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.

The People Vs The System – and Why The People Rarely Win

What if we overstate the effect of the people in our organisations, and we spend too much time addressing what they feel and think without addressing the more complex, systemic problems that influence how they perform or behave?

The supposition is prevalent the world over that there would be no problems in production or in service if only our workers would do their jobs as they were taught. Pleasant dreams. The workers are handicapped by the system and the system belongs to the management

W.Edwards Deming

‘It’s all about the people. Our culture. Our values’.

This is a common cry from companies everywhere – proudly announcing to the world that they only hire the best. Come and work for us and we’ll let you make a difference.

It’s seemingly a meritocracy then. The best companies simply recruit better, more motivated people. So we should be able to solve problems like the NHS , for example, just through better recruitment and retention policies?

There’s an elephant in the room here: what if we overstate the effect of the people in our organisations, and we spend too much time addressing what they feel and think without addressing the more complex, systemic issues that influence how they perform or behave?

According to W.Edwards Deming 95% of variation in the performance of a system (or your organisation) is caused by the system itself and only 5% is caused by the people. This is also known as Deming’s 95/5 rule.

Deming’s point , outlined in his famous Red Bead Experiment, was that in most processes any effect that the individual may have is swamped by the system they are a part of, in fact the variability they cause is just part of that system overall. As management owns the system, the workers themselves have little influence over the outcomes. When it comes to people vs the system, the system always wins.

In his book Beyond Command and Control, John Seddon states the change HR – or any people function – needs to make is obvious. “It needs to work on the 95% of the system that governs performance, not the 5% that doesn’t.” The starting place for these functions is after the systems have been redesigned. In practice, the typical HR function spends most of its time dealing with the fallout of performance failure, or training people for a battle they can’t possibly win.

One of the best posts I’ve read this week comes from Steve Blank, who tells of his frustration in attending an “innovation hero” award ceremony. His point is that rewarding people for ‘innovation’ and how they have battled against the system is actually just perpetuating the conditions in the system that prevent innovation. “The emphasis is on process, procedures, and sustainment of existing systems. Deviations from that which create chaos and diverge from the predetermined are not welcomed, let alone promoted, and funded. They are eliminated.”  Smart organisations recognise that people must be empowered to change the system – and instead of managers of process you need innovation leaders who shepherd ideas through an innovation pipeline.

I don’t 100% buy into the Deming rule – let’s remember that in his world he was talking from the perspective of a tightly controlled factory floor, assembling products. I don’t challenge the idea that the system affects performance, or that we pay too much attention to people problems. However, anyone who has worked in an organisation that has experienced a profound change in personnel has seen the disruptive effects (positive and negative) that people can have. They influence things way more than 5%.

For most of us our work is inseparably connected with the people who operate within the system. You can change a single person and suddenly the rules of the game have changed and everyone else operates in a different context. The same system maybe, but in a very different context.

However, overall this is why one-size-fits-all transformation approaches don’t work, and for good reason. Transformation measures need to be carefully calibrated to the complexity of different areas of the organisation. More attention needs to paid to complex systems and how they fit within the overall organisational design.

Many managers though don’t want to go here – it’s too much like hard work. It’s genuinely easier to focus on ‘leaderism initiatives’ and management BS than it is to change the system.

I contend that the root cause of a lot of this is short-termism. Of Boards and Execs are often focussed on backward looking performance metrics rather than sustainable goals that may take years to realise. Larger scale change dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.

Will our organisations ever focus on genuine system change? The Net Zero and wider sustainability agenda might bring with it a shift to longer term thinking – of looking at change over a period of years , or even decades. To bring about these sorts of changes requires whole system change.

Whole system change is based on whole systems thinking, that the parts of a system are all connected and, therefore, influence each other. Rewiring this requires a commitment that few will be willing to make.

We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. 

The world is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

We have an opportunity to be more different, more memorable and make more change than we ever have.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?


Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

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

Death By Zoom: Have We Failed The Mass Home Working Experiment?

One of the few positives of the pandemic lockdown was the opportunity to reset the way in which we spend our working day.

This was the chance to prove that remote work actually works.

As someone whose job it is to run workplace experiments I’d say six or seven weeks is a very good point to get an initial idea of how we are doing. Our experience at Bromford Lab has shown us that if we don’t reflect on the learnings and remove the pain points within the first three months, the experiment will very likely fail.

This mass remote work experiment is something very different though – it’s not some small safe to fail venture. With billions of people across the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting the largest social, workplace and psychological experiment ever – all at the same time.

With so many alien factors that’s not a good basis for any considered evaluation, so we may not get a sense of what’s truly worked for some time. People’s productivity for example will be influenced substantially by the psychological impact of lockdown. The Lancet has reported that people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.  Where parents are quarantined with children, the mental health toll becomes even steeper.

Therefore it is vitally important to understand that this isn’t a remote work experiment, it’s an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of the most basic of our civil liberties.

That said , there is still a lot of learning to be had and luckily for us we have access to social networks where people are blogging their experiences, contributing to articles and giving us a treasure trove of anecdotal evidence.

The-phases-of-disaster-response-Image-When-disaster-strikes-Beverly-Raphael-1986-
The phases of disaster response
When disaster strikes, Beverly Raphael, 1986

It appears that after the initial optimism about remote working (arguably the ‘honeymoon period’ in terms of disaster response) people’s experience now seems to be decidedly mixed. We are possibly entering our ‘disillusionment phase’ as we yearn for a return to normal – despite the fact we never really liked normal in the first place.

The Positives

People are already valuing the loss of commuting time with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that 1 in 4 people said they plan to work from home more,  saving on travel time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance.

There’s been a major boost for video-conferencing, too. As many as 67% of people said they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer we have a lockdown the more people who haven’t previously used such tools will get used to them. The longer people spend not commuting and spending their money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to return to it.

The Negatives

Lockdown should have given us the opportunity to design our own unique workday.

It’s been well established that an enforced 9-5 saps our creativity and harms our productivity. One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.

This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm.  Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

Working from home for long periods is the ideal opportunity to sync your worklife with your circadian rhythm.  However , anecdotal evidence seems to show that many employers haven’t allowed people to fully explore this.

Instead it’s only taken six weeks to replace meetings with even more meetings.

Technology has made it easy to hijack any available minute of someones time in just a few clicks. Organising a physical meeting is a complex activity – the logistics of finding everyone in the same place is especially painful.

However a fully virtual meeting can happen today at 5pm, as it’s not as if anyone is driving anywhere anymore.

Instant availability allows meetings to breed like rabbits taking over our calendar’s. Strict checks and balances – a sort of virtual distancing – need to be in place to ensure that our new workdays don’t just become a succession of Skypes and Zooms.

There are a lot of advantages to online meetings, but as Steve Blank has said, none of the current generation of apps capture the complexity of human interaction. The technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Indeed “every one of these video applications has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.”

We’ve already got a new term ‘Zoom fatigue’ that recognises that video conferencing  leaves us with “a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.” Whilst perceiving subtle social cues takes little conscious effort in person, virtual interactions can be exhausting.

As Marissa Shuffler explains, if we are physically on camera we are very aware of being watched. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” Focusing on people’s faces, their bookcases, cats and home decor results in a sensory overload that makes us miss the the natural social cues that guide us in the real world.

So – the much maligned office actually did have something going for it. It actually restricted meetings on demand.

As Catherine Nixey writes in a must read piece – there’s one reason and one reason only that people miss the office: other people.

Skype, Zoom et al simply can’t replicate the social experience of chance encounters and just the experience of talking unguarded with our fellow humans.

“Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing.”

It’s this conundrum that organisations must wrestle with in the coming months. The knee-jerk reaction would be to rid ourselves of offices. However, we could be storing up a huge problem down the tracks when it comes to social isolation and wellbeing.

We need to aim at least for a way of working that is more intimate, that embodies a sense of belonging and whose mainstay is quality focused time rather than being locked to a screen staring at a grid of faces.

We haven’t yet failed the remote working experiment.

However there are clear warning signs that we cannot allow technology to make it even easier for us just to be busier. New problems will emerge post-pandemic that require focussed, deep and productive work. Curtailing our nascent love affair with video conferencing is necessary – perhaps even requiring us to limit our screen time to a couple of hours each day.

The experiments we need to start – sooner rather than later – need to capture the best of home working (zero commute, flexibility, time spent locally) with the best of the office (random human connection, physical chemistry).

Anything less and we risk just swapping one dysfunctional model for another.


 

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

How To Avoid Innovation Theatre

Consistent investment, dedicated teams, proper evidencing of decisions, alignment with strategy. A simple but critical recipe for innovation in future-ready organisations – Tom Cheesewright

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is“How do you define innovation?”

This week I’ve been asked it several times so here’s a short post to recap my thoughts.

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. The mistake a lot of people are making at the moment, and hence the overuse of the word, is that they are forgetting two things:

  1. Creativity is not innovation.
  2. Continuous improvement is not innovation.

Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

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

That’s not innovation. That’s what Steve Blank termed innovation theatre. Just for show, with no real outcome.

Innovation theatre can be of value as it can excite people and show them the possibilities. It’s fun, and fun is important. Let’s not confuse it with innovation though.

pasted image 0Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

Innovation Slide

To be innovative, we need to be good at both idea generation and idea execution.

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

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

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

Six ways to avoid innovation theatre

  • Have a consistent way to define and measure innovation, so that it’s unambiguous in your company
  • Look for good problems rather than great ideas
  • Periodically assess the areas of your business so that you know where each stands in terms of innovation capability and capacity
  • Get senior leaders to identify and sponsor specific initiatives designed to address the key problems
  • Assemble smalls teams to work on the challenges. Use disciplined protocols to help these teams succeed.
  • Document, and track progress and share progress internally and externally

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

Innovation mostly requires a little curiosity and a lot of persistence.


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the cool graphic

We Need To Be Boringly Reliable and Radically Disruptive – At The Same Time

Our organisations are generally bad at innovation. That’s because they are designed that way.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any foreign antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

Purposeful thinking – especially thinking differently – isn’t always rewarded.  Middle managers blocking innovative ‘ideas’ are simply doing their jobs and protecting operational performance. You don’t mess with success.

As Steve Blank has pointed out – there’s no point trying to act like a startup when you’re no longer a startup. 

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

To truly transform organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously.

We need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time.

What often happens is organisations confuse these two things – innovation and business as usual. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies often need to exist in both worlds—innovation and production simultaneously – and that’s hard to do.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (4)

At Bromford – we see the connection between these, but also the value in keeping them at arm’s length. We’ve just completed discovery sessions designed and facilitated to support radical ideas around the ‘how might we’ questions that make up our current exploration pipeline.

In many organisations, these promising ideas often fail because they can’t cross the barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.

The system we designed is essentially that:

  • A space to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisation’s overall strategy.
  • Bringing people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before.
  • Nurturing bright ideas and ensuring they solve the problems that matter.
  • Acting as a conduit with organisations, individuals and ideas outside Bromford – and as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into Bromford in a safe and controlled way.
  • Using a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions, and not talk ourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex

This means casting the net wide and sometimes pursuing dead ends.

Organisations design pipelines of exploration to get narrower and narrower. They want to dismiss ideas quickly that don’t fit the norm. Working in this way means your organisation is being slowly disabled and will become less skilled at handling different, more challenging thinking.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (9)

Over the course of our Discovery Sessions, we welcomed over 45 colleagues into the Lab from very different service areas. All sessions were shared across social media and drew further contribution internally and externally.

This approach to working out loud is deliberate. The history of innovation reveals that great breakthroughs almost always emerge from the coming together of disparate insights.

Most of us have grown up at work with the belief that we shouldn’t share things.

  • Don’t share things as someone will steal your ideas.
  • What if we want to sell this?
  • That’s not been approved — it isn’t ready to share
  • Sharing things will just worry people unnecessarily
  • Don’t tell people — we don’t wash our dirty linen in public

The work you see outside Bromford – is exactly the same as you see inside Bromford.

The truth is most of our current challenges can’t be solved alone. The starting point is to build a network with people that can help us nurture ideas into reality.

Openly sharing work has an additional benefit. It mitigates the fear of change as you are working transparently. It gets colleague buy-in as you actively draw volunteers to take part in tests and further exploration.

It’s this that helps people understand the difference between innovation and business as usual.

In the exploration phase, failure isn’t just tolerated, it’s anticipated.

And if you’ve done your exploration in the right way, and effectively supported the transition into reality – things won’t fail when they matter.

Too often we see people put the emphasis on the creative phase.

You hold meetings in a brainstorming room, you sit on beanbags, you wear De Bono’s thinking hats. You have a lot of post-it notes.  

That’s not innovation.

That’s innovation theatre.

Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea (actually making it happen)
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

To achieve this we must learn to live simultaneously with the values of innovation and production, knowing when to bring them together, and when to keep them apart.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (5)


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the images

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