Innovation Nation

Antibiotics from bread mould, light bulbs, the PC and refrigerators were all scoffed at. The doctor who realised that washing your hands before an operation would prevent spreading infection and keep patients alive was laughed out of town. It takes the same brave soul who first ate an oyster that it takes to innovate. And yet, without innovation, an organisation, society or country withers away.

The government has put national innovation high on its priorities and even set aside $9.7 billion to encourage science, research and innovation. So I thought we’d take a look at how we can all become more innovative and increase our own and the country’s prosperity and productivity.

For the most part, new ideas don’t suddenly pop into our heads, although there’s no doubt that chance favours the prepared mind. Recall Isaac Newton: He observed an apple falling to the ground, or possibly onto his head, and into his mind popped the idea that the earth’s gravity can also attract a larger and further away object (the moon). A sudden realisation, yes, but only after Newton hat spent several years working on the mathematics of how the earth could attract its orbiting moon.

But mostly, new ideas are built on knowledge, applying idea-generating techniques and then refining and applying the best ones.

There are many innovation techniques we can all use to become more innovative in our personal and working lives. One way is to look at a product and figure out how to make it better, faster, more reliable, easier to make or to use, cheaper to make or to use, or safer to make or to use. Or work out how to remove the need for it altogether and replace it with something different. Or how to use it in a completely different way. Or how to combine it with another product to form a brand new product.

You can do the same with a process or a service by examining the steps you go through to make something or offer the service. Work out how to do it better or more quickly, easily, economically, safely or consistently.

Or you can pick a problem and work out how to stop it occurring in the first place or how to deal with it quickly and easily when it does occur. Or you can change the way you frame it and think about it to help you innovate your way out of it. Every problem is an opportunity to innovate.

Another way to innovate is to take the basic concept of an existing product, process or service and apply it to another product, process or service. You can talk to your phone to send message or to phone home. What else could you talk to so it’s easier to operate? Your calculator? Your TV? Your radio? Henry Ford first saw a production line in a meat packaging plant and applied the concept to car making and is credited with ‘inventing’ the assembly line.

Or may be you could combine two products to come up with a brand new product. Combining a camera with a pilotless plane gives you a drone that takes photographs, checks out bush fires, flies along pipelines to spot leaks and potential leaks, and all sorts of other applications.

That’s just a few of the many ways to innovate. The trick is to prepare your mind, get started and make innovation a habit.

How to not lose your job to a computer

Digital disruption seems to be the buzz-word at the moment. Technological leaps are enabling entrepreneurs and innovators to develop new and unexpected business models (think, for example, Airbnb and Uber). The number of jobs at risk of being automated is astounding (up to 5 million by 2030 in Australia alone, according to Australia’s Future Workforce report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia), while other jobs will soon need job holders who know how to work effectively (interface?) with computers.

Artificial intelligence. Automation. Advanced robotics. Digital technology and the Internet of Things. Redefined business models and jobs. Pretty mind-boggling yet, as the Prime Minister would no doubt say, very exciting.

Research by McKinsey & Company indicates that existing technologies can automate 45% of the work done in the UASA and a further 13% can potentially be automated. Australia’s Future Workforce report estimates that nearly 40% of today’s jobs in Australia are at risk of being automated and turned over to computers; worst hit is predicted to be jobs in regional and rural Australia, where more than 60% of jobs are set to be swallowed by computers.

And it isn’t only the routine jobs and tasks technology is set to swallow up. By adapting current technology, computers can take on many of the more predictable tasks of highly-paid knowledge workers such as executives, financial planners, ‘techies’ and doctors.

Mental processes such as remembering and making decisions, can be transferred to computers, microchips and networks. Richard Samson, writing in The Futurist, calls this automation ‘off-peopling’. Electronic intelligence, he says, already does a lot of the mental work that accountants, administrators, bank tellers, corporate planners, farmers, middle managers, product designers, salespeople, secretaries and soldiers used to do.

But there is still work that we can do and enjoy, provided we hone and use our non-programmable ‘hyper-human’ skills like caring, communicating, creating and taking responsibility. And provided we learn to innovate and create – products, processes, business models – it matters not what, as long as it’s viable, we can put those skills to work in jobs that electronic systems can’t perform now or any time soon.

Since computers don’t get bored and let their attention wander, they’re generally better than us in defined, predictable, repetitive and structured work. But we’re better than computers at hyper-human tasks that involve emotions, imagination, sensory perception and social skills and decisions that need intuition as well as logic and fact. These are prized abilities in some workplaces of today and probably most workplaces of the near future.

Many of these jobs are waiting to be created. You can do that by transforming and upgrading your current job so that it really benefits from your human skills. A good place to start is by letting go of last-century thinking about a job as functional activity, since these are the ones automation is taking over.

Use your skills to build relationships with colleagues, customers and suppliers. Stay alert to what’s going on around you so you can notice problems and fix them, find opportunities and work out ways to make the most of them, and prevent mishaps and mistakes.

Honour your commitments. Innovate new and improved ways of working by making tasks and processes easier, cheaper, faster or safer to do, or result in greater reliability or improved quality. Small adjustments here, little tweaks there, all add up to making you an invaluable employee.

Learn to work collaboratively in virtual teams, especially virtual project teams. Or build your skills so you’re indespensible to a process-based team (rather than a functional team).

You can also learn to work in tandem with computers (called ‘augmented intelligence’). Instead of being replaced by a computer, you’re supported by a computer in your analytic, creative and decision-making efforts. The computer supplies the raw data, options and conclusions and you do what the computer can’t – use good judgement to make the final decision. To do that, you need the thinking and judging skills to filter a deluge of information.

Okay, now that you’ve waded your way through the backlog of post-Christmas administration, what is the most important step you can take in the next five days to protect your job and your career from digital disruption and advanced robotics?

(This is longer than usual but hey, it’s important – it’s your future.)

Start the new year off right

Welcome back! I hope you had a wonderful holiday. And I hope you like our new banner; it’s based on the cover of the new edition of Management Theory and Practice.

Now then, here are some words of wisdom to heed as you begin the new year.

‘Besides the noble art of getting things done,
there is a nobler art
of leaving things undone.’

Lin Yutang said that. So before you launch into your usual routine, take a few moments to reflect.

  • What are your challenges for 2016?
  • What problems remain unresolved from 2015? How would resolving them make your working life better?
  • What can you do to help your team be more successful?

If your team functions as a team, or perhaps to help them function better as a team, try opening your next three team meetings with one of these questions:

  • What are our challenges for 2016?
  • What can I do to help you as a team be even more successful this year?
  • What problems linger from last year that we can resolve so we can work more effectively or provide a better service?

Would individual meetings with team members work better? Then you can adapt these questions to open your one-on-one meetings.

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can build working on them into your schedule. Commit to working on at least two every day.  Otherwise, you may find yourself drifting through the year without making any great leaps forward. And that won’t do your team, your organisation or your career much good.

Set yourself up for those great leaps forward by starting the day by completing, or at least making significant progress, on at least one important, value-adding task. Yes, even before you check your emails.

Two all-important three-letter words

There is a three-letter word that creates arguments and another that creates cooperation. The first is ‘but’ and the second is ‘and’. Who would think one small, simple word has the power to damage relationships and spoil conversations, and the other to make them more satisfying and effective?

‘That’s a good effort, but …’                                 ‘That looks fine, but …’
‘You did a good job, but …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, but …’
‘I take your point, but …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, but …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, but …’               ‘That’s one option, but …’

Do you see? When you hear the word ‘but’, you know bad news is coming. The ‘but’ butts away the positive information preceding it. It’s a verbal hammer that signals disagreement.

Are you thinking of substituting ‘but’ with ‘however’? Forget it. ‘However’ is just a three-syllable version of ‘but’ and sends the same signals.

Substitute ‘but’ with ‘and’.

‘That’s a good effort, and …’                                 ‘That looks fine, and …’
‘You did a good job, and …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, and …’
‘I take your point, and …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, and …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and …’               ‘That’s one option, and …’

Hear the difference? ‘But’ blocks.  ‘And’ builds. With ‘and’, you’re working with people, not pushing against them. ‘And’ allows you to offer an improvement suggestion while acknowledging the good job that has been done.

‘That’s a good effort, and something else you could try is …’
‘That looks fine, and one way to enhance it might be to …’
‘You did a good job, and it would be fantastic if you could also …’
‘I can tell you tried, and you’ve made good progress. One thing for next time is …’

‘And’ also shows you’ve listened and heard.  It helps prevent arguments because it allows two points of view to stand and acknowledges and extends what the other person has said.

‘I take your point, and another thing we could consider is …’
‘We’ve received your order, and in order to process it, I just need …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and here’s another way to look at it.’
‘That’s one option, and another might be …’


Substituting ‘but’ with ‘and’ can be a hard habit to break, at least it was for me, but it was well worth it. Communication becomes much more cooperative. It also becomes much more clear without muddying the waters with the mixed message ‘but’ sends.

One more thing: Much of the time, you can simply substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’. But (yes, here’s some slightly bad news) sometimes, you need to reconstruct the sentence and make your point differently. When that happens, the reworded statement is invariably stronger, more cooperative and more effective than the original version. And it’s definitely worth the effort when you want more agreements than arguments.

Five habits that help you excel

Here are five ways that are practically guaranteed to make you stand out and shine at whatever you do:

  1. Mind your body language. Body language links what’s going on in your head and your heart with how you approach tasks and therefore, how easily and fully you achieve your goals. It echoes what you’re feeling and thinking and at the same time, it loops back and steers your thoughts and feelings.Here’s a little experiment that proves it: Sit up tall and straight, shoulders back, hold your head high and put a great big smile on your face. Hold that position and say, ‘I really, really really hate my job.’ You can’t say it with conviction, can you? In fact, I bet you laughed as you struggled to complain.

    When you want to do something well and enjoy doing it, make sure your body language sets you up for success.

  2. Don’t let other people, situations or events dictate your mood or behaviour. Pull your own strings. The more you control your moods, thoughts and actions, the more easily you can achieve more of what you want.
  3. Sow the right seeds to harvest the results you want. Show the way for others to follow. One of the most important seeds to sow, for example, is to treat yourself and other people with respect. This is one of the cornerstones of success.
  4. Fake it ’till you make it. It’s what you say and do that generate results.Remember that tale about Robert the Bruce? He’s in the dark, damp dungeon with nothing to do but watch a spider try to climb high enough up the moldy, slippery wall to build a web, only to slip back. That little spider never gave up, hence the expression, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s excellent advice, provided you do something different; when you keep doing the same things, you keep getting the same results.

    What should you do when you do this ‘something else’? That’s where faking it comes in. When you don’t know what to do, fake it. Keep trying out different approaches until you find one that works. That’s pretty much the process Thomas Edison used when he was busy inventing all sorts of things from the electric light bulb to the phonograph. And it seemed to work for him, because he invented something every 10 days on average, and applied for 400 patents a year.

  5. Act as if. William James, often referred to as the ‘father of psychology’, taught us the act as if principle. He said, ‘Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does’. He also said, ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it’. Two great ways to achieve great results.There is a third way to use the act as if principle: When you don’t know what to say or do in a situation, think of someone you know or know of who would know exactly the right thing to do or say. Step mentally into their shoes and act as if you’re them. This starts you moving in the right direction and might even produce the precise result you’re after. And next time you’re in a similar situation, you’ll know what do do, because you’ve done it before.

Add these five ways of thinking and behaving to your repertoire and maybe hand out sunglasses to those around you. They’ll need them because you’ll be shining so brightly!

What do you believe knowledge is?

I had a good clean out of my files the other day and came across a relatively old (1997), but interesting and still relevant research paper by Barbara Hofer and Paul Pintrich. It explains how our beliefs about what knowledge is affects how deeply and effectively we are able to learn.

Where does knowledge lie for you in each of these three continuums?

  1. Knowledge is made up of separate, clear facts; or Knowledge is made up of interrelated, complex concepts.
  2. Knowledge is absolute: right or wrong, true or false; or Knowledge is continually evolving and therefore uncertain.
  3. Knowledge is provided by experts; or Knowledge can be created through our own thought processes.

When your beliefs about knowledge fall on the right of those three continuums, you are able to learn more effectively than when your beliefs about knowledge cluster to the left of those continuums. Here’s why:

  1. Believing that knowledge is simple leads to simple learning strategies. You think you’ve learned something, for example, when you can remember it. When you believe knowledge is complex, you know you know it only when you can organise it, explain it to others and put it to work for you. The first belief means you stop studying when you’ve memorised the material while the second means you keep studying until you understand it.
  2. Believing that knowledge is certain leads to sweeping generalisations and absolute and fallacious thinking; using words like ‘never’ and ‘always’, for example, are signs of poor thinking based on the belief that knowledge is absolute. On the other hand, believing that knowledge is uncertain and evolving enables you to hold contradictory conclusions and ideas in your mind, think them through, and develop your own opinions based on your judgement and experience.
  3. Believing that knowledge is something handed down by experts leads to accepting what is said or written rather than thinking it through critically. Believing that knowledge comes from thinking and reflecting, experimenting, testing and assessing means that you can develop arguments and counterarguments more readily and you can accept that while experts have specialist knowledge, they aren’t always right about everything. (My post, How to get top marks on your essays, can help you develop arguments and counterarguments.)

Fortunately, we know that we can change our beliefs, or mindsets, so you may want to take a moment and think about how well your beliefs about knowledge are serving you and what you can do to alter them in order to learn more easily:

  • What do you know about your own beliefs about knowledge?
  • How do you know that’s what you believe?
  • Do you understand enough about the implications about your beliefs about the nature of knowledge?

Here are three ideas that may help you expand the way you think about knowledge so you can better understand the world around you and be a more effective learner and manager:

  • The next time something doesn’t happen as you expect it to, rather than write it off as an ‘exception to the rule’ or sweep it under the carpet, try examining it in order to find out more. That  adds to your store of knowledge and helps you understand how things really work.
  • When confronted with a ‘fact’, either one of your own beliefs or a statement made by someone else, ask yourself Why it is true? Why may it not be true? Thinking that something is true because ‘everyone says so’ or because there is no way to prove otherwise are fallacious arguments and the result of simplistic thinking. Dig deeper. Try to relate this ‘fact’ to other things you know; think about it in terms of the strategic perspective, or big picture, rather than the detail, for example.
  • To make sure you’ve really grasped a concept, theory or approach, explain it to yourself in your own words; then explain it as you would to a seven-year old; then explain it as you would to your parents.

By thinking about how we think, we can all learn to be more effective thinkers and more effective learners.

What to do when you have too much to do

Rush, rush, rush. Busy, busy, busy. But being busy isn’t the point. Moving towards your goals and living your values is the point. And how do you attain that sought-after but often elusive state of affairs?

First, you need to know what you value most. Straight away, that tells you what activities to tackle–those that are in line with your values, and what activities to drop–those that don’t mesh with your values.

Then you need to know your goals. You know what your work goals are (and if you don’t–better get reading Chapter 11!). But what do you want to achieve in other areas of your life? For instance, as a parent, partner, friend and community member? What do you aspire to regarding your mental and physical health? Concentrating your efforts on only one or two areas of your life makes you lop-sided while being a well-rounded person helps you achieve more in each area of your life.

Once you know what you value most and what you want to achieve in various areas of your life, you’re in a position to concentrate on matters that move you closer to your goals. You can resist taking on a task simply because ‘it’s there’; you can resist doing something purely out of habit; you can resist taking on a task just because someone asks you to do it. You can resist because you can recognise activities that don’t add any value, that don’t move you any closer to your goals.

Then you can try to work on at least one value-adding activity in each facet of your life every day. When demands on your time crop up, you can evaluate them based on your values and goals and choose to do those that move you one step closer to a goal. You can delegate other matters or put them on your calendar to do when it suits you best. You’re in charge.

Break down value-adding activities into smaller, more do-able chunks when you need to. You may not become the perfect parent or an admired manager overnight, but you can do something that moves you towards those goals every day. With consistency comes progress.

That’s how to keep on the move and keep moving in the right direction. That’s how not to be busy, busy, busy but meandering through life with no real purpose.