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

Planned obsolescence is the practice of deliberately creating consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete (or out of date) and therefore need to be frequently replaced. If we designed our organisations to have an expiry date would we get better social outcomes?

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

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.

So what makes 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

rns 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.

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

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.

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

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.

Staff suggestion schemes are where innovation goes to die

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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 or witch. 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.

Why do we believe in silver bullets?

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:

Tea-making-iron-jugaad

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

IMG_7492

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.

Three Reasons Why We Fail To Solve Problems

Why do some problems get solved whilst others stick around? Here are three examples of why we sometimes fail and what we could do differently.

At the beginning of April 2020 the World Health Organisation made a public declaration of collaboration that attempted to unify hundreds of scientific communities around one single goal: to speed the availability of a vaccine against COVID-19.

The pandemic is far from being ‘solved’, and may indeed remain unsolvable. However, one particular part of the problem was addressed just eight months later with people getting the very first vaccines, a process that normally takes years.

So how come we’ve not solved , or even made decent inroads, into problems that have beset us for decades like the housing or social care crisis?

How come you’ve likely got the same problems in your organisation that you’ve always had?

Or you thought you’d solved a problem but it just returned, in a mutated form?

The Importance of Constraints

One of the most recurring reasons for a problem not getting effectively solved is that it was never clearly defined in the first place. We’ve been doing some work at Bromford around effective team collaboration, and my colleague Carl Sautereau often talks of the ‘freedom of a tight brief’. In my language – he’s talking about the importance of a really well defined problem.

“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” was originally invoked by advertising legend David Ogilvy, as a requisite requirement for unleashing creative brilliance. Innovation thrives when we have constraints – as it shows us where to focus and, more importantly, where not to.

It reminds me of the work of Dr. Caneel Joyce, who says 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.

One of the reasons for the rapid vaccine development is it had the tightest of tight briefs before it was deployed to multiple teams to solve.

Failure to Build Consensus

Another reason problems continue is where we fail to get sufficient support and don’t build a coalition around a solution. The housing sector , for example, has struggled for years to get traction behind what is a compelling argument for more affordable housing. In that case there are multiple actors involved in solving the problem , the same as vaccine development, but people have many different views on what the solution should be. Should it be more home ownership, shared ownership or rented? What’s the right mix? What does affordable even mean? Isn’t this just about too much immigration anyway? It’s a subject that can get very political very quickly, particularly in such a class conscious country as the UK.

You’ll have similar issues at organisational level, where barriers emerge at every step of the way. There are a number of ways to build consensus, but one I have found personally useful is the Japanese concept of nemawashi which means quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project.

A typical western approach would be to work up an idea or project, propose it to the boss or executive and if the idea is good enough, it will be chosen. Even assuming that approach is successful it then has numerous barriers ahead as you’ve got to negotiate the organisational antibodies designed to repel anything new or foreign.

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.  It takes patience and highly developed political nous but:

  • It reduces the risk of the idea by involving key people, and developing it, in the process of making it real.
  • Although there’s an upfront investment it time it reduces the time required overall, as it moves any potential conflict to the front end.
  • It increases people’s involvement in the idea, they are then personally invested in making it work as it is ‘theirs’
  • It increases the likelihood of success, because the idea has been refined by the many rather than the few

We’ve all resisted ideas because we weren’t asked or it landed outside our front door without us granting it permission. It’s a natural human reaction.

The Timing Isn’t Right

Timing is everything. A few years ago I remember doing Lab experiments on the use of QR codes for getting information to colleagues and customers. It failed.

At the time, QR readers were not built into most smartphones – it required the download of an app. Additionally, QR code use was so infrequent people were not in the behaviour of using the scanners. It had too much friction.

COVID changed all that. After a decade of mockery and dismissal, it took a period when nobody wants to touch anything apart from their phones to bring them into widespread use. I don’t know who invented the QR code , but they probably spent 10 years wondering why no-one was listening to their bright idea.

A tight brief that nails the problem and builds constraints around it , the building of consensus on a solution and the timing of the execution – all necessary components of solving problems.

Innovation isn’t about ideas. It’s about the right solution, for the right people, at the right time.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Can The Pandemic Usher In An Era of Creative Disruption?

If we’d followed a conventional big transformation/ big consultancy approach to vaccine development and deployment we’d be getting our jabs sometime around the middle of 2033.

The question is, can your organisation draw on the lessons of the pandemic to forge a more effective partnership with your customers and stakeholders?

In the long dark days of another lockdown it’s easy to become pessimistic. There’s a danger that we fall victim to recency bias, giving all our attention to the mounting death toll, economic damage, and mental health impact rather than the historical evidence that people have managed to survive far greater crises than Covid-19 and gone on, not just to survive, but to thrive.

A trip out with my 77 year old mother isn’t normally the best way to stimulate any positivity, but this week I took her to get her vaccine. During the journey through the snow, and suffering constant moans about my driving skills, it got me thinking about how the pandemic could unleash a new wave of creative disruption. If we let it.

Bear with me whilst I connect some dots.

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 have 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.


Great Wyrley, a village in South Staffordshire, England is where the tireless work of AstraZeneca, arguably the most innovative pharma company in the world, meets my mother.

It doesn’t start well. For some reason mum wants her vaccination done in Stafford “just like my friends have done”. I explain that she doesn’t have that option, it’s the same vaccine, and there’s an appointment closer to her anyway. We have to abort the journey to the first appointment because of the weather – or rather my mums hysterical reaction to my driving in the snow.

Not a problem, we’ll just phone up and rearrange.

Except – there’s no phone number listed online or any option to let anyone know you can’t attend.

However, rebooking is easy, and we get a slot the next day. Arriving on time we find that the Chemist shop where the the vaccination appointment is booked isn’t actually where it takes place. It’s just over the road at the community centre. Not a big deal you might think, but you’re not my mum, who huffs and puffs as she makes her way through the snow, nearly falling over in the process.

“Best injection I’ve ever had!” she says as she gets back in the car. I’ve had quite a few injections over the past couple of years, I think to myself, but I’d never imagined ranking them.

On the way back home, mum repeatedly goes over why the appointment notification said it was at the chemist rather than the community centre. This seemingly innocuous detail seems to have riled her. “It’s stupid…just a complete waste of the chemists time to keep having to tell people that they are in the wrong place and to go over the road”. I’d never thought of my mother as a budding service designer.

Later that day, she gets a call from her GP asking her whether she’s had her vaccine as they have some available. “Don’t they know I’ve already had it, surely they’d know that.” she says.

“It’s just that they are trying to do this quickly, it’s not perfect. You’ve had your vaccine, that’s all that matters” – I tell her.

At the time of writing 7.5 million people in the UK have had their first jab. That’s in just over a month from a standing start – a magnificent feat achieved through a network of pharma, health workers, local businesses, community centres and volunteers all working together.

When I had my jab a couple of days later at a local church the number of people involved was astonishing, but I was in and out in under 6 minutes.

What’s my point here?

If we’d followed a conventional big transformation/change/consultancy approach to vaccine development and deployment we’d be getting our jabs sometime around the middle of 2033.

The burning platform of COVID has brought multiple actors together with a range of diverse skills to solve problems that didn’t exist just over a year ago.

Surely you need to review the timescales of your latest change programme based upon that?

Yes, it isn’t perfect. The technology isn’t joined up, the tracing system doesn’t work brilliantly, the communication is abysmal at times.

And yes, my mum was told to go to the bloody chemist instead of the community centre.

But people will be forgiving of a bit of poor design – if they get the outcome they need.

A new era of creative disruption?

Yes – if we change our behaviour.

The question is, can your organisation draw on the lessons of the pandemic to forge a more effective partnership with your customers and stakeholders?

Can you deploy new thinking and research methods that develop in weeks rather than years?

Can you use this new found intelligence to improve business as usual and help your company mobilise quickly when faced with the next , inevitable, crisis?

Or will you go back to the comfortable world of five year business plans? Thinking we can somehow predict, or even control the future.

It’s our choice, for the moment.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Three Innovation Aspirations For 2021

In 2021 perhaps the bravest and most radical thing you could do is to change your mind.

A new year is usually the time where we leap off the sofa and out of the house, attempting to reset our lives and put straight all the things we failed to do the previous year.

2021 is different – as many of us will start the year spending even more time on the sofa and in the house.

Last year was a wake up call for me as I started the year with lots of resolutions and ideas for the next 12 months, and then found out that the world had an entirely different plan.

When bigger forces take over your life it can be easy for us to give up control and become a bystander. But in reality we still have agency over our lives , and have many opportunities. In fact, when life gets reset or derailed there are often more opportunities, even if we can’t clearly see them.

However, being able to see the opportunities emerging from a crisis is not the same as being able to seize them.

Research from McKinsey has indicated that many companies are deprioritising innovation to concentrate on shoring up core business, conserving cash, minimising risk and waiting until “there is more clarity.” 

In a year in which most of us will have to contend with having less resources, less cash liquidity, and living in a more uncertain environment, we have to ask the question:

What is innovation to us, and what am I hoping to get out of innovation?

I’ll begin this years series of posts with three ambitions for the year ahead.

Connecting innovation to the larger organisation

We can probably say with some certainty that whatever your approach to innovation was in 2019, it’s no longer fit for purpose. Many of our organisations have , in effect, become new companies. Many of us will have spent a year, or more, without physically seeing each other. People will have joined the workforce – never knowing another way of working.

While we will likely never go back to our pre-crisis status quo, I imagine the future will be a blended one that leverages the best of what both virtual and face-to-face working offer. Enlightened organisations will become hyper connected and networked, with ideas emerging from all corners, and levels, of the business.

This way of working is an existential threat to policy teams, Innovation Labs and R+D functions. These teams have often seen themselves as connectors of thinking within organisations , but in the new world everyone is a potential connector of thinking.

The pandemic has accelerated many things, including people’s expectations of problem resolution. The time course of medical research has been cut down to almost nothing. The Moderna COVID vaccine was created in a weekend , but built upon many years of prior work.

People simply aren’t going to have tolerance for labs, think tanks, and R+D units who talk the talk but take years rather than weeks to turn ideas into solutions.

The necessary task now is for organisations to democratise the innovation process. This means giving all employees access to creative learning and development that lets them solve simple problems themselves – whilst also identifying those bigger strategic opportunities or problems to be worked on in collaboration with others.

Staying Perpetually Curious

At present, we miss our freedom, we miss our social interactions, we miss our routine, we miss the usual solutions that we have to guide our lives.

Creativity is largely social and a long period of living without physical connection could have negative implications.

A major catalyst for innovation are those unplanned interactions with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. The closure of coffee shops, bars, libraries, gyms and community centres means these opportunities have been cut off for us at the moment.

Travelling, also curtailed, presented new challenges and cultures to adapt to. The subsequent strain on the problem-solving areas of the brain strengthens our creativity skills.

For a good period of this year these opportunities are likely to be reduced or off limits entirely. We all need to help each other retain our capacity for seeking out new learning, and take advantage of the current situation to nourish our minds, educate ourselves and treat each day as a new start.

It’s worth organisations remembering that colleagues being more bored than usual is also an opportunity. Studies have shown that people who have gone through a boredom-inducing task later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity. 

Being bored can be a good thing for your mind, imagination and productivity.

Being Brave Enough To Change Our Minds

If there was one unwelcome trend of the past few years it has been the growth of partisan thinking, which has again tipped to violence in the past few days.

Partisanship has been boosted by Brexit, Trumpism, climate change, identity politics, wokeism, and now lockdown and vaccination policy. Social media – where we are all spending more and more time – is very efficient at facilitating this as the algorithms herd us into echo chambers that reflect our own views and biases back at us. When the information or opinions you hold – whether factually correct or not – are repeatedly being echoed back to you, it enforces your individual belief system.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires.

As Jorge Barba says an open mind is our greatest strategic advantage because it costs us nothing and rewards us with plenty.

I don’t know about you but I’m committing this year to changing my mind on at least of couple of biases that I hold dear. Breaking free of limiting assumptions is a creative act that is also good for your mental health. Admitting you don’t have the answers rather than pretending you do is personally empowering.

In 2021 perhaps the bravest and most radical thing you could do is to change your mind.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A Relentless Focus On Efficiency Can Kill Innovation

Why do organisations who say they are innovative fail to put their money where their mouth is and invest in innovation in the same way Amazon do?

This week I did a slot with Ian Wright on innovation and failure as part of Digital Leaders Week.

Ian posed a killer question during the chat:

Why do organisations who say they are innovative fail to put their money where their mouth is and invest in innovation in the same way Amazon, Google etc do?

I’m not sure I answered the question brilliantly, but this comes down to the choice between efficiency and investing in the future.

Right now – there cannot be a board in the country who is not looking to cut costs. Offices stand empty, a second (and possibly third, fourth and fifth) lockdown looms and the medium term outlook is , at best, problematic. We all have to accept that we’ll be dealing with increasingly limited resources.

None of us can compare ourselves to Amazon – a company who are single minded in their dedication to owning the future. In 2019 their spending on R+D was $35billion which has increased year on year since they spent a paltry £12billion in 2012.

But if Amazon have an R+D to Revenue ratio of say 30%, how much should you spend?

0.5%? 1%? 5%?

As I said to Ian, the answer is you probably don’t know how much you spend at the moment, never mind what spend is right for your organisation.

When Cost Cutting Goes Bad

Right now accountants are running through organisations looking to eliminate every bit of slack they can.  It’s all about getting costs off the books and the swift abandonment of any capabilities not regarded as ‘core’.

The problem is:

Slack can be good.

Under utilised but latent capabilities can be good.

In the book When More Is Not Better , Prof Roger Martin argues that that efficiency needs to be balanced by resilience. He says we need to recognise that slack is not the enemy. In the right amounts, slack contributes to greater resilience. We should stop thinking of “no slack” as an achievable goal. By way of example he says that retailers such as Costco build slack into their staffing to allow employees to provide extra attention to customers.

Cutting slack out of your organisation can severely limit your internal capability for innovation and put you increasingly in the need of something potentially more costly: management consultants.

A piece for the Guardian contains some choice quotes about over reliance on consulting from Lord Agnew, the Cabinet Office and Treasury minister. “We are too reliant on consultants. Aside from providing poor value for money, this infantilises the civil service by depriving our brightest people of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues. We seem to be ineffectual at harnessing our fast-streamers to do work that is then outsourced to consultants using similar people at a vastly inflated cost. This is unacceptable.”

The news this week that some consultants are being paid £7,000 per day to work on Test and Trace is an extreme example of what happens when you outsource all your capability. Weren’t we once a leader in the development of public digital technologies?

Unacceptable (and crazy maths) , but it’s sadly common practice within Government and our own organisations. I’ve had several younger colleagues say the same thing to me about our own sector.

Outsourcing capabilities defined as ‘non-core’ can lead to a reduction in your overall capacity for innovation. It can also lead to workplace dissatisfaction with career development options and can – in your determination to get cost off the books NOW – increase your costs in the medium term.

As I said in the session this week, a better approach would be to assess what slack you have at the moment and optimise it.

  1. How many people have you got working in roles that have an R+D element?
  2. What value are you getting from these?
  3. How could they be better connected?
  4. How could they help you tackle some of ‘the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues’ that you face?

You cannot match Amazon for R+D spend , but you can emulate a lot of their behaviours.

Innovation and efficiency: It is possible to have it all.

Header Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

How To Make Decisions In A World Of Uncertainty When Not Knowing Or Being Sure Of Anything Is The Only Answer We Have (TLDR: Get comfortable with failure..)

In a high stakes environment , where people will die whatever you do next, nobody wants to talk about failure. For companies large and small, to make progress in complex situations means re-evaluating our relationship with the F Word.

Since the pandemic started, we have all spent a greater share of our time confronting difficult questions. Most of those questions are not immediately answerable. It hasn’t even been a year since the virus was confirmed so being able to predict its long term effects on our mental health, our relationships, our behaviours , even our future, is nigh on impossible.

How do we know if a trend is caused by coronavirus, or if it would have happened anyway? 

The typical approach of many companies will be far too slow to keep up. Postponing decisions to wait for more information might make sense during more normal times, but postnormal , surrounded by imperfect and conflicting information, waiting to decide is a decision in itself.

The only way to really make decisions and to forge ahead in periods of radical uncertainty – where environments may change dynamically and independently of the problem solvers’ actions – is to make headway iteratively.

Unfortunately that is the not message we are getting from many of our leaders, nationally and internationally. Strategies are being deployed at short notice against a background of emerging evidence, with advice to the public confusing and changeable seemingly on a daily basis.

In a high stakes environment , where people will die whatever you do next, nobody wants to talk about failure. For companies large and small, to make progress in complex situations means re-evaluating our relationship with the F Word.

Notwithstanding the oft heard corporate mantra about “risk-taking organisations,” few people or organisations are comfortable being associated with a failure. It usually appears as a ‘tell us about a time’ question at job interviews , but the savvy candidate will avoid providing any example of a genuine **** up, and offer a ‘valuable lesson learned’ story instead.

As Phil Murphy recently said “We all fail regularly though don’t we, in various small ways? Is there an unhealthy obsession by organisations seeking to portray faultlessness?”

In an increasingly complex world, where experimentation is called for, not us can remain faultless. There is very little informed debate or discussion about this. Failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations, so why do we not publicly accept this?

The benefits of learning from failure is incontrovertible but we know that organisations that do it well are rare.  Part of this is due to culture and our refusal to let go of the heroic leadership model. Failure is seen as bad, and it sometimes is bad. Very bad. But it is sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. 

Building our capacity for intelligent failure

IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. said, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” So how can organisations safeguard their existing values and still create a safe failure environment?

The answer is: practice getting better at it.

Rather than something that eludes all but the most creative, intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

Change the definition:

People see failure as a bad thing as it has been drummed into us through childhood and the corporate machinery. It has come to mean letting people down. We need to redefine failure as a part of a journey of discovery – in which you’ll learn the possibilities for you and your organisation.

To maintain a psychologically safe environment that celebrates intelligent failure, those who come forward should be rewarded, not punished.

See it as an investment:

This seems counter intuitive but there is a strong economic argument for failing more often.  As an example let’s say it takes 6 months and £250,000 to take a product or service from idea to launch. At best you’ll get two cycles in a year.

However, if you can do a complete cycle of learning in a week for £2000,  you can get 52 cycles in a year at about half the cost. Many of those cycles of learning will fail but will have less risk and negative impact than your latest big initiative. In the words of Andrew Stanton – “be wrong as fast as you can.”

Have a scientific approach:

Embracing failure does not mean having a lax approach or work environment. Failure can co-exist with high performance standards. Have a hypothesis and test it. Involve your data geeks and people who have no vested interests in seeing the idea succeed. If people start getting excited you have a discovery. If not – people will still feel it was worthwhile learning – but quickly move on to the next idea.

Capture the learning:

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge. Chris Bolton has asked if there’s a need for a Museum of Failed Products within public services. He’s undoubtedly right – the ‘corporate memory’ is often unreliable.

Don’t confuse this though with “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”  Just because things don’t work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dust them down and give them another run out on a rainy day. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

Our organisations are heavily and successfully defended against failure

The high consequences of failure (and perceived consequences) lead over time to the construction of multiple layers of defence against failure. These include a variety policies and procedures, risk assessments, work rules, and team training all designed to tell us that failure is bad. These series of shields need to be balanced if you have any hope of legitimising failure.

  • Our future is best explored through a series of experiments rather than a one shot strategy.
  • These experiments should be carefully planned, so that when things go wrong we know why
  • They are by nature uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
  • They are modest in scale, so that a company catastrophe does not result
  • What is learned should be stored in the organisations memory and shared freely and widely

Ultimately intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

If we can approach uncertain decisions as experiments and adopt the idea of intelligently failing, so much more can be learned.

A world where we can all admit we don’t have the answers but are committed to exploring them together, by trying things out rather than through politics or ideology, sounds an infinitely nicer place.


Feeling like a failure? Not interested in playing local lockdown lottery? Then make a lunch date with me and Ian Wright for our contribution to Digileaders week next Tuesday 13th October at 12pm where we explore real life failure experiences and why so many innovation initiatives don’t go to plan.

You can book your place here.

How Can We Move Towards A Better Normal?

We are living through an era of intense turbulence and disillusionment. Even before COVID-19 we were faced with circumstances which the scholar and critic Ziauddin Sardar has described as uncertain, rapidly changing and chaotic.  

He describes this as a period where the old orthodoxies are dying, but new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. In a word, the postnormal.

In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual. And if there’s one thing we can be certain of at the moment – it’s that the last thing anyone truly wants or needs is business as usual.

We have seen some great examples of innovation and collaborative working across the social sector.  Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard though. The Bank of England has forecast that the coronavirus crisis will push the UK economy into its deepest recession in 300 years. You can add to that a rapidly ageing population, the increasing automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. Even one of those trends would hit our communities hard, add them together and the picture can look decidedly apocalyptic. Perhaps hangovers are a daily part of the new normal. 

So, how many of our companies are looking at investing more in community driven innovation than they were pre-COVID? I’m betting: not many. 

There cannot be a board in the country who is not looking to cut costs right now. Offices stand empty, projects and programmes have been derailed and the medium term outlook is problematic at best.  Any investment deemed high risk and low return will be the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. 

We have to accept that we will all have to contend with increasingly limited resources – but conducted in the right way innovation can thrive under such constraints. 

The challenges emerging from, or accelerated by, COVID-19 require innovation on a scale never seen before across the social sector. This demands that we overcome organisational and sector boundaries and join forces. 

The big challenge for the social sector will be putting aside any organisational ego and working in new partnerships. We need to be open to sharing each other’s resources, linking expertise in areas where one can compliment another. We need to be bold enough to admit that many of our organisations no longer need to exist.

In reality this requires a significant behaviour change – we need to move away from gathering personal career plaudits or seeking awards. The nature of the challenges we face – let’s use climate change by way of example – are not problems that can be solved by individual organisations. They require innovation at scale by hundreds of partners if we are even to make a dent in the problem. 

There’s a window of opportunity here that may last for as long as two years. COVID – 19 has temporarily removed many of the normal barriers to innovation, and sped up regulatory approval, access to funding, and internal decision-making.

So now is the time to accelerate much tighter collaborations between companies, communities, think tanks and start-ups.  Many of these startups are already bringing ideas and solutions to the table and are unhindered by legacy business models or thinking. 

Research has shown that strong innovators are more likely to embrace ideas from external sources and partnerships. Yet only a few companies have built a mature open-innovation competency. There are many reasons for this, ranging from a fear of sharing intellectual property, to perceived regulatory hurdles such as data privacy, to an outright disbelief that external collaboration is needed.

Orthodoxies are widely held and unchallenged assumptions that often start as truths at a certain point in time but aren’t revisited or challenged as realities change. COVID-19 has changed our reality and normal no longer applies.

What we’ve thought of as normal was never natural. Normal was the problem in the first place – and we now have an opportunity to fix it.


Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

A version of this post was originally published in Inside Housing

Why Do Bad Ideas Spread So Easily?

Bad ideas can spread much more easily than good ones.

And in a world of complex problems – it’s understandable why people reach for ideas that sound like easy solutions.

So it’s important to understand how bad ideas spread as you can use the same tactics to spread your good ones.

Bad ideas can spread much more easily than good ones.

Why? Well as Seth Godin has said no one truly “gets” your idea unless:
a. the first impression demands further attention (it’s interesting)
b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea (it’s not overly complex)
c. they trust or respect the originator (it’s believable)

This helps explain why online ideas spread so fast as they’re often interesting, simple and believable. But none of that means that they are good.

In a world of complex problems – it’s understandable why people reach for ideas that sound like easy solutions.

In the past week the UK Government launched it’s anti-obesity strategy which includes urging GPs in England to prescribe cycling as part of a new drive to tackle obesity in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A trial for a similar scheme in Yorkshire concluded in November 2019 with positive outcomes. More than 61 per cent of participants in the trial reported their fitness had increased and more than one-third continued to cycle regularly after the 12-week programme had concluded.

From an innovation perspective it’s a huge leap from one pilot to national roll out but the scheme has all the makings of a spreadable idea. Interesting. Simple. Believable.

Time will tell whether it solves the problem but you can almost see the knee jerk mental dots being joined: Fat people = lazy, Cycling = good and relatively cheap, Doctors = Trusted. Combine all three and we are sorted.

But of course, obesity is a complex issue and there are many interconnected reasons people may be overweight, one of which is poverty.

As Naomi Davies wrote in response to my post on constantly looking for problems “My fear is we conflate obesity with mental models of laziness and work avoidance and attack a problem that does still exist …but pushes us towards solutions that have little impact & can be harmful.”

These mental models (many of which are prejudices that we all hold) help spread ideas quickly. I reckon I could sell an idea quite easily to encourage the poor to buy bags of potatoes, or even grow their own, rather than spend money in chip shops. However the premise is deeply flawed – and would be destroyed by effective problem definition.

One other factor that helps spread a bad idea is something we have a lot of at the moment: panic.

Panic and anxiety are both born from fear, and are not necessarily bad things. Fear is the oldest survival mechanism we have, it encourages us to take action and helps us learn to avoid dangerous situations in the future through a process called negative reinforcement.

However , the short term innovative tactics we saw in the early days of the pandemic like getting people to work from home, changing medical and care practice at short notice, cannot be used to solve complex problems that require deeper consideration, evidence and testing.

These logical ideas are slowed by taking the time to process evaluate and reevaluate. Emotional responses are immediate and not slowed by thought. Right now a lot of our companies are super high on emotion and low on logic. We don’t like living with uncertainty so we rush to solutions – manna from heaven for the spread of bad ideas.

The notion that good ideas automatically trump bad ideas is totally untrue.

So it’s important to understand how bad ideas spread as you can use the same tactics to spread your good ideas.

  • Make your idea interesting – what is the problem it’s solving and how and why are people’s lives going to be better or easier as a result? This should certainly not be a report more like something that would fit on Twitter. It should demand further attention.
  • Make it as simple as possible to understand – or build it upon things people are already familiar with. If your idea is about helping tackle climate change or sustainability for example – most people have a basic grasp of this issue. Use a picture of that turtle with a plastic straw up its nose and everybody gets it.
  • Make it believable so consider who pitches the idea. It needs to be the most trusted or passionate person you can find. Put your ego aside – it doesn’t have to be you.
  • Don’t panic. Dumbed-down emotional ideas spread faster than logical ideas, but bad ideas crowd out the good. Do you want your company working on loads of ideas or a couple of really great ones?

Never underestimate ideas. The health of our society and that of future generations depends on us all making ill-conceived, bad or just plain stupid ideas unfit for those who spread them.


Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Innovating In An Age Of Uncertainty

Faced with uncertainty, those holding the purse strings will be tempted to stop the clock, peddle simplistic solutions and retreat to the past

We are living through an era of intense turbulence, disillusionment and accelerating change.

In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual.

Innovation programmes deemed high risk and low return are often the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. But they shouldn’t be, as innovation becomes more crucial when your business plan has just been thrown out the window.

In fact, creativity is in abundance during crises and when people are forced to accept new constraints. People who are behaving differently are also thinking differently – why wouldn’t an organisation want to capture that?

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

However a crisis also brings with it an information overload, supplying us with overwhelming amounts of new data and choices. Faced with half facts, facts, figures and conflicting views of the future can lead many of us into a state of analysis paralysis.

In their article ‘When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty’, Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung write that as humans, we innately find uncertainty to be an aversive state and are motivated to reduce it, even at a cost. Research has shown that people are calmer and less agitated when they know they are going to receive an electric shock than when they know there is a 50% chance they might receive an electric shock. Similarly, the threat of perceived job insecurity has more detrimental health effects than actually losing a job.

In many ways the crisis is just compressing and accelerating trends (remote work, job automation, the climate agenda, the possibility of a universal basic income) that would have taken decades to play out.

This uncertainty is affecting all colleagues in all our companies right now – and we underestimate it at our peril.

Some people cope with uncertain situations better than others, but I take issue with the idea that some are innately more resilient. Those that appear to thrive whilst others around them crumble under the pressure often face hidden wellbeing costs that emerge over the longer term. Resilience isn’t something that a person is blessed with, or not. It can be nurtured.

In the latest Bromford Lab Podcast , Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators Network talks about the challenges of innovating during a crisis and the number of employers who are now recognising the role that wellbeing plays not only in increased productivity, but also creativity. Refreshingly he says the organisations he is working with see the challenges presented by COVID-19 as an opportunity rather than a reason to scale back.

How do we prepare ourselves to make the best from a ‘crisis’? I’ll try and boil it down into three points that I think may help us on our way:

Eliminate triviality

COVID-19 should be a good time to get rid of organisational vanity projects or the trivial. I was reminded of this last week by Chris Bolton. In a post still fresh after nearly 10 years he outlines the Law of Triviality

Way back in 1957, Cyril Parkinson came up with the theory that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Image courtesy of Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont)

He used the example of a committee spending very little time to approve the construction of a nuclear power station. The committee then went on to spend much longer debating the construction and colour of a bike shed for the staff on the site. This came to be known as ‘bikeshedding’.

You and I know that all our organisations engage in bikeshedding – on a daily basis. Just check out the minutes of any meeting – that’s assuming any are even kept.

To create headspace for colleagues in the next normal we need to be more ruthless with the trivial then we ever have before – and apply our thinking time to the essential innovation challenges of our time.

Review Your Approach To Risk

In a crisis there’s no risk of rocking the boat, the storm has already hit.

In the podcast Ian talks about moving away from risk management and towards resilience management

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted , but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

If we are to tackle the big problems rather than the trivial ones we WILL mess up, we WILL fail and we WILL learn. Embedding this approach in your risk management framework is necessary if we are to build resilience in colleagues. (You can learn more about the Bromford approach to risk management here)

Harness The Power Of Distributed Teams

There’s been two immediate trends we need to take advantage of:

  • The sudden shift to remote work as the default
  • Colleagues switching teams/being redeployed to support crisis management

So we’ve got a couple of things going on here than can lead to a spike in creativity.

Online tools and apps make it easier to assign, monitor, and communicate about the many tasks involved in building a collaborative team – outside of functional silos. This brings the opportunity to bring new people into mix – especially introverts who often don’t thrive in physical brainstorms. Introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

Secondly you’ve got the redeployment of colleagues into new teams who will bring a fresh pair of eyes to previously acknowledged and previously unseen problems.

This, managed well, will put some organisations in the driving seat of opportunity creation rather than mere crisis management.


It’s inevitable that faced with uncertainty, the knee jerk reaction of some of those holding the purse strings will be to stop the clock, peddle simplistic solutions and retreat to the past.

However it’s precisely because of these uncertain times that they must continue to invest in innovation. With the fast pace of change, and the pressures on our organisations and wider society, we need to find new ways to work and live.

Quickly.


Image courtesy of Free-Photos from Pixabay

The latest Bromford Lab Podcast is available now. Listen and subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.

Black Swans Can Inspire A New Era of Innovation

A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight

Back in November I was listening to a talk from Melissa Sterry, the Design Scientist and Systems Theorist. She was challenging the conventional wisdom that a child born today would live until they were 100. “How can we say this?” she said. She went on to explain the complex system disruption caused by events like climate change and proposed that there was no guarantees about anything – as new diseases would emerge with strains capable of igniting pandemics. 

The nature of our connected world provides the ideal base for new entrants to spread and scale  – as facts, predictions, opinions and lies intermingle across all forms of media, creating viral opportunities to spread fear—and overrun the science that should guide communication as well as action.

My original post on risk probability admittedly downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, and in the intervening weeks our entire lives have been turned upside down. Arguably we are living through a black swan event that will change the course of our lives.

Black Swan theory was popularized in a 2007 book by author and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book – written a year before the financial crash – focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events — and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively.

Why a black swan? Well , for centuries people agreed that swans were – of course – white. That was until black swans were discovered off the coast of Western Australia in 1697 by Dutch explorers. The only reason people were convinced swans were white was because they’d never seen a black one.

Never confuse the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

Taleb has recently stated that Coronavirus doesn’t fulfill the definition of a black swan. Indeed, pandemics have been at the top of national risk registers for decades and our culture is full of apocalyptic visions of the future , with zombies rather than viral infections admittedly . Some have argued that the correct metaphor for the crisis is a “gray rhino,” which refers to highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. It was coined by Michele Wucker,  who recently said “Given what we know about pandemics and their increasing likelihood, outbreaks are highly probable and high impact. I coined the term “gray rhino” for exactly such events: obvious, visible, coming right at you, with large potential impact and highly probable consequences.”

In terms of attempting to predict future disruptions on your business it’s useful to make this distinction:

  • High Impact, Highly Improbable Crises
  • High Impact, Highly Probable Crises. Coming right at you. 

And yet – out of this darkness can come a period of opportunity.

Wars and other crisis events can have beneficial effects on innovation and technological development. For example, wars tend to accelerate technological development to adapt tools for the purpose of solving specific military needs. And later, these military tools may evolve into non-military devices, such as radar or even the internet itself.

Additionally , the fact that we are now living in ways that are highly irregular to us , puts us in a far less passive and more creative state. We are experiencing a mass perspective shift that could lead to new thinking and new opportunities.

In this short video clip David Snowdon talks about the troubled Apollo 13 mission. Snowdon explains that for innovation to happen three conditions need to be in place: starvation, pressure, and perspective shift.  In terms of the current situation, we are being starved of our usual way of working and living, we have a pressure to maintain the services we provide and our perspectives have shifted towards self-isolation, limited social contact and the stark realities of covid-19.

As Simon Penny writes “perhaps during this time of isolation and slow living, we might gain a fresh perspective on what’s really important, and paradoxically our social distancing might actually bring us all closer together”.

In the past week I’ve spoken – actually spoken rather than text – to family and friends more than I have in the preceding year. I’ve spoken to neighbours who I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know the names of.

When life returns to ‘normal’, we may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so. 

Whatever happens during the Coronavirus post-mortem we have to accept a couple of things:

  • We must getting better at preparing for high frequency, high impact events
  • We have to get better at understanding and reacting to exponential growth across complex systems.
  • We must understand that we’re all connected. In a globalised , perma-connected world we are all linked by increasingly close chains of acquaintance.

In the midst of a pandemic it’s sobering to be reminded that we can look after each other best by just thinking globally and acting locally.


 

Image by Alina Kuptsova from Pixabay 

What Coronavirus Tells Us About Risk

As I sit down to write this post I’ve just received an email from a weekly design blog I subscribe to.

This edition is titled , alarmingly, ‘Pandemic Prep’.

It begins “We are interrupting our regularly scheduled newsletter format and rhythm to advise our clients and subscribers to prepare for the possible impacts of the coronavirus”.

Now I don’t know about you, but when seeking advice about pandemics I might look to the NHS or the World Health Organisation but I’m not sure service designers, innovation labs or bloggers would be my go-to source.

At the time of writing COVID-19 has led to approximately 3,000 deaths reported worldwide.

Deaths from regular flu on the other hand are somewhere between 291,000 to 646,000 deaths – every year.

Coronavirus is extremely serious and could yet reach pandemic levels –  but it is also a  good illustration of how we can overestimate personal risk. UPDATE 4/3/20: The virus has killed about 3.4% of confirmed cases globally. The seasonal flu’s fatality rate is below 1%

That said , why are people worrying about receiving post from asian countries , or whether you can catch the virus from beer, or even choosing not to order food from chinese takeaways?

According to Dr Ann Bostrom,  the mind has its own – entirely non-evidenced – ways of measuring danger. And the coronavirus hits nearly every cognitive trigger we have.

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychologist who helped pioneer modern risk psychology, speaking to The New York Times, helps explain what is going on in our minds here.

When we encounter a potential risk, our brains do a quick search for past experiences with it. If it can easily pull up multiple alarming memories, then our brain concludes the danger is high. However it often fails to assess whether those memories are truly representative.

“A classic example is airplane crashes. If two happen in quick succession, flying suddenly feels scarier — even if your conscious mind knows that those crashes are a statistical aberration with little bearing on the safety of your next flight. But if you then take a few flights and nothing goes wrong, your brain will most likely start telling you again that flying is safe.”

When it comes to the coronavirus, Dr. Slovic says, it’s as if people are experiencing one report after another of planes crashing.

This week we’ve launched the new Bromford Lab Podcast and in the first edition we interview Vicky Holloway and Mitch Harrington exploring the relationship between risk management and innovation – and our propensity to sometimes see risk in the wrong places.

Many of our organisations, we know, are risk averse and constrain innovation. The culture is superbly designed to repel anything new or mysterious.

There are two main reasons for why we over emphasise risk:

We are scared of making mistakes

Failure is rarely promoted or even talked about in organisations. This can breed a culture where there is a fear of failure.

Existing in a culture like this will promote risk aversion as once colleagues are fearful about something they will tend to overestimate the likelihood of things going wrong. Research show that fearful individuals overestimate the danger associated with their feared objects or situations.

In the same way as my fear of spiders leads me to overestimate the ability for a spider to harm me, an organisation whose biggest fear is negative media attention will tend to overestimate the reputational damage of trying out a new service or project.

Successful innovation however requires us to fail more often, and to get better at how we fail.

Arguably it’s not fear of failure we need to tackle but fear itself. How does fear manifest itself where you work? What are you frightened of and what is it preventing you from doing?

No-one ever gets fired for exaggerating

The second reason organisations can overestimate risk is there are few negative consequences for estimating risk too highly.

Underestimating the risk of something bad happening has seen organisations go under and many people lose their jobs, but no-one has ever been sacked for over-estimation.

In 2002 , the Guardian predicted that the world would face famine in just 10 years , and a few years later the UK Prime Minister went a step further and said we had only 50 days to save the planet.

Arguably these are just well meaning attempts at highlighting a serious problem that also illustrates how hopeless we are at predicting the future. However a climate of fear is never a good climate for clear eyed problem definition.

This is why fear of failure should not go unchallenged, as it ultimately becomes debilitating and either stops you innovating or leads you to make bad choices.

As Vicky says in our podcastwe are all risk managers and generally we do it very well. We manage risk everyday in our personal lives and we largely make the right choices.

We need to look for risk in the right places and make intelligent assumptions, constantly challenging ourselves to seek out new experiences and solve problems.

The future requires us to be cautious , yes, but also to be a lot less fearful.


 

Labcast , the new podcast from Bromford Lab , will feature special guests discussing the innovation and design challenges of our day, the big ideas and the bad ideas. 

WhatsApp Image 2020-02-28 at 12.47.25

It’s available now. 

Subscribe on Spotify 

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts

Featured Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

The Creative Value Of Open-Mindedness

Innovation is, essentially, about being endlessly curious.

Curious, and a little bit paranoid that the way you do things isn’t the best way.

Looking outside your organisation means gathering and understanding trends and weak signals that indicate emerging needs or opportunities. These weak signals are often overlooked or ignored by organisations that will only listen to a sure thing.

Often, by the time the sure thing emerges, you’ve left it far too late.

Let’s be honest, most of us are hopeless at predicting the future. Despite our organisational 2030 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s nearly impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead. Our business plans are merely business guesses.

Even the smartest of us tend to be terrible forecasters. We shouldn’t even listen to the so-called experts says Dominic Cummings , the Chief Special Advisor to the UK Prime Minister.

There is some truth in this. As Wharton professor Philip Tetlock showed in a landmark 2005 study.

After conducting a set of small scale forecasting tournaments with 300 experts from a variety of fields (government officials, professors, journalists, and others), Tetlock uncovered roughly 28,000 predictions about the future and found the forecasters were often only slightly more accurate than chance, and usually worse than predicted by basic algorithms, especially on longer–range forecasts three to five years out. Forecasters with the biggest news media profiles were especially bad, and that’s what Dom Cummings is alluding to when he derides media pundits.

What traits and characteristics make one person a more accurate forecaster than another? 

Tetlock found that those higher on fluid intelligence, higher on open mindedness , and those that a make commitment to cultivate their skills made better forecasters.

Now – it’s not achievable ,or even desirable, to have lots of superforecasters in our organisations. But the traits of the forecasters give some valuable insights into creativity and innovation:

  • They are comfortable thinking in guesstimates
  • They have the personality trait of openness
  • They take pleasure in intellectual activity and curiosity
  • They appreciate uncertainty and like seeing things from multiple angles
  • They distrust their gut feelings
  • They are not ideological and neither left or right wing
  • They constantly attack their own reasoning
  • They are aware of biases and actively work to oppose them
  • They constantly update their current opinions with new information
  • They believe in the wisdom of crowds to improve upon or discover ideas
  • They are not afraid to look stupid..

I definitely find when working with people on creative projects that many of the best participants share a lot of these traits – particularly those of being open minded.

How can we develop open-minded organisations?

Most people don’t think they are close minded.

However a quick look at Twitter will confirm that many people are. Technology encourages us to believe we all have first-hand access to the ‘real’ facts. That’s why I’ve all but given up watching or listening to mainstream current affairs and shifted to longer form podcasts. What passes for ‘debate’ is often just a series of short exchanges of people presenting their positions and refusing to shift.  You know what someone is going to say before they open their mouths.

In assessing how open-minded you are to new ideas, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When was the last time I asked for feedback about my work?
  • Has there been a time recently when I’ve changed my mind on an important issue?
  • Do I solicit new ideas from my colleagues and customers?
  • Do I show recognition and appreciation for the ideas suggested by others?
  • Does my team support a culture of openness and continual feedback?
  • When did I last express uncertainty about what to do next in front of my team?

Questions such of these are arguably at odds with our traditional idea of leadership.

When we think of an ideal leader, we often conjure the image of a confident, assertive individual who is not afraid to make decisions and lay down a clear direction. Because of this perception, openness to new ideas, approaches, or suggestions by others is an increasingly overlooked and underrated skill.

Now more than ever we need to prepare our organisations for multiple possible futures.

Therefore, open-mindedness is the quality that we need to cultivate. It allows us to entertain various ideas, even ones that are contradictory to our initial beliefs, and deliberate them.

Weak signals and early ideas are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear. The skill is in spotting trends and creating a pipeline of exploration that allows to you to accelerate ideas from nascent, vague concepts into prototypes, tests and ultimately, products or services.

Future ready organisations will be the ones that maintain an inquisitive and outward-looking nature, searching for new influences that challenge all that they do. In a world of high frequency change and complex problems it’s time to start rewarding people for their learning rather than just their performance.

There’s a business case for being curious and not believing the same things you did yesterday.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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