Management gurus often use The Art of War (written by Sun Tzu, published 5th Century BC) as an example of Leadership or to extract valuable Leadership lessons. Well are there any ancient texts, or at least people that we can learn from regarding how to be an Innovator?
Well I’m not sure about texts and I’m pretty sure that the word ‘Innovation’ was not around at the time (Hannibal lived 247-182 BC), however Hannibal did some pretty amazing things with the resources that he had available. You can read all about his exploits. Just Google the fellow, but a brief summary of his exploits provides some useful insights for innovators.
First of all Hannibal used an entirely new tool within his marketplace. He had at his disposal a number of highly trained elephants that could strike fear into his enemies (they made an incredible noise and had sharpened tusks) and upon which could be mounted soldiers. In effect these were ancient battle tanks.
Apart from his elephants, Hannibal chose to come at his enemy (competitors) from a completely new and unexpected direction. Although it was cold and very dangerous, he took his army across the Alps and shocked his enemy by ending up in northern Italy without using the normal route. Why not take a leaf out of Hannibal’s book and take a different route to your customers, one that is more direct and more effective than your competitors?
Like most modern businessmen, Hannibal was an astute strategist and tactician. He managed to forge alliances (how much networking do you do?) and manage his supply chain exceedingly well (he supplied his vast armies whilst a long way from home for some considerable time). He also walked the talk, actually leading his armies across the Alps not just directing them from afar.
In summary Hannibal teaches us:
- To develop new products, services and business tools to keep us ahead of the competition
- To find new ways of getting to our customers that might bypass the cometition
- To network effectively
- To roll our sleeves up and get stuck in
Don’t get carried away
We often get excited about Innovation, especially since most of it is fun. Some people can get carried away and forget that the name of the game is to make money. So how can we calculate and improve our return on Innovation? If we do make money then we should be maximising the amount that we do make. This is important both for stakeholders and to reinvest in future enterprises.
One of the major ways that we can improve the return on Innovation is to make sure that we have possible patents in mind during our research and prototyping phases. Do not leave this any later as IP that is in the public domain cannot be patented.
Don’t leave IP until last
Innovation teams are often isolated from a company’s patent ‘machine’. This can mean that innovation processes can move forward with little or no consideration of whether competitors can copy the resulting products. The innovation process itself is fairly well protected since what is kept in the heads of employees is hard to copy. The resulting ‘innovations’ can be somewhat easier to copy. They may not be a direct copy but they will result in customers going elsewhere to buy cheap imitations. If the IP contained is not patented then there are two major issues to consider:
- Competitors may simply work out how we have created a product and then copy it, reducing its value to us
- For high value items such as pharmaceuticals we lose the ability to licence products and hence generate revenue if we do not wish to take them to market./
Companies may then not attain expected returns because competitors can legally copy the innovation—be it a product, technology or otherwise—without incurring legal penalties.
Patents are not always necessary
It is not always necessary to protect innovation outputs with patents e.g if a product has a short shelf-life or where the company may desire to protect technology by treating it as a trade secret. However, for innovation programmes where business strategy assumes exclusivity, companies must usually seek patent protection.
Also, the absence of a function that provides patent expertise may mean that innovations are not properly audited for risks of potential patent infringement or other IP protection infringement until significant development effort and expense have been expended.
No matter your strategic objectives, market disruption is a brutal fact of life for many middle market companies. Everywhere are the corpses of once-triumphant corporate behemoths who have fallen victim to disruptive innovation. Rochester-based Kodak, once the world’s largest producers of film, decided not to pursue the market-revolutionizing digital camera while its competitors did. In the end, Kodak’s film business would be disrupted and the company would file for Bankruptcy. Having strategic objectives is fine, but be prepared for disruption — and try to lead it.
Middle market companies should be driving disruption. This is not limited to technological innovation, according to the pioneer of disruption theory, Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen. Disruption is about serving customer needs that are going unmet. For example, the growth of the Internet created new opportunities for people to use online search capability to collect information about local restaurants, auto repair shops, and an array of local service providers. Users benefited by avoiding the cumbersome, clunky Yellow Pages. But it wasn’t until San Francisco-based middle market company Yelp arrived in 2004 that all this information was made accessible on a single, easily searchable website. Yelp has rendered the Yellow Pages almost irrelevant by offering added-value information such as customer ratings to local, online directories.
Not just Creativity, Innovation too! Here are my top ten strategies for boosting creativity. This will help your business get along in challenging times.
- Knowledge is a key Innovation component. Use what you already have and try to learn from as many different sources as you can. Read things you might not normally read or do things that you might not normally do.
- Many of the rules of creativity touch on judging. Build up rather than say ‘yes but’ and try to see things through the eyes of others.
- Many business people only ‘see’ things that are written in documents. To get different views why not model in some way (play doh, Lego, rich pictures) or perform some sort of visualisation for which many scripts are available.
- Allow time for things to grow. When experimenting, keep going around the loop if no final decisions need to be made. Try also to take some time out to reflect on what you are doing or to let your creative ‘right brain’ continue to work.
- Use all of the methods at your disposal to see what is going on around you. This means your physical senses as well as any ‘information gatherers’ that you employ.
- Doing is better than thinking so do lots! If you are managing an innovation project get your hands dirty. Don’t be afraid to go off a a tangent if you feel like it. Innovation only fails if you do nothing.
- Save yourself time. Don’t wander all over your marketplace looking for niches, simply look at your competitors and look in the places that they are not.
- If you work in a company that deals with one or more strands of continuous innovation then ignore this suggestion! If you are involved in an innovation programme then beware of creating too many ideas! Once you have got as many as you need, stop generating ideas and get on with evaluating them and put them into action.
- Be careful of ‘givens’, the rules that everyone accepts as true for no good reason. Patterns are good though as they help us deal with lots of thoughts at once, stopping our heads from exploding.
- If you are stuck, try redefining or reframing your issue in some way. You might like to just look from a different perspective or maybe use metaphor
Do you think that we should consider cancelling Christmas?
No this is not a manifesto from a fringe group who are avoiding the frayed nerves and expense associated with Christmas Shopping, cooking, boisterous children and upset tummies. Christmas is a time where a million and one things must happen and be in place (more or less) by the time presents are unwrapped on Christmas day.
To be honest most of us manage it. We enjoy (or tolerate) the influx of friends and family and for once we seem capable of multi tasking i.e. having a drink, fixing the tree, carving the turkey. Using Christmas as a metaphor, why can’t we do all these things in the workplace? Why can’t we encourage diversity, set objectives, plan and execute strategies?
A subtle clue might be in where the focus lies. As individuals, who do we focus on at work, who do we focus on at home (especially at Christmas)? Now think about where the most dramatic results are achieved!
So far we have considered taking Christmas to work, but what if it were to be the other way around? Just think of all of the rules which we tolerate at work, or at least put up with because it suits us. Here are just a few of the issues that might surface during the festive season:
- Tall object with pine needles – removed for health and safety reasons
- Three Wise Men – disbanded because of contravention of equal opportunities policy
- Baby in a stable – social services involved, baby now in care, animal rights protesters angry because of displaced donkeys
- Larger house needed – health and safety dictate that there is not enough floor space per human/animal/present
- Christmas dinner cancelled – no proper workstation assessment carried out on dining table and various rickety items of furniture that we use
- No presents – Santa has not been on a manual handling course
The list could be endless. There is a serious point to be made though. Yes we do need some frameworks to work within. Someone must look out for the less fortunate and disadvantaged. But too many rules and too many people saying NO is stifling. In the current economic climate we need to bend or even break the rules where necessary.
So its time to decide whether in 2012 you wish to embrace a more creative and productive way of working or wither away under a pile of rules and red tape. Remember, if Christmas really was like work, it would be cancelled. Long live Creativity and Christmas!