Kindled Meme

– exploring the purpose of connection


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Bedknobs and Brooms sticks? No Wizards, Stools and Pirates…

The Wizards Stool.

I’m in the middle of doing a series of research interviews at the moment -looking into how SMEs perform open innovation – how they partner with other firms to come up with new solutions that will drive the business forward.

The interviews typically take 45 min but every now and again I get a chance to speak to somebody really amazing who comes up with so many insights that the conversation moves on to be closer to an hour and a half. This is no problem to me – I’m really grateful when people are prepared to give up their time and share their insights. As well as answering my research questions I glean so much wisdom from these people. In Oxfordshire there really are some incredible companies who are doing some great innovation.

A couple weeks ago I got to meet with one such guy who’s been involved with the R&D function of local firm for just over 30 years. As you can imagine, during that time he has built up lots of experience and insights – he’s a real Innovation Wizard. During the interview he told many anecdotes all helping frame the challenges of being innovative in small companies – the art of storytelling is strong with him.

One of the gems he shared with me was how he viewed innovation as a 3 legged stool.

The Wizards Stool

One of the legs he views as the scientific basis of his firm. The roots of this company are in applying chemical processes – mostly in printing. The company has been going for over 150 years and has a strong culture of scientific discovery within the organisation that has driven the innovation that constantly reinvents that firms model.

The second leg of the stool he views as the process and how to they take that core intellectual property to be used and scaled for a commercial offering. And the 3rd leg of the stool he views as the market offering – the deep customer insights that we tap into when we position our solution on the market.

The trick with the stool analogy is in the choices for how you move each of these legs whilst you’re innovating.

This all placed a mental picture in my mind of my 5-year-old son sitting on that stool and how he drives us nuts by swinging back on the legs – rocking back and to. We know one of these day he will “come a cropper’ – but at the same time the image helped me understand what this Wizard was telling me. Its about risk and organisational stability.

Through his eyes he sees that you should only move one or two legs of that stool at any one time. If you move just one leg – innovation changes either the science, the process or the addressable market that you are intending to serve.

If you are comfortable with a little less stability, you can move two legs of the stool at one time – maybe you take a new process that can take you into a new market. Maybe you take on board some new IP and at the same time enter into a nascent market. But the deal is you can’t move all 3 legs at any one time.

It’s a good analogy because we’ve got enough common sense to know you can’t make a stool levitate – we know that we need a least some stability and some point of permanence else you struggle to keep your orientation and to justify how we are still strategically aligned with what the organisation can do today (skills, linkages, reputation and brands).

Pirates and Innovation

Near the start of the year Frank and the guys in Oxford Business First – the networking group – put on a series of events called ‘Practical innovation’.

The idea was to connect a group of people in local business community to think about being innovative and drive growth. On the first event Stuart Miller from Bybox gave his energetic talk about how innovation is at the core of his own company.

Stuart tells a great story and at the heart of it is a discussion on how at Bybox they recruit ‘Pirates’ -people who challenge the status quo and are comfortable exploring new options – stepping outside of existing structures and driving the company forward. Stuart makes people laugh when he tells them how he has the Jolly Roger flag flying outside the front of their offices in Wantage. It’s a great story very engaging and his metaphor is backed up by a recent article capturing Steve jobs walking along the same lines:

“if you’re bright, but you prefer the size and structure and traditions of the navy, go join IBM. If you’re bright and think different and are willing to go for it as part of a special, unified, and unconventional team, become a pirate.”

 

On the first Practical Innovation event Stuart was accompanied by one of his colleagues Indy, when the room asked how is it working in such a tense and highly provocative environment Indy did let slip that sometimes too many pirates can be too much and that you do need some sensibility and calm and a degree of consensus at the midst of all this exploration.

This kind of tension keeps organisations moving and keep the thinking innovative was called Creative Abrasion by Dorothy Leonard-Barton, in an article she wrote back in 1996.’ – and whilst it can be gritty to start with the resulting creativity and innovation justifies any pains.So whilst it great to have pirates on board – it’s fun and explosive – there’s also a degree of discomfort in change and moving forwards and exploring unknown territory.

I think everybody in the room really enjoyed Stuart’s story its great if you frame a journey as an adventure – but one guy in the room that evening asked the question:

“When does innovation go a step too far?”

This is a really good question and I certainly didn’t have a clear answer for this at the time. People talked about it but I don’t think there’s any simple answer.

If you’re working in a large firm maybe it’s just takes a while to get things moving. You could be an ‘Oil Tanker’ and pretty sluggish, and from the inside you know that it’s not worth pushing too much – if there are too many waves of innovation one after the other maybe none of them will stick. Maybe you’ve got to pick fights – after all innovation isn’t just about technology or ideas or new markets it’s actually about embedding change inside the organisation. Change can be hard and so maybe it’s reasonable that innovation can go too far if it is too disorienting in some organisational cultures.

In high-growth SMEs innovation is a very different kettle of fish. Firms are known to be flexible and agile – directly promoting this as their key strength. One of the people I’ve interviewed recently made a big point of this and he emphasises with his team that, whilst they have a clear strategy and a clear purpose and they never take their eye off the customer’s requirements; they can also turn on a dime and they are permitted to explore new avenues. After all why be an SME if you can’t be flexible and aggressive.

But again in this environment innovation could go to far. Too much ambition and to much drive can lead to burnout. It’s definitely the case that people in small businesses have a different ‘gene pool’ to those people that fit comfortably in larger firms – but everybody at some point will get low on energy and feel disoriented from an innovation too far

An Innovation Too Far?

When I heard about the stool story from my Innovation Wizard in Oxfordshire I got thinking how it offered 3 dimensions that might help us view when innovation is too far. Clearly the Wizard didn’t want to move all 3 legs. Change in any of these ‘legs’ brings a degree of risk that needs to be assessed – trying to get all 3 to move at the same time is just one innovation step too far.

I also think the analogy of the stool can be stretched one step further. May be the height of the stool correlates of just how ambitious you’re being. Is the stool too high for people to get on? Have you reached too high and can people still believe in what you’re trying to achieve?

Also stools can be pretty uncomfortable things. You need to take people with you on an innovation journey.Is the change too much? Do you still have the backing of everybody in the company? Are other stakeholders still on board your stool?

Either way – I like the stool – a clear mental picture in our minds and it helps us do some quick sense-making of what is planned and how it fits in with our strategic assets and resources inside the company.

What do you think? Can you make stools levitate? Have you got a neat trick that allows you to climb greater heights? And what’s the secret to making a stool comfortable enough that everybody wants to get on board – and not just smile when you inspire them – but makes them cling on during the full journey of change?

Whats your favourite Innovation and Change metaphor?


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Digital Talent Night in Oxford

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So this week I attended the @OxonDigital event because I’d seen some good content going around on Twitter about it ..and well.. anything around digital is hot right?

It was chance to see whats really going on and catch up wth some tweeps – and it was a great night because the people were friendly and open and enthusiastic. And optimistic too. Its a growing industry and everyone is hiring –  and lets face it Oxford is a pretty cool place to be doing it

As some one who has spent too many years focused on building the internet infrastructure – the backbone, access and datacentres – I’ve long been aware that the value had move to the content – its the apps that really plug into the behaviours that unlock commercial and social value. This stuff done right can make a difference.

The challenge we face

Simons of Ridgeway did a really good pitch about the changes to the climate for digital – with good humility – making fun of his own hair cuts and digital journey over the past decades – to the world of digital natives and the changes to how content will be consumed.

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He covered many of the challenges to delivering this – much echoed the thoughts I’d heard at the Guardian Media Summit. But sitting in a room full of the people that have to ride the back of this tiger, I was drawn to query where the talent was going to come from to build all this. Sure enought it seems its hard to find the right people at this point in time, with Ridgeway opening an office in London to get access to the talent needed (there is a shortage of people locally and the new grads from Brookes arnt up to the task on day 1 – there is a gap.

This is great news for those who are in demand and have the skills – but its bad news for the industry as it clogs up – it cant resource its own leading edge – and then we all get dragged down.

Finding good staff is an issue – a bottleneck and its not the biggest leap to see that the company in the room that has the biggest pools of skills will easily be the one with the highest brightest future growth. There is certainly not a shortage of business to be won – but who can execute?

When hearing this I was thinking of the challenges in the gaming industry – NESTA had talked about this when we went to visit them as a Henley “school trip” last year – there is a report they produced that captures why the UK slipped from being third in gaming to being sixth – and amongst other things talent is an major issue. (Check out a Vimeo Vid on the issues here)

Its pretty tragic that of all the courses that prepare the pipeline of skills for the gaming industry only 9 of them meet a standard that the industy requires. And the places that are getting it right arnt the places you expect – there are innovators in education and they are making a difference – but they are in isolated pockets and in unexpected places! (Check out the Skillset list here)

I wonder if its the same issue for digital content and as in the gaming industry; and I wonder whether its just a local issue – but Im thinking who is really compelling some different thinking between this industry and the work of (now expensive) universities. Have people connected to make a change? Engagement is a two way commitment after all.

The Boom

I saw the same talent crisis happening in my world 10 years ago

I came to Oxford to work in an a start-up ISP and was given a grand title and a seat with a view of a field full of cows. I got to live in Woodstock and make the most of the too many pubs the ‘town’ has.

But we couldnt get staff either then – finding someone with Cisco skills and the ability to write a BGP policy was near impossible, For me it was good times – there was a shortage of my skills and so I was paid well – all fine.

But we needed staff and we had to to grow people – and sometimes they came from unlikely sources – but we did get there in the end with some nurturing.

The NOC manager had once been the company receptionist, and before that she was a hairdresser. The customer service team were made up of ex-chefs and other hospitality types; and the new tech-ops guys had been installation engineers – trained in rigging microwave dishes on masts – but now building connections on Stratacom kit and fiddling with routers. It wasnt the rocket science stuff – but they were needed in the mix.

It wasn’t ideal at the time – if you like mastery and perfection it gives you the shits – but there was no other way. And surprisingly most of the ‘unlikely’ candidates developed to be good techies. I think it was the rock solid attitude and curiosity they had that made the difference.

Most managers are caught up recruiting people in their own image. We are always trying finding a tecnical-warrior that could cope with the ambiguity in a growth storm approaching things with some level of creativity, while also delivering reliably and fitting in with our own style. But in a boomtime we found recruiting was often a false-positive and we had more success growing from within. And unexpectedly – it wasnt that painful.(Or has my memory faded…)

It became less about managing resources but more about nurturing seeds.

Loafer Wisdom

Ive recently become a big fan of  Tony Hsieh – who build Zappo’s over 10 years and did some clever things to grow that business – often hopping from one crisis to the next – taking lessons from his past and always thinking very big.

Tony Hsieh is big on culture – his book is engaging on many levels but building a pipeline of staff is probably one of the great Zappo achievements – I really recommend it to anyone who is looking at resourcing during high growth – he has a very clear view on how to shape it. (It could be the only time Ive seen HR being visionary and delivering a strategic advantage – perhaps I just need to get out more…)

What came over from Tonys story is that talent is an issue that needs bigger thinking than just finding a resource. Zappos have a big commitment to developing from within and succession – backed by protecting their brand through right behaviours and having a culture that was homegrown and authentically theirs. So as well as shipping shoes Zappos became a killer learning and development machine. Its a compelling read.

I think if you are a technology SME this all sounds a bit tricky – all high-growth firms are very market focussed – if you invoice based on delivery – then you will focus on a project-by-project view. But at some point it grows one step too far and there is a time, maybe over a beer, when you ask: Is this all going to scale?

I got thinking about the expression “Build it and they will come” – however in the Digital space it looks like “people have come” and now we’re asking “who is going to build it”

Its a nice problem to have 🙂

James

PS – Just stumbled on this as I press publish –  someone elses view Creative Talent issues here.