making us the second biggest e-waste capita in the world.

However, if the primary benefit of planned obsolescence is that there is a push to more research and development in the company, bringing out remarkable products year after year, then surely there is something to learn in the social and non-profit sector?

In these sectors the practice is closer to that of a circular economy, where the goal is all about keeping products in circulation for as long as possible. That means services that are built to last. But should they be?

Why do our services, which sometimes overwhelm and disempower the citizen have a right to exist in perpetuity? We seem to see a proliferation of services as success in itself when it can be a very visible sign of failing to pre-empt the problem in the first place. The fact so many options exist is a result of overall market failure.

  • So what if we designed our organisations with the life cycle of an iPhone?
  • What if our customers and colleagues knew at the launch of a service that the infrastructure was in place for just four years , after which a newer , more powerful upgrade was to be launched?
  • What if rather than plan on our services being around forever , we designed for the very conditions in which they would cease to exist?

Wouldn’t that be a better future than yet more failed attempts by services to fix society? 

As someone who works in service design I’m naturally involved at the early stages of a new service, product or approach, sometimes years before we see any change. It’s noticeable how obsolescence is almost never discussed, there’s almost an in-built belief that we will always be needed.

That’s why, to highlight just one sector, we end up with more than 1,600 social housing providers in the United Kingdom alone. That’s 1,600 lettings teams, HR departments, CEOs. 1,600 different ways of forming policies and vying for homes and delivering services to tenants in a sector that exists to solve the same shared problems.

I’m not seriously proposing that we build organisations like a smartphone, but as a thought experiment what would it look like if planned for obsolesence?

It might be a social sector where things didn’t last so long , but where services had more impact, were cheaper, and rarely broke down like they used to.

The Anatomy of a Great Idea

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.

Mark Twain

This week has largely been spent talking about the generation and deployment of new thinking. We’re hot off the back of a successful launch of new programme for colleagues at Bromford (the stunningly titled ‘Ideas’), and then I also spent Tuesday evening talking to a Leaders Masterclass on moving from ideation to action.

Ideas are not invented equally. I’d suggest that anyone who repeats the adage that ‘no idea is a bad idea’ has never attended a management away day.

That said, bad ideas can be stepping stones to great ones. Ideas that solve a problem in a unique way are usually a combination of existing ideas, many of which may seem bad at first. If you accept that most ideas from colleagues will be bad ones that will help you move on to new ideas faster and more easily.

So let’s think about the anatomy of a great idea and the four components:

1 – The cost of the problem you are trying to fix is understood (or at least estimated).

Generally the idea must be ‘priceable’ i.e it’s got to be worth buying. This may be a cost, time, or inconvenience saving, but it’s got to make someone’s life easier. Most of us can’t remember a time before washing machines, but if you have an elderly relative ask them whether they are worth £300.

2 – The cost of solution needs to be less than the cost of problem

It’s simply not going to work if the solution you are offering isn’t convenient or cheap enough. The price of innovative solutions should reflect how much people value the problem you have solved. In other words, how much is bridging the value gap worth to your customers or colleagues?

3 – There should be no easily available alternatives that are just good enough.

A great idea should have a unique value proposition as people are lazy and won’t switch if they have something that largely does the job. Most people don’t tariff switch as the thought of saving £10 or £20 a year simply isn’t worth the perceived effort of switching. Similarly, Google+ failed because for all the faults with Facebook – it’s just about good enough for what most people need.

4 – It’s not a one shot

This one doesn’t always hold true, but generally a great idea solves a problem that is repeatable i.e people need the solution more than once. We wouldn’t all buy lawnmowers if grass only needed cutting once a year.

Let’s also remember that the greatest ideas are often the simplest. Your idea may be complex in execution, but it should be simple in concept. 

As we’ve established then, a good idea is founded more in the world of problems, but we rarely talk about them. I’ve worked in idea focused cultures and I’d argue that although they give the impression of being more ‘creative’, there’s actually very little of substance behind it. It’s often just innovation theatre

Coined by Steve Blank the term innovation theatre is where ideas – arguably the easiest bit of the innovation process – are valued more than the discipline of turning those ideas into profitable business models. This requires a level of leadership commitment that is often harder to get.

An idea focused culture is exacerbated by the following conditions:

  • Leadership putting pressure on finding quick fixes and the realisation of short term goals — rather than exploring long term impact
  • Discussing problems, or considering that organisation itself may be part of the problem, is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness, or even as a waste of time 
  • Management falling in love with a solution too easily even if it’s not solving the problem at hand

A problem focused culture is far more likely to generate great ideas as great ideas address a human want or necessity.

Perversely, the way to have the best ideas is not to encourage ideas at all, but rather to obsess about really great problems.

What Effect Does Environment Have On Our Ability To Think Creatively?

When you think of the “space to innovate” what immediately springs to mind? Is it the physical space , the mental space, the calendar space? All three?

I’ve been thinking a lot about spaces and environments this week: specifically what are the best creative spaces to boost collaboration?

Few companies measure whether the design of their workspaces helps or hurts performance, but they should. The physical space for innovation or even peak performance may look very different for each of us. For some of us it will be fresh air. For others it will be a whiteboard and post-it notes.

The term ‘innovation theatre‘ was coined by Steve Blank to describe those innovation activities (hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops) that give the illusion of a creative culture but can lack substance. As Steve says, these activities shape and build culture, but they don’t win wars, and they rarely deliver shippable/deployable product.

Michael Hendrix of Ideo recalls seeing a door near a client’s boardroom labeled with a sign reading, “creative thinking room/DVD storage.” It’s a perfect metaphor. Without the strategy and the discipline all the fancy tools, like having a dedicated brainstorming room–ultimately won’t work.

During my time at Bromford Lab I’ve seen many organisations try and emulate the approach, but few have succeeded. This is the myth of the Innovation Lab – the belief that by creating a space your organisation will become more creative. Innovation will come from the strategies you deploy around that space – not within it. As Tendayi Viki says – it is very rare that you find a leadership team that has thought through the implications of opening a lab. The first symptom of this is the lack of a clear innovation strategy. 

That said – I think innovation spaces can be important. The biologist Jonas Salk claimed his discovery of the polio vaccine only came when he swapped his basement lab for an Italian monastery. There are some simple things we can do to our physical surroundings to help boost our creativity, and there appears to be plenty of evidence that suggests that personal creativity can be improved and not just reserved for certain people.

Of course, the place for creativity is everywhere. However small innovation units with dedicated investment can be useful because they can provide training, networks, and other resources to help colleagues think differently. Ideally though, there should be cells of innovation driven by colleagues dispersed across the organisation. 

Back in 2014 when we launched Bromford Lab – we needed to start somewhere. Establishing a creative space is a creative process in itself. We needed a space where the physical environment signalled collaboration and connection as well as high expectations. We needed an inspiring place that signalled to colleagues this wasn’t normal work. Innovation theatre? Maybe to begin with. But theatre can be good if it gets attention and starts to build a culture of experimentation – however small.

We used the space to swarm colleagues around problems and think creatively, to have a safe space where anything and anyone could be questioned, to host visits and to collaborate with different sectors.

We created it on the cheap, begging, blagging and borrowing to create somewhere different. Things like space and lighting matter in innovation as they affect mood which in turn affects outcomes, especially when chosen and designed consciously.

In March 2020 as the pandemic hit Covid seemed to kill the office. It certainly killed Bromford Lab as a space. It was mothballed – and filled with junk as we prepared to close down excess office space and refurb others to be fit for the future.

RIP Bromford Lab.

Long Live Bromford Lab.

This week as I walked into the newly reopened Bromford office – I saw that the way we imagined truly collaborative open spaces has been levelled up. We now have the perfect stage to begin to rewire the organisation and democratise innovation. The upcoming launch of the Ideas Hub – in which colleagues will be taught the skills to begin grassroots innovation using frugal jugaad principles at the same time as we develop the problem definition and experimentation skills of senior leaders promises some exciting times to come.

Not all organisations with creative spaces are engaged in innovation theatre, but all organisations engaged in innovation theatre have creative spaces.

Ultimately it’s great to have a space in your organisation for innovation.

However it’s even better if your organisation IS a space for innovation.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Why We Fail To Predict The Future

The emergence of new infectious diseases is unpredictable but evidence indicates it may become more frequent. In light of evidence from recent emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika, the likelihood of this risk has increased since 2015.

UK National Risk Register 2017

A lot of money and time is going to be spent on corporate risk registers in the year ahead. Following a crisis, regulators and managers naturally take steps to prevent a recurrence. There’s a danger of retrospective risk management: believing in and using a strategy that has been successful in the past but is no longer a relevant tactic in the present, never mind the future.

In military terms it’s called fighting the last war. A famous example is when France built a series of concrete fortifications along their border with Germany: the Maginot Line. What was a winning move in WWI didn’t help in WWII, when Germany flanked the Maginot and invaded from the North, from Belgium. A border that the French hadn’t fortified. The line has since become a metaphor for expensive efforts that offer a false sense of security.

It’s one thing to imagine a future scenario and an entirely different thing to preempt it. Pandemics have been top of national risk registers since the end of the nuclear threat, but that didn’t stop most of the western world failing to seal their borders in January 2020. In fact, amidst a global panic many threw out their carefully draw up pandemic response plans and did something entirely different instead.

This week I’ve been at a couple of events where we discussed horizon scanning.

Most executive teams will tell you they scan the horizon on a regular basis. I made a comment the other day that when you probe what horizon scanning means in practice it often equates to just reading the news and following Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. Helena Moore responded “I raise you a HBR subscription and a friend thats a futurist 😀“.

Far from something that is only done randomly, horizon scanning is a structured process designed to capture, make sense of and assess the importance of emerging issues and trends that are often not very obvious today.

In an increasingly complex world organisations need to horizon scan to prepare for future disruption. By the time significant emerging disruptive risks are known, quantifiable and recorded on a risk register, it may be too late to respond effectively.

Weak Signals Getting Stronger

How do you look for non-obvious trends?

According to Vijay Govindarajan weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear. “Planned opportunism” is his term for responding to an unpredictable future by paying attention to weak signals. Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

What We Can Learn From Super Forecasters

Jean-Pierre Beugoms is the forecaster featured in Adam Grant’s book Think Again. He has an outstanding record in predicting the outcomes of elections. While regular pundits rated Donald Trump as a joke, with just a 6% chance of gaining the Republican nomination, Jean-Pierre gave him a 68% chance. How? By constantly challenging his own beliefs and biases.

As he says “I would advise people to question assumptions that are unsupported or weakly supported by the evidence. That is the best way to spot potential opportunities to set yourself apart from the crowd. You also need to become adept at evaluating evidence. I would also advise people not to trust their gut. Thinking with your gut is what pundits do and that is why they are so often wrong.”

Most of us don’t have the skills to become super forecasters, celebrated historians or futurists. So what can any of us do practically? I’d suggest:

  • Create a circulatory system for new ideas and provocations
  • Develop the capacity to prioritise, investigate, and act on those ideas
  • Build an adaptive culture that embraces continual change
  • Be prepared to constantly change your mind about what you think you know

No-one can predict the future but history shows us that it often turns out very different than we imagine.  The more our organisations actively think about the future the easier it becomes to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.

And let’s remember the future is not a far-off point: it arrives daily. Our choice is whether to be an active participant in what it looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around us.

Photo by Paola Ocaranza on Unsplash

Innovating Against All Odds: The Endlessly Adaptable Future of Work

Against the backdrop of a socio-environmental crisis of such complexity and scale that its not yet fuIly understood, let alone fully quantified – some businesses aren’t just surviving, but thriving. How, against such odds, do they do it?

Dr Melissa Sterry – Innovation Against All Odds

I first came across Melissa Sterry when I attended a talk she was giving in late 2019. She was challenging the received wisdom that we would all live a lot longer in the future. ‘Babies born today would live to be 100’. This was the received wisdom that much of the conference was founded upon.

“How can we say this?” she asked. “When everything around us is changing so rapidly?”

She went on to explain the complex global disruption caused by events such as climate change and proposed that there are few guarantees about anything anymore.

A full two months before most of us had heard of COVID-19, Melissa gave the example of new diseases emerging with strains capable of igniting pandemics. The message was clear: the world we think we know can alter rapidly or even disappear.

Melissa has now authored ‘Innovation Against All Odds’ – the inaugural report in the #OpenForesightSeries. An independent work, it discusses developments in science, technology, design and society at large that are shaping leading-edge innovation worldwide. 

I’d urge you to read the report as it begs the question of how to navigate not one, not two, but many possible futures, each of which is distinct and, by nature, messy in its expression. More specifically, how might our businesses both large and small, established and emerging, plot a path through such complexity?

Welcome To The Post-Usual

This morning I spoke at a breakfast seminar on the post-Covid workplace. My contention was the current hot favourite – hybrid working – won’t be as successful as many think in the long term. History shows us that the end state is rarely that which is adopted first. The predictions of deserted high streets completely robbed of office workers, or of 24/7 fully remote teams who meet up on off-sites in Bali are extreme positions, and neither are likely to to become true. As the report makes clear, recent studies have shown that those that go to extremes lack the ability to process complex scenarios, and thus mentally default to expectations that fail to accommodate the complexity of reality.

As I say in my introduction to the Evolution vs Extinction section, we are all going to have to learn to live through complexity – moving from single-point solutions to directional systems innovation. The organisations that think change is something to merely react to, or to manage or control, may struggle to survive.

As Melissa makes clear, working with change is a symbiotic process that involves businesses being constantly alert to signals of change both within and beyond their industries, regularly re-evaluating the relevance of their model, operations, positioning, and talent.

From my perspective this requires all our organisations to adopt new mindsets as well as skill sets.

  • A place where work has just enough friction. Far from all the talk of safe spaces the most effective teams will have regular, intense debates
  • A place that has permission to be different. Where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be ok with questioning assumptions and direction
  • A place that harnesses the ability to think and act experimentally. Where happy accidents occur as much as planned foresight

In a post-usual environment there’s no right way to do things or hard and fast rules. Best practice can’t be true. What currently works will often stop working in complex and volatile times.

In the seminar this morning I pinned my hopes for the future on a more enjoyable, ethical, equitable and sustainable world of work. We need to focus on the principles of the outcomes we want to achieve as much as the outcomes themselves. Innovating Against All Odds makes this point in a different way. That businesses of old were, largely, consumed only with the odds that they and their industries faced, today, responsible businesses consider the odds that we, all humanity, face. The most innovative of those businesses seek to understand those odds to the greatest extent possible, and to do all in their power to help not hinder collective efforts. How you do this isn’t as important as the act of doing it. There’s not a print-it-out and stick-it-on-the-wall methodology to follow here.

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

The companies who thrive will be the ones who are change seekers and change makers, not controllers, managers or inhibitors. 

How To Kill Ideas (Part 53)

Many organisations act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place, often for very good reasons, that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that can quell any creativity or dissent.

Organisations can quickly develop an autonomic immune response that kills ideas – without any conscious effort. This immune system builds up easily and quickly spreads, but is far harder to dismantle.

One of the ways you can begin to repel these idea antibodies is , as Chris Bolton has outlined, to deploy a sort of ‘immunosuppressant agent’. This may simply be strong leadership saying ‘all new ideas are welcome’.

In my last post I shared how Bromford are attempting to democratise innovation by asking the 50 most senior leaders in the organisation to develop their skills by daring to disagree with each other and becoming more receptive and open to challenge.  

Working with my LD50 colleagues we established a Developing Ideas Group where we encourage colleague to submit ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. We are trying to distinguish between simple ‘ideas’ that lend themselves to a ‘crack on and try it approach’ with a complete acceptance of failure, and the more complex/higher risk problems.

The more complex problems are presented through a colleague pitch.

Asking colleagues to pitch ideas is a high risk venture. There is a glorification of the pitch in business today. Startup events and innovation challenges are popping up everywhere. Hacks are common, with 24 hour business creation marathons where strangers connect and form solutions together. Every such event revolves around the pitch and the skills and strategies required for an effective pitch.

Asking people to pitch ideas can fail as it forces people to rush to solutions. Which hastily assembled pitch should we bet on? The answer should often be: none of the above.

Pitching ideas is often just innovation theatre. Too many Executives fancy themselves as budding Dragon’s Den investors – waiting to show their business acumen by outwitting the person pitching. Many years ago I took part in a innovation challenge that followed the Den format so closely you could almost guess which Dragon the Executives were pretending to be. It was a dispiriting experience, with colleagues emerging either crushed or with a lot more work to do – often with no more resources.

At Bromford we are trying to do something slightly different – asking colleagues to pitch really great problems rather than firm proposals.

We’ve been coaching some of the Leadership team using nemawashi principles – so the rule of the pitch is that you can’t shoot any idea down – or even criticise it – you can only ask questions.

As I have previously written Nemawashi is a Japanese phrase translating into ”an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.” In Nemawashi the potential solution is prepared in very draft form but this time we check in with any colleague with a significant organisational position, not just bosses, to build consensus.

As David O’Gorman has written the nemawashiringi process is grounded in the need to maintain harmony within the organisation while at the same time make sound decisions.  An advantage of the nemawashiringi process is that once a proposal is approved it can be rapidly implemented because all the relevant parties are on board. This is in contrast to Western processes, which can encounter obstacles during implementation, even from parts of their own organisation.

Ideas are easy to kill – problems aren’t

Simply unleashing ideas just isn’t enough. They are too vulnerable, too easy to kill off. If we anchor ideas in truly great problems you’ll find that colleagues build on the initial idea rather than attempt to destroy it.

A problem shared really IS a problem halved. Most problems do not fit neatly into one team or function and require input from a variety of perspectives. That’s why attempting to solve them in operational meetings with the usual suspects is a waste of time.  By harnessing the creativity, expertise, and ingenuity of the wider organisation as willing volunteers, we can solve problems in a more inclusive, efficient, and effective way.

And here’s the point: people don’t resist an idea they have helped define.

So don’t criticise ideas. Just learn to ask better questions.

Why The Employee Idea Scheme Doesn’t Work

Staff suggestion schemes are where innovation goes to die


The origin of the staff suggestion box is somewhat hazy – but is believed to be at least 300 years old.

Yoshimune Tokugawa was a shōgun warrior who ruled the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan during the 18th century. He is often credited as the first person to introduce a suggestion scheme. A meyasubako (complaints box) was placed outside Edo Castle which encouraged locals to place ideas about how the province could rid itself of debt. Only Yoshimune himself had the key to the box.

The concept of asking employees to share their ideas to drive innovation is always a good one. Unfortunately, the traditional suggestion scheme is, in my opinion, not the way to go about it.

You’re asking people to literally put their ideas into a box. You’re shutting their ideas away in the dark, and storing them indefinitely. Suggestion schemes have become a joke, the perfect illustration of hands-off, out of touch management tipping the nod at innovation without wanting to put in any hard work.

So why are Bromford Lab in the process of re-introducing one?

Well, as Simon Penny wrote – for innovation and design activity to be sustainable at Bromford, we believe that we must democratise it; supporting colleagues and teams with a super light to medium touch in order to undertake their own innovation activity, freeing up our limited resources to concentrate on higher risk, higher yield, transformative and radically different activity.

To do this we believe we need to hand over the management of new ideas to our fifty most senior leaders -what we call Leadership50. Through developing a much wider group of colleagues we can diversify our innovation approach. Innovation thrives on diversity – it’s a team game. It comes from having a culture where everybody can openly challenge and question one another.  

People like to think that innovation happens because of a genius working alone – but that’s almost never the case. For instance, Steve Jobs insisted he would never allow Apple to make a phone. After his team finally persuaded him to reconsider, he banned outside apps and it took another year to get him to reverse that stance. Much of Apple’s success came from his teams pushing him to rethink his positions. If he hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world. 

One of the first subjects we tackled as part of Leadership50 was about being bold and daring to disagree with each other. How could we, as leaders, become more receptive and open to challenge, welcoming new ideas from our teams and from across the business? 

Well, working with my LD50 colleagues we made a pitch for what we are calling an Ideas Hub, a central place we can all raise bright ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. It’s high risk.

As Chris Bolton has written – post COVID the suggestion scheme has had something of a renaissance. All of them have a high chance of failure, indeed several reports have attempted to outline the reasons why many schemes fail . The literature, while extolling the many virtues of suggestion programs, makes it clear that achieving the expected results from these programmes is quite challenging. Suggestion schemes will not yield results without the active involvement of everyone in the organisation together with the required
resources and support from top management. It is also evident that sustaining a suggestion scheme is not easy, it’s hard work.

As Chris says over on his blog , it may be beneficial to take a ‘meta view’ of all the small bright ideas schemes which could identify opportunities that don’t work for the individual schemes, but could work elsewhere. And I agree that having lots of ideas is like spreading your bets at a horse race. The more ideas you have increase the chances of winning.

The problem is most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Having the idea itself is the easy part. Suggestion schemes on their own won’t tackle a culture of no. Even where organisations purposely attempt to generate creative ideas, such as through brainstorming events, hacks or idea boxes they often kill ideas off too early. Sometimes they even kill ideas during the idea-generation activities.

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

What do managers do? Typically, managerial work. Not creative work. Not radical, reshaping work. Involving management in the cultivation and protection of early stage ideas changes how managers do what they do.

And that’s why I think our latest approach could work. If it’s the leaders themselves that are publicly taxed with the development of bright ideas then they live or die by that particular sword.

More ideas certainly. Better problems, definitely. However – if we are to shift our innovation efforts across the whole enterprise, we need more management experiments.

Why Do We Believe In Silver Bullet Solutions?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf.

In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

On Wednesday evening I was invited to do a talk to a group of leaders assembled by Greenacre Consult. One of the best questions I was asked was ‘why, given it’s seemingly so obvious that exploring problems and starting small makes sense, are we so enamoured by silver bullet solutions?’. I gave a rather long and rambling answer – ironically searching for a silver bullet response – so thought I’d put some thoughts down here.

Silver bullet syndrome is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s or persons problems. Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, in recruitment campaigns, in advertisements.

If only we had a person like this our problems would be solved. If only you followed this particular diet your weight concerns would go away. If only the public did this instead of that, this damned virus would disappear.

I believe there’s a strong link between how our businesses are organised and their propensity for silver bullets. In 1909, Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” In this, he proposed that by optimising and simplifying jobs productivity would increase. Taylor’s philosophy focused on the belief that making people work as hard as they could was not as efficient as optimising the way work was done. This optimisation focus arguably led to the creation of narrow specialised teams and what Phil. S. Ensor later termed the functional silo system. The contention from Ensor was that these siloed teams were indeed efficient at repetitive tasks but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

There are many advantages to silos but they can mean we become focused on narrow organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms. Chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context and cross organisational problem solving can break down. Through the silo system, as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs the ground is laid for the emergence of silver bullet solutions.

In an era of management fads and leadership worship it’s also bizarrely easy to sell these one-shot solutions. It’s soothing for us to believe that organisational tourists can arrive to save your business by doing a perfectly pitched PowerPoint with a clearly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

Pitching up and saying that an organisation most likely can’t solve this problem on their own, that you need everyone’s creativity and input, that the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail – isn’t so attractive.

The idea of a silver bullet is appealing. That new Exec hire, that restructure, that new change tool, will solve it. We are all optimists really, and we want to believe that the world is simple.

We all want the fastest and easiest solution to any problem, but as Chris Bolton and Matt Wyatt have observed, silver bullets should actually be called silver boomerangs – because they just keep coming back.

Complex problems are hardly ever solved with shiny exciting bullets. As Matt Ridley writes – breakthroughs emerge when we have a “willingness to put in the hours, to experiment and play, to try new things, to take risks— characteristics that for some reason are found in young, newly prosperous societies and no longer in old, tired ones.”

This applies to our organisations, not just societies.

The way to solve our greatest and most persistent problems isn’t glamorous at all – it’s actually quite mundane. Success is best achieved through a multitude of individually unimpressive small shots rather than a single bullet.

Photo by Itay Mor on Unsplash

Community Is The Most Powerful Unit Of Change

We are less pessimistic about our own lives than we are about larger units. We’re not very pessimistic about our village, we are not pessimistic about our town – but we are very pessimistic about our country, and even more pessimistic about the future of our planet. The bigger the unit you look at the more pessimistic people are about it.

– Matt Ridley

Sometimes, the best way to get traction behind an idea or initiative is to make it as local as possible.

Your own community is the best unit of change. For instance, solving homelessness across the UK is a wicked problem that seems unsolvable. However, making sure no-one on your street is at risk of homelessness seems eminently achievable.

Some of this is just that our brains can’t easily comprehend how to solve massive problems. Counter-intuitively, the bigger the problem the less inclined we may be to help out.

That’s why charity appeals often feature a single distressed child (or animal) rather than featuring thousands. In one study to explore this the psychologist Paul Slovic told volunteers about a young girl suffering from starvation. He then measured how much the volunteers were willing to donate to help her. He presented another group of volunteers with the same story of the starving little girl — but this time, also told them about the millions of others suffering from starvation.

On a rational level, the volunteers in this second group should be just as likely to help the little girl, or even more likely because the statistics clearly established the seriousness of the problem. “What we found was just the opposite,” Slovic says. “People who were shown the statistics along with the information about the little girl gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.”

In my last post I outlined three reasons we fail to solve problems, but there’s an important fourth one: sometimes we simply try and approach them in ways that are too hard to comprehend. We go way too big when we might be better off starting really small.

As Matt Ridley explains in this conversation with Jordan Peterson, optimism plays a hugely important role in innovation. And we are most optimistic about our own community – making it fertile ground for solving local problems.

One of the reasons that frugal – or jugaad – innovation thrives in parts of Asia is because it concentrates on local solutions, solved using simple means, with a spirit of eternal optimism.

Jugaad is a Hindi word that roughly means ‘solution born from cleverness.’ It’s usually applied to a low cost fix or work-around. In a culture where people often have to make do with what they have it’s an improvised or makeshift solution using scarce resources.

Anyone who has been to India or other parts of Asia will have seen examples of jugaad on a daily basis.

In case you’re new to the word I’ll give you four pictures, two of which I took myself in Cambodia.

Building a house with discarded cola bottles:

Making tea using an iron:


Attaching an extra seat onto mopeds (or attaching literally ANYTHING onto mopeds):


Bike + Tuk Tuk + Wifi:

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 06.40.48

Partly this is a result of austerity. In an era of abundance there isn’t much desire for the simple fix. Scarcity drives creativity in ways abundance cannot.

Frugal innovations are extremely context sensitive and it’s understood that local people are the ones best placed to understand their needs and address them – almost the opposite of how large scale change is managed in organisations.

Most organisational approaches to change or transformation are carefully structured. Agile or lean are process frameworks, whereas jugaad is void of process altogether. 

My personal belief is the best way western organisations can adopt jugaad thinking is by directly channelling it into communities themselves. Any frugal revolution needs to be driven by people – not from your boardroom.

As an ex-colleague of mine William Lilley said a few years ago: Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we choose to ignore because we think we could do it better as professionals.

It could be that a lot of our problems are sitting there waiting to be solved by our colleagues and communities.

We just need to give them permission, and get out of the way.