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.

Changes in the business environment and how they affect you

I was asked the other day how trends in the business environment are affecting managers. Where to start …

Business complexity is increasing exponentially, so understanding the big picture and using systems thinking are becoming more important. Risks are increasing, too, so you need to know how to build a sound risk culture to protect your organisation and its assets. And the pace of change is quickening.

Each of these three factors mean that you won’t–you can’t–always know the answer. Many problems you face and will face are new and many are unpredictable. You probably can’t do what you’ve always done, or even what you did before in a similar situation that worked, because so much will have changed in the meantime.

This means you need to be good at problem solving and coming up with unique and unexpected solutions to problems and situations, ways to meet customer demands, and ways to respond to a changing marketplace. This has three implications:

  1. You need to know how to ask the right questions, questions that help you explore and analyse situations.
  2. You need to know how to apply the scientific method and use data so you can get a good grip on situations.
  3. Learning to think in scenarios is probably a good idea.

New and disruptive business models, share price volatility and diminishing corporate profits may all put your organisation at risk. Therefore, you want to protect your career and see yourself as ‘Me Inc’:

  1. Develop solid, wide and deep networks.
  2. Build a professional image (on social media, with your professional bodies and networks, in your organisation, with suppliers and customers, etc.).
  3. Keep your skill base up-to-date.
  4. Broaden your experience base.

Organisations are likely to increasingly move to capabilities-based competition: creating value and competitive advantage through capabilities in processes rather than through capable functions. We’re likely to see more strategic alliances, too: collaborating with non-competitor organisations to combine strengths to produce a better product or service. And the supply chain is becoming more important.

These three factors mean:

  1. Big picture and systems thinking is important. Get in the habit of considering the upstream and downstream implications of every your action and decision.
  2. You’re likely to find yourself working in cross-functional teams, so hone your people and team-working skills.

Cheap wages are moving from China to Cambodia, Eastern Europe and South America. This means you can benefit from polishing your cultural intelligence, learning about other cultures and learning to work, virtually and actually, with people from other cultures.

Employees and the way they work are changing. Baby Boomers are moving out, Generations X and Y are taking over and Generation Z is entering the workforce, making it age-diverse as well as culturally-diverse and life-style diverse. People’s motivations for working, what they want from work and how they work are vastly more diverse than was the case even 10 or 15 years ago.

The changing workforce means we’re seeing more team-working, more flexible working and more virtual working. Jobs themselves are changing: we’re seeing more cross-functional team work, as mentioned above, more projects and more fixed-term contracts. We’re seeing roles, more than jobs–roles are looser and more open, not as prescribed and rigid as jobs.

This means the way you lead and manage people is changing. Here’s what I think is really important:

  • skilful leadership
  • skilful communication
  • engaging with team members in terms of motivating and coaching
  • flexibility in your management and leadership style
  • clear, logical thinking informed by an understanding of the big picture issues of the environment you’re operating in externally and internally.

Since industry isn’t spending a lot of time and money on learning and development, you’re probably left to your own devices to keep upgrading your skills and knowledge. All while being, no doubt, mind-bogglingly busy in your day-to-day role. A big ask.

This means applying the learning cycle is a good idea, lest you get caught up on the treadmill and fail to improve yourself, your performance or your work procedures.

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.)

Diamonds from the sky

Carbon nanofibres. Extremely tiny; submicroscopic, in fact. Extremely strong. Very valuable. But what would you do with them? We’ll come to that in a minute.

Carbon nanofibres can be made using the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change and global warming. Wow, imagine pulling huge chunks, for want of a better term, of this nasty greenhouse gas out of the sky and transforming it into strong and highly useful material. The mind boggles.

‘We calculate that with a physical area less than 10 percent the size of the
Sahara Desert, our process could remove enough CO2
to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the
pre-industrial revolution
within 10 years.’
Stuart Licht, PhD, leader of the George Washington University research team

But wait — there’s more. Carbon nanofibres are really cheap to make — hundreds of times less than the value of the carbon nanofibres produced, a ratio to be more than proud of. The process, developed at George Washington University, uses only a few volts of solar-generated electricity mixed with lots of carbon dioxide. (You can read more about the process here.)

And this is not the future. Scientists can do it now. But back to our earlier question: What do you do with these carbon nanofibres? Well, if you’re into building airplanes, cars or submarines, it keeps them light but strong. Or if consumer products is more your thing, they’re really handy in high-end sports equipment like racing cycles. Or maybe your organisation is in the sustainability industry itself, in which case, you might be interested in using carbon nanofibres in wind turbine blades.

Technology has advanced more in the past 30 years than in the past 2,000, and great leaps forward can bring unexpected and unimagined benefits. We just need to keep thinking and keep innovating.

The power of stories

I’m currently reading Life’s a Pitch by Philip Delves Broughton. In it, he relates a customer service moment of delight. Staying in a hotel in Paris, a young woman ate half her breakfast croissant, wrapped it up and put it in the fridge to eat later, when she returned from a meeting, alas, the croissant was gone. Noticing the message light blinking on her phone, she called reception and was put through to housekeeping. ‘Thank you for calling,’ said the housekeeper. ‘We wanted to know when you returned so we could bring you a fresh croissant. The one you put in the fridge would be dried out by now.’

Pretty impressive. As it happened, the young woman was the daughter of Steve Wynn, the owner of Wynn Resorts, a large and successful chain of casinos and hotels. It resulted in Wynn’s way to engage front-line staff: story telling. It’s based on the truism that only people who want to can give extraordinary levels of service; you can’t force people to and you can’t pay them a bonus to go the extra mile.

Here’s how it works. Before each shift, groups of 12 – 18 front-line employees (maids, bar tenders, croupiers etc) meet with their team leader, who asks ‘Anything interesting happen yesterday?’ One person might mention that a customer dropped her credit card and he picked it up, found her room number and returned it to her; another might mention how she’d helped a guest retrieve a parcel left behind in a shop. All moments of truth that delighted customers and made the employees feel good about their jobs into the bargain.

Each story is published on the company’s intranet and printed and posted on the walls of the back-of-house service areas. Since everyone wants their story on the wall,  everyone keeps their eyes open for ways to help customers out and create a story. According to Steve Wynn:

‘It is pristine, it is simple, it is profoundly effective, and it has changed the history of my enterprise.’

Questions for discussion

Stories can work in any industry, not just hospitality. How can you use storytelling to help your employees provide superlative service and feel good about themselves at the same time?

Intangible Assets

Intangible assets are those things that accountants don’t measure. But some businesses do measure them and improve upon them, and those businesses are richly rewarded.

Christina Boedker, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales’ Australian School of Business recently studied five hard-to-measure intangibles across 78 organisations over several years:

  1. leadership
  2. innovation
  3. employee engagement
  4. customer orientation

Boedker and her research team found that organisations  performing well on those intangibles also have higher levels of productivity and profitability. In fact, the higher-performing firms achieved an average of $40,051 more in profit per full-time employee.

So managing and measuring your intangibles pays off.

Find out more and listen to the audio from The Australian School of Business, UNSW here.

Discussion questions

How well do you manage the intangibles? How do you know? What improvements in the way you manage your intangibles have you made in the last three months?

If you need to better manage the intangibles you’re responsible for, Boedker suggests selecting one intangible and concentrating on measuring and improving that one; then move onto another; then another.

Maverick leadership

Chapter 9 considers various styles of leadership and here’s another: maverick leadership.

According to Dr Elliroma Gardiner from the London School of Economics and Professor Chris Jackson from the University of NSW, these are the creative, daring people whose ideas change their industry and even the world. They’re risk takers and goal-oriented and they can be hard to work with and hard to work for–just ask anyone who worked with the brilliant but difficult Steve Jobs, for example.

These maverick leaders (Sir Richard Branson is another) are also quick decision makers, extroverts and, although low in agreeability, persuasive communicators.

If you have a maverick on your team, give them a bit of leeway to test out their ideas. If you’re a maverick, monitor your behaviour and your effect on others to make life easier for yourself.

Questions for discussion

What other maverick leaders can you think of? What would happen to an organisation with no mavericks in today’s volatile marketplace? What would happen to an organisation with a lot of mavericks?