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Innovation, Innovation, Innovation...

...that's what you need

Sat Sep 21 20:30:23 2013

This week I attended the 'Innovation for Everyone' masterclass held at Lancaster University and hosted by Lancaster University Management School (LUMS). The talk was presented by Mark Freel who teaches at the University of Ottawa and Lancaster University, I should also point out that he is the 'RBC professor for the commercialization of Innovation' - a fact he was obliged to tell us to great interest.(1) Truth be told he is I believe contractually obliged to mention his title and I shouldn't dwell on it for too long, well no longer than this anyway (does anyone think I need to say a few more words about it?).

Lancaster Social Network

An overall synopsis of the lecture was to explore the theme of innovation with a particular emphasis for business. The University had this to say:

>This talk is concerned with approaches to innovation that provide the foundation for identifying and creating value. Businesses are warned that “not to innovate is to die”. Dramatic changes in product or production technologies promise great returns to customers, producers and societies. However, they can also be costly, high-risk strategies. Professor Mark Freel will provide an insight into how ‘new value’ can be an alternative or complimentary innovation within business. He will be discussing the understanding the nature of value: what it is, what it’s worth and who defines it.

Mark has had a great deal of experience in studying and teaching business courses and has a particular passion for looking at innovation. was a lot of interesting themes that Mark explored and his approach was very engaging. It was clear that he was an expert in the firld as he was relaxed and fluid in his presenting.

I am glad that I decided to take my iPad and make notes of the lecture. I am also glad that I sat in the second row, reserved for hecklers, as that meant I was close enough to get eye contact and make comments.(2) There is sometimes a stilted nature to these events, people gather who don't know each other very well. Some of them may not have attended academic lectures for some time, added to that the people from business will be familiar with formal lectures where discourse is discouraged.

My approach these days is to be more relaxed in lectures, and sometimes more conversant. The speaker will indicate if he needs to move on if they are confident enough, and if they are not you can usually determine that and adjust your behavior appropriately.

Enough about that however and lets move on where we look at one of the central themes. I should note that these are taken from the lecture notes I made and I have added my own personal interpretation and reflections. Where I have quoted the speaker directly I have tried to do so with block quotation or quotation marks. This is not his lecture, it isn't even a pale reflection. It is my take on what I learned.

That said, I should take no reward as it was a great talk and any value that is gained from this is a reflection of the quality of the original.

To innovate or not to innovate, that is the sort of question...

The first part of the lecture was focused on the nature of why we innovate and what it means when people innovate or don't innovate. Something that impressed me was that Mark didn't attribute the standard:

> Not to Innovate is to Die (Chris Friedman)

as being the most appropriate thing to do. In fact he was a little cautionary.

He identified that there is a classic understanding of two types of company:

  • Those who innovate: who are seen to do better than;

  • Those who don't innovate, who can stay stable, make small gains or stagnate and recede.

However this is not the whole picture, there are in fact three types of company:

  • Those who innovate well, who do a lot better than;

  • Those who do not innovate, who may do well, may not, or may stagnate, who do better than;

  • Those who innovate badly. They are the ones who tend to fail.

Those companies that don't innovate do tend to perform less well than those who innovate well. However the companies that innovate badly tend to do much worse than those who do not innovate at all. Innovation can be a strong factor in growth but it is important not to base the whole of your strategy or business plans upon one innovation.

> Non-innovators, those who innovate badly, tend to die

A good example of a pair of companies that have innovated badly can be seen in the hard to sell area of personal electric transportation. The very first example of this was the C5, and a 90s follow up was the Segway.(3) The C5 died a slow and painful death in the 1980s taking an entire company and the spirit it felt of British idealism with it, the Segway has survived only because of a limited niche market and a bunch of chilled out hipsters. The C5 was the nail in the coffin for Sinclair.

The Sinclair C5 with Clive Sinclair sat inside, the last nail in the coffin for Sinclair as a company

The Sinclair C5 with Clive Sinclair sat inside, the last nail in the coffin for Sinclair as a company

This shows that not only was the market judged badly, but the company made a very bad decision to base their entire business plan on the success of a single product. As the C5 was left to gather dust and be a painful memory of British entrepreneurship the company was taken to pieces with elements that were successful (the computer arm) being merged rather forlornly into Amstrad and it's chief office, Sir Clive, needing to re-image himself and move on.

> innovators out perform non-innovators but this affects performance and stability

Narrow Themes

When people look at, or think about innovation, or when they themselves try to work out how they can be innovative, they fall into a trap. That trap is narrow themes. Innovation can appear to have some really narrow themes, limited ways of being understood.

The first is a mistake that is commonly held that innovation is somehow linked to a mechanical or technical thrust. This is perhaps baked into our mindset, we are spoon fed the notion of innovators as scientists or engineers pushing the envelope of what is known or understood. They are rarely seen as the ordinary person, the man who decides that a small triangle of plastic will keep the pizza lid from touching the pizza, keeping the food fresher and better presented and allowing the boxes of fresh food to be stacked higher.

Aside from the physical aspects, innovation doesn't have to be physical. Innovation can be social, or it can be a structural change in an organisation, it can be a shift in administration or marketing. Innovation is a shift, a dynamic movement, it is not linked to a single discipline.

A list of some of the narrow themes includes:

  1. Invention is central to innovation. This is particularly true when we look at innovation in a technical sense. However a lot of invention is in fact copying and borrowing. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and that isn't a bad thing. There is a lot of value to be gained in not being the absolute first person to do something.

  2. Innovation is new technologies. See above. There are very few absolutely new technologies, we mostly just work existing technology in a new way.

  3. Innovation involves substantial changes. No, it really doesn't have to, sometimes the smallest change can be massively important and innovative for an organisation.

  4. Markets are uncertain. They can be, but generally they have pretty determinable factors, don't be scared of being creative.

  5. Failure is common. If you simply innovate from new technology, if you only look for brand new, then failure is going to be a companion. But it doesn't have to be. look for more sustainable ways to innovate.

  6. A high risk = high reward. Nope. Sometimes you spend a lot for a very small reward as you totally misjudged the value of what you were creating.

  7. Innovation is about solving problems. Innovation can be about solving problems. However sometimes we innovate because we can. We innovate because it is a new idea, a different approach and it may not solve a problem. You can create a need for something. There was no problem that video games solved. It wasn't as if children were sat doing nothing before they came about. They simply presented a different way of being entertained. It was innovative, it created a vast new field of entertainment. It didn't really solve a problem, in many ways it created a whole bunch of its own.

So it is good to look at what the narrow themes that we normally see innovation locked within and to not be limited by them when we ourselves seek to be innovative in a good way.

That is where I am going to end this current post. I will likely write my next post on some more of the themes Mark explored such as the goal of business and a metric for understanding that.

(1) Okay maybe that was a tad too sarcastic.

(2) Because, you know, I am normally so quiet when I sit anywhere else.

(3) The Segway was originally recalled at great expense to its originators as there was a fault with the braking. To this day aside from the usage in tours and at some large companies and government organisations the Segway remains a rarely viewed item.