Interesting discussion @thecubelondon yesterday on culture & innovation

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I try to avoid focussing on the word ‘innovation’ these days because it means too much and too little at the same time. In effect it’s become meaningless.

Yesterday I went to a workshop at The Cube that sought to answer the question ‘how do we create a culture of innovation?’, where innovation wasn’t so much the focus as culture was. Being familiar with enough companies that claim to be pro-innovation but in reality are anything but (read Bud Caddell on why he left advertising if you want more), I was there to see if any light could really be shed on the subject.

Alastair Dryburgh spoke about how we should ban the word ‘culture’ because it indicates that without certain prerequisites innovation cannot happen. What we should discuss are our habits and beliefs and which ones we need to change for maximum impact with minimum input. Forget the issue of creating a ‘culture’ of innovation. He also spoke about the huge role failure has to play in innovation; ‘the secret to being innovative is to get better at failing’. It’s how VC’s work: if 1 out of 10 investments becomes the next Facebook and is big enough to cover the cost of the other 9, that’s good enough for them. I know this is a very simplistic way of looking at things but it’s true. The final condition he mentioned as being important for enabling innovation is the ability to move fast even without knowing everything. He spoke about the Barclays mobile app and how CEO Antony Jenkins pushed back at his IT people who said it would take 2 years to build, by saying they had 180 days, with the good news being that it didn’t need to be perfect – just 60% of an ideal product. They could finish the rest based on customer feedback, which is what they did.

Bostjan Makarovic, a policy and regulation consultant, came at the question from a systems perspective. He was very philosophical and mentioned that life is self-referential. When a company is presented with a new proposition, it looks back into itself to assess if it is something that makes sense for them – that’s just the way things are. Companies exist to reduce transaction costs in the market, it’s their reason for being, and they are not wired to accept a cost without understanding the benefit immediately. Anyone who has worked agency side trying to deliver innovation to clients will be familiar with this behaviour. Dr. Makarovic went on to say that any innovation-oriented proposal presented to such companies will be perceived as noise. You cannot create change when you are seen as a troublemaker or cage rattler. Point being: if a company isn’t open to it, you can’t help them. They need to understand that you can create business-impacting change without tagging the project on to the rest of the business. He spoke about a company where a couple of consultants created a side project because they weren’t encouraged to work on it during office hours. That side project then started being used by the whole company and 10 years later was sold – by that very company that the consultants worked for – for $200 million.

Araceli Camargo who is studying innovation from a neuroscience perspective and is the founder of The Cube had an interesting point of view to add: the brain can be both interconnected and modular at the same time. The problem with most corporations is that they try to apply macro rules to a micro situation. They need to get used to splitting the two out because it is possible. The discussion then went on to how, as with most apps today for example, a lot of people are creating answers to problems that don’t exist. We’ve heard this before but it was a good reminder: ‘what problem am I trying to solve’ is the question to start with.

Ben Byford, technologist, spoke about how tools can impact innovation. Reaching for the right tool can make your innovation better, but crucially it also needs to be usable by the majority of people. There is a huge education piece when it comes to technology.

The discussion in this section touched upon the question of whether the use of technology was about power, and how innovation was about empowering people. Someone who works with the NHS in innovation spoke about how typically we like to employ people like ourselves, which means less diversity, and therefore less innovation. From an innovation perspective it looks like herd behaviour therefore is not conducive. In my experience this is true: think of common brainstorming techniques like sticking dots on post-its with ideas you think are good during a brainstorm. If you think about it the dots all start aggregating.

Ben ended by saying that technology isn’t magic (sorry Arthur C. Clarke). The use of technology needs to be taught, or the barriers to its use will be too huge.

The evening concluded with a talk by Niall McDonagh, management educator, who spoke about the behaviours needed in leaders to encourage innovation. He referred to Clayton Christensen (‘if we can change our behaviour, we can change our creative impact’) and made a point that stood out to me: innovative leaders tend to ask more questions. They also observe, network with people outside of their usual circles and are therefore better at making useful associations – and encouraging these associations as well.

There was definitely a lot in there when it came to culture and innovation. Definitely food for thought.

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