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.

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Best practice, or just another fad?

New and innovative management thinking that stands the test of time tends to become the new ‘baseline’ to which all organisations must comply sooner or later in order to remain in the game. Customer service, for example, was once a genuine differentiator of companies but is now expected, and what was once considered ‘great’ customer service is now the baseline. Other new approaches that have significantly effected the way we run organisations and manage people include management by objectives (MBO) and total quality management (TQM). Using ‘big data’ and offering smart, connected products are soon to join such ground-breaking practices.

But wait: in some organisations, MBO, TQM, and other initiatives such as Six Sigma, re-engineering and supply-chain analysis that became successfully embedded in many organisations, were mere ‘flavours of the month’ in others.  How can that be? The answer is clear: Initiatives that are potentially valuable and ground breaking don’t work in organisations that ‘dabble’. Dabblers:

  • don’t bother to train employees properly in the initiative
  • don’t win the commitment of the organisation’s leaders
  • don’t persevere with an initiative long enough to make it part of its culture
  • make them an add-on to peoples’ probably already-demanding workload, so they’re just another ‘chore’
  • don’t allow the initiative to create deep, genuine change to its culture or operations
  • don’t take the initiative seriously enough to measure properly or reward people for coming ‘on board’ with it.

Some best practices work and organisations move on. Once an organisation has re-engineered its operations from ‘go’ to ‘whoa’, for example, it needs to find another ground-breaking way to retain a competitive advantage. Once every organisation is doing it (customer service and TQM, for example) the next iteration of it must be found.

Other initiatives are just plain fads and always will be. Upside-down organisation charts and calling employees ‘associates’ spring to mind here. Oh yes, and ‘There’s no I in Team’. You can recognise fads because they’re simplistic and prescriptive: Do this one thing and watch the magic happen–whatever your industry, the size of your organisation, the nature of your business–no need to adapt it to suit your needs! Fads peddle a one-size-fits-all Answer. They’re filled with big words, jargon, overblown phrases and bumper sticker exhortations and slogans. They do nothing to change the core of an organisation, the way it really operates, interacts with its customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

Fads like these are easy to spot. Leave them alone. When you want to adopt a best practice initiative and ensure it works, don’t dabble.

Systematic sensational customer service

There we were, taking an overseas friend around McLaren Vale and having a great time, eating food and tasting wine. And then it happened. A flat tyre. We phoned the Bob Jane store near our home where we usually go and they suggested we go to a store closer to where we were, in case the tyre could be saved by not driving too far on it. So off we head to Bob Jane, Reynella.

A clean, comfortable waiting room with comfortable chairs, free coffee and clean NEW (not 10-year old, dog-eared) magazines, including many that women would appreciate (i.e. not just Wheels or Body Building!) I eavesdropped as a immaculately-uniformed woman behind the counter explained some quite technical information about ute tyres to another customer, impressed by her product knowledge and clear explanation.

Soon, our car was driven around and a pleasant, clean tyre fitter hopped out and removed the chair cover he’d been sitting on to keep the seat clean. He explained he’d put on the spare tyre. ‘I had to put on the spare tyre because your tyre can’t be fixed. Shame’, he said, ‘it was so clean and new, I hated to do it!  And your other back tyre has just about had it too, so I suggest you think about replacing that at the same time.’

The manager came out with a piece of paper. ‘I’ve written down the tyres I recommend; unfortunately, they need to come from Sydney. I’ve let your local Bob Jane know and they’ll order them in for you and phone you when they’re in, probably in about four days time.’ And how much did we owe him for changing over the tyre? Nothing!

And was our local dealer notified as promised? Absolutely. It was already on his computer five minutes later when we phoned him to confirm the order. And my husband was ‘Mr Cole’ not ‘Mate’.

What a nice experience (and one that impressed our overseas friend no end, too, making me proud to be Australian)!

P.S. That was yesterday. The phone just rang. Our tyres are in!

Discussion questions

Clearly, Bob Jane has some impressive internal procedures and systems to have made that happen so quickly and seamlessly. How well do your internal systems and procedures allow you and your team to dazzle your customers and keep them coming back? What specific elements of this service experience stand out to you? What Moments of Truth did you recognise?

The new employment model – the open-talent economy

‘I think employers are still looking for loyalty, but there’s no reciprocity.’

Professor Michael Quinlan, University of New South Wales

The psychological contract, whereby the employer matches employee loyalty and hard work with loyalty and job security is under assault from globalisation, the global financial crisis and advances in digital technology. Business professionals and other white-collar workers and IT, sales and marketing staff have replaced blue-collar workers as the main victims of corporate restructuring.

As units of human capital, often rated highly as an organisation’s most important asset, shut their office doors behind them never to return, we are switching to an open-talent economy where organisations buy knowledge and services from a global marketplace and existing employees are disposable.

Beleaguered employees who remain after a redundancy often find it difficult to produce the same quality of work as in the past. Questions such as ‘Am I next?’ and ‘How can this happen?’ drag down morale. Often, remaining employees are expected to pick up the work of departed employees, adding to an already high job load.

As permanent full-time jobs continue to give way to an ever-changing workforce comprised of increasing numbers of temporary ‘tour of duty’ jobs, casual workers, contractors and offshore and outsourced ‘hired hands’ and ‘hired brains’, the pressure mounts for employers to find viable ways to engage the best efforts and commitment to the corporate vision and strategy of remaining employees, contractors, casuals and outsourced personnel.

How organisations and employees can best deal with unstable workplaces are questions we need to find answers to in a complex and uncertain employment landscape.

Discussion questions

People in leadership positions are often torn between simple, short-term expediency and following a long-term, morally just vision. What ideas do you have to re-engage employees who survive redundancies in your team? To engage the commitment of temporary and other categories of employees and service providers? What practical steps would you take and in what order to help employees deal with unstable workplaces? How might you ‘tweak’ the operations and procedures at your workplace to deal with a changing and often de-motivated workforce?

Bureaucratic rules hold back productivity

The UK’s Institute of Management’s magazine, The Professional Manager, ran an interesting article by Simon Caulking in the April/May 2012 issue called ‘Rules create bureaucratic limescale’. Caulking quoted Peter Drucker as once saying: ‘So much of management consists of making it hard for people to work’.

I couldn’t agree more. In Chapter 11 of Management Theory and Practice, I explain the five keys that each need to be present in order to achieve high productivity. The fourth key, ‘Chance To’, deals with precisely this: silly rules and cumbersome procedures that prevent people from doing the best job they are able to do.

Drucker’s answer is a periodic ‘spring clean’: a zero-based assessment of everything we and our work teams do. Why do we do this? What (if any) value does it add? What would happen if we didn’t do it?

Rules are meant to be followed unthinkingly, no questions asked, and too many rules in too many organisations are unnecessary and annoying and hold back productivity. They should go. Systems, on the other hand, provided we have a continuous improvement culture in the work team, are there to be improved. So we can keep them, provided we keep tweaking them.

So the rule is: Have as few rules as possible and keep your procedures simple and open to improvement.

Questions for discussion

When was the last time you examined the rules your work team follows to see whether they’re necessary? Do you know which ones most frustrate and annoy your team members?

What about the procedures and systems of work your team members follow? How could they be tweaked so people can do the job more quickly, more cheaply or more easily? How could they be adjusted to get an even better or more reliable result?