Author Archives: John Bessant

About John Bessant

Originally a chemical engineer, John Bessant has been active in the field of research and consultancy in technology and innovation management for over 40 years. He is Emeritus Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter and also has visiting appointments at the universities of Stavanger, Norway and Erlangen-Nuremburg, Germany. Author of over 30 books and 200 articles, you can find out more here:

Is Digital Different?

Is Digital Different?

GUEST POST from John Bessant

‘Now the chips are down…’

‘The robots are coming…’

‘Digitalize or die!’

There’s no shortage of scary headlines reminding us of the looming challenge of digital transformation. The message is clear. On the one hand if we don’t climb aboard the digital bandwagon we’ll be left behind in a kind of late Stone Age, slowly crumbling to dust while the winds of change blow all around us. On the other we’re facing some really big questions — about employment, skills, structures, the whole business model with which we compete. If we don’t have a clear digital strategy to deal with these we’re going to be in trouble.

And it’s not just the commercial world which is having to face up to these questions; the same is true in the public sector and in the not-for-profit world. The digital storm has arrived.

There aren’t any easy solutions to this which explains why so many conferences now have the digital word scrawled across their strap-lines. They provide focal points, create tents within which people can huddle and talk together, trying to work out exactly how they are going to manage this challenge. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks attending a couple — ‘Innovating in the digital world’ was the banner under which the ISPIM (the International Society for Professional Innovation Management) community gathered while ‘Leading digital transformation’ brought EURAM (the European Academy of Management) together. Close to a thousand people gathering for more than just a welcome post-Covid reunion; conferences like these are a good indication of the scale of the questions which digital transformation raises.

A Pause for Thought

But look again at those headlines at the start of this piece. They were actually newspaper cuttings from the 1980s, close on fifty years ago. Anxiety about the transformative potential of digital technology was running pretty high back then and for similar reasons. And yet their dire predictions of disaster and massive structural upheaval haven’t quite emerged. Somehow, we’ve made it through, we haven’t had mass unemployment, we haven’t been replaced by intelligent machines, and while income distribution remains very unequal the causes of that are not down to technological change.

Which is not to say that nothing has changed. Today’s world is radically different along so many dimensions, and not everyone has made it through the digital crisis. Plenty of organizations have failed, unable to come to terms with the new technology whilst others have emerged from nowhere to dominate the global landscape. (It’s worth reflecting that none of the FAANGS corporations (Facebook/Meta, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google were even born when those headlines were written). So, we’ve had change, yes, but it’s not necessarily been destructive or competence-destroying change.

If we’re serious about managing the continuing challenge then it’s worth taking a closer look at just what digital innovation involves. Is it really so revolutionary and transformative? The answer is a mixture. In terms of speed of arrival it’s been a very-slow paced change. Digital innovation isn’t new. Despite the hype around the disruptive potential of this technological wave the reality is that it’s been building for at least 70 years, ever since the invention of the transistor back in Bell Labs in 1947. And there’s a good argument for seeing it date back fifty years before that to when John Fleming and Lee DeForest began playing around with valves and enabling simple electronic circuits.

The idea of programmable control was around another hundred years before that; early on in the Industrial Revolution we saw mechanical devices increasingly substituting for human skill and intervention. Textile manufacturers were able to translate complex designs into weaving instructions for their looms through the use of punched card systems, an innovation pioneered by Joseph Marie Jaquard. Not for nothing did the Luddites worry about the impact technology might have on their livelihoods. And we should remember that it was in the nineteenth, not the twentieth century that the computer first saw the light of day in the form of the difference and analytical engines developed by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.

In fact although there has been rapid acceleration in the application of digital technology over the past thirty years in many ways it has more in common with a number of other ‘revolutions’ like steam power or electricity where the pattern is what Andrew Hargadon calls ‘long fuse, big bang’. That is to say the process towards radical impact is slow but when it converges there can be significant waves of change flowing from it.

Riding the Long Waves of Change

Considerable interest was shown back in the 1980s (when the pace of the ‘IT revolution’ appeared to be accelerating) in the ideas of a Russian economist, Nikolai Kondratiev. He had observed patterns in economic activity cycles which seemed to have a long period (long waves) and which were linked to major technological shifts. The pattern suggested that major enabling technologies like steam power or electricity which had widespread application potential could trigger significant movements in economic growth. The model was applied to the idea of information technology and in particular Chris Freeman and Carlota Perez began developing the approach as a lens through which to explore major innovation-led changes. They argued that the role of technology as a driver had to be matched by a complementary change in social structures and expectations, a configuration which they called the ‘techno-economic paradigm’ .

Importantly the upswing of such a change would be characterised by attempts to use the new technologies in ways which mainly substituted for things which already happened, improving them and enhancing productivity. But at a key point the wave would break and completely new ways of thinking about and using the technologies would emerge, accelerating growth.

A parallel can be drawn to research on the emergence of electricity as a power source; for a sustained period it was deployed as a replacement for the large central steam engines in factories. Only when smaller electric motors were distributed around the factory did productivity growth rise dramatically. Essentially the move involved a change in perspective, a shift in paradigm.

Whilst the long wave model has its critics it offers a helpful lens through which to see the rise of digital innovation. In particular the earlier claims for revolutionary status seemed unfounded, reflecting the ‘substitution’ mode of an early TEP. Disappointment with the less than dramatic results of investing in the new wave would slow its progress — something which could be well-observed in the collapse of the Internet ‘bubble’ around 2000. The revolutionary potential of the underlying technologies was still there but it took a while to kick the engine back into life; this time the system level effects are beginning to emerge and there is a clearer argument for seeing digital innovation as transformative across all sectors of the economy.

This idea of learning to use the new technology in new ways underpins much of the discussion of what is sometimes called the ‘productivity paradox’ — the fact that extensive investment in new technologies does not always seem to contribute to expected rises in productivity. Over time the pattern shifts but — as was the case with electric power — the gap between introduction and understanding how to get the best out of new technology can be long, in that case over fifty years.


Strategy Matters

This model underlines the need for strategy — the ability to ride out the waves of technological change, using them to advantage rather than being tossed and thrown by them, finally ending up in pieces on a beach somewhere. Digital technology is like any other set of innovations; it offers enormous opportunities but we need to think hard about how we are going to manage them. Riding this particular wave is going to stretch our capabilities as innovation managers, staying on the board will take a lot of skill and not a little improvisation in our technique.

It’s easy to get caught up in the flurry of dramatic words used to describe digital possibilities but we shouldn’t forget that underneath them the core innovation process hasn’t changed. It’s still a matter of searching for opportunities, selecting the most promising, implementing and capturing value from digital change projects. What we have to manage doesn’t change even though the projects may themselves be significant in their impact and scalable across large domains. There’s plenty of evidence for that; whilst there have been notable examples of old guard players who have had to retire into bankruptcy or disappearance (think Kodak, Polaroid, Blockbuster) many others continue to flourish in their new digital clothes. Their products and services enhanced, their processes revived and revitalised through strategic use of digital technologies.

If the conferences I’ve been attending are a good barometer of what’s happening then there’s a lot behind this. Organizations of all shapes and sizes are now deploying new digitally driven product and service models and streamlining their internal operations to enable efficient and effective global reach. If anything the Covid-19 pandemic has forced an acceleration in these trends, pushing us further and faster into a digital world. And it’s working in the public and third sector too; for example the field of humanitarian innovation has been transformed by the use of mobile apps, Big Data and maker technologies like 3D printing. Denmark even has a special ministry within government tasked with delivering digitally-based citizen innovation.

Digital Innovation Management

Perhaps what’s really changing — and challenging — is not the emerging set of innovations but rather the way we need to approach creating and delivering them — the way we manage innovation. And here the case for rethinking is strong; continuing with the old tried and tested routines may not get us too far. Instead we need innovation model innovation.

Take the challenge of search — how do we find opportunities for innovation in a vast sea of knowledge? Learning the new skills of ‘open innovation’ has been high on the innovation management agenda for organizations since Henry Chesbrough first coined the term nearly twenty years ago. We know that in a knowledge-rich world that ‘not all the smart people work for us’ and we’ve developed increasingly sophisticated and effective tools for helping us operate in this space.

Digital technologies make this much faster and easy to do. Internet searches allow us to access rich libraries of knowledge at the click of a mouse, social media and networks enable us to tap into rich and varied experience and to interact with it, co-creating solutions. ‘Recombinant’ innovation tools fuelled by machine learning algorithms scour the vast mines of knowledge which the patent system represents and dig out unlikely and fruitful new combinations, bridging different application worlds.

Broadcast search allows us to crowdsource the tricky business of sourcing diverse ideas from multiple different perspectives.  And collaboration platforms allow us to work with that crowd, harnessing collective intelligence and draw in knowledge, ideas, insights from employees, customers, suppliers and even competitors.

Digital innovation management doesn’t stop there; it can also help with the challenge of selection as well. We can use that same crowd to help focus on interesting and promising ideas, using idea markets. Think Kickstarter and a thousand other crowdfunding platforms and look at the increasing use of such approaches within organizations trying to sharpen up their portfolio management. Simulation and exploration technologies enable us to delay the freeze — to continue exploring and evaluating options for longer, assembling useful information on which to base our final decision about whether or not to invest.

And digital techniques blur the lines around implementation, bringing ideas to life. Instead of having to make a once for all commitment and then standing back and hoping we open up a range of choice. We can still kill off the project which isn’t working and has no chance — but we can also adapt in real time, pivoting around an emerging solution to sharpen it, refine it, help it evolve. Digital twins enable us to probe and learn, stress testing ideas to make sure they will work. And the whole ‘agile innovation’ philosophy stresses early testing of simple prototypes — ‘minimum viable products’ — followed by pivoting. Innovation becomes less dependent on a throw of the dice and a lot of hope; instead it is a guided series of experiments hunting for optimum solutions.

Capturing value is all about scale and the power of digital technologies is that they enable us to ‘turbocharge’ this phase. The physical limits on expansion and access are removed for many digital products and services and even physical supply chains and logistics networks can be enhanced with these approaches. Networks allow us not only to spread the word via multiple channels but also enable us to tap into the social processes of influence which shape diffusion. Innovation adoption is still heavily influenced by key opinion leaders but now those influencers can be mobilised much more rapidly and extensively.

The story of Tupperware is a reminder of this effect; it took a passionate woman (Brownie Wise) building a social system by herself in the 1950s to turn a great product into one of the most recognised in the world. Today’s social marketing technologies can draw on powerful tools and infrastructures from the start.

In the same way assembling complementary assets is essential — the big question is one of ‘who else/what else do we need to move to scale? In the past this was a process of finding and forming a series of relationships and carefully nurturing them to create an ecosystem. Today’s platform architectures and business models enable such networks to be quickly assembled and operated in digital space. Amazon didn’t invent remote retailing; that model emerged a century ago with the likes of Sears and Roebuck painstakingly building their system. But Amazon’s ability to quickly build and scale and then to diversify across to new areas deploying the same core elements depends on a carefully thought-out digital architecture.

Digital is Different?

So yes, digital is different in terms of the radically improved toolkit with which we can work in managing innovation. Central to this is a strategy — being clear where and why we might use these tools and what kind of organization we want to create. And being prepared to let go of our old models; even though they are tried and tested and have brought us a long way the reality is that we need innovation model innovation. That’s at the heart of the concept of ‘dynamic capability’ — the ability to configure and reconfigure our processes to create value from ideas.

The idea of innovation management routines is a double-edged sword. On the one hand routines enable us to systematise and codify the patterns of behaviour which help us innovate — how we search, select , implement and so on. That helps us repeat the innovation trick and means that we can build structures and processes and policies to strengthen our innovation capability. But we not only need to review and hone these routines, we also need the capacity to step back and challenge them and the courage to change or even abandon them if they are no longer appropriate. That’s the real key to successful digital transformation.

If you’re interested in more innovation stories please check out my website here
And if you’d like to listen to a podcast version you can find it here
Or follow my online course here

Image credits: FreePik

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.

Managing Knowledge Spaghetti

How collaboration platforms can help turbocharge your innovation efforts

Managing Knowledge Spaghetti

GUEST POST from John Bessant

Say the word ‘innovation’ and many people quickly conjure in their mind the wonderful ‘lightbulb moment’. But of course, innovation isn’t like this — that flash of inspiration is only the start of what will be a long journey trying to create value from that initial idea. It’s all about navigating our way through a landscape of uncertainty, learning to deal with a variety of roadblocks, potholes and other unexpected barriers.

And if we want to be able to repeat the trick, to give our ideas a fighting chance then the evidence is clear; we need some kind of a process. Over a hundred years of research has fed our understanding to the point where the kind of system we need to make innovation happen can be specified as an international standard. And in terms of pictures what we’re really looking for is less a lightbulb moment than a reproduceable process, something like this.

Clear Innovation Strategy Bessant

Which is fine, as long as we bear in mind one important truth. Innovation doesn’t happen like that.

Back in 1931 the mathematician Alfred Korzybski presented a paper to a meeting in New Orleans on mathematical semantics. It was pretty complex stuff but one phrase which he used has stuck in the wider popular memory. He pointed out that ‘the map is not the territory…’ In other words, a description of something is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. Which has some pretty important implications for the way we work with innovation.

Process models, however detailed, are simplifications, ways of representing how innovation might take place. But — like any map, be it a crumpled sketch someone has drawn or a sophisticated Google Maps picture — it is a guide, it isn’t the place itself. The map is, by its nature, a reduction of the process and in reducing it we lose some important information.

The reality, of course, is that innovation is more complex. And it’s all about knowledge spaghetti.

Just like a plate of pasta innovation involves many different strands. Only this time we are talking about knowledge — technical knowledge, market knowledge, legal knowledge, financial knowledge and so on. They need to be woven together to create value.

And these knowledge strands are held by different people, inside and outside the organization. We have to find them and connect them, link them together to enable us to innovate. Whilst we can superimpose structures on it to help us with this task, we shouldn’t forget that we’re really working with knowledge spaghetti.

Spaghetti solutions

So how do we work with it? Just like recipes for spaghetti there are many variations. One approach is to employ specialists and create cross-functional teams which bring together the relevant strands and align them towards a focused target. That’s proved to be a good model for developing new products and services, especially if we can find ways to bring in all the relevant players including users.

We can use a similar cross-functional approach to the design and implementation of major internal process innovations — things like introducing a new IT system or reorganizing to become more customer-focused. And a third approach involves carefully constructed strategic collaborations, bringing knowledge partners together with complementary strands of knowledge spaghetti.

One very powerful model is based on the idea that everyone in the organization has something to contribute to the innovation story — high involvement innovation. Here we’re working on the belief that even small strands of knowledge can be important and if we could bring them in to the story, we’d make significant progress.

Which history tells us we can. In countless embodiments the principle of high involvement has been shown to pay dividends. Ask people for what they know that might help solve problems around quality, cost, delivery, etc — and there’s no shortage of good ideas in response. The challenge has, historically, been one of working with such high volumes of knowledge and keeping the flywheel going by responding to employee suggestions and giving feedback on progress towards their implementation.

Suggestion boxes and schemes work but until recently had their limitations. Two recent trends have changed all that. The first, borne on the waves of total quality thinking and then the whole ‘lean’ movement, has shown us that in any context people are very effective innovators, well able to improve on what they are doing on a continuing basis.

And the second has been the emergence of collaboration platforms on which they can deploy their innovation skills. Today’s collaborative innovation platform resembles its suggestion box predecessor in outline only; it’s still a way of collecting ideas from employees. But it does so in an interactive space in which challenges can be posed, ideas suggested, comments added and shaping, and welding together multiple knowledge sets and experience enabled. And in doing so they open up the very real possibilities of high involvement innovation — getting everyone to contribute to the innovation story.

Emergent properties

But it’s not just the raw return on investment which collaboration platforms offer — though these benefits are impressive. Their real value lies in the way they enable ‘emergent properties’ — the innovation whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.

They give us new and powerful ways of working with the knowledge spaghetti. Not only can we handle the sheer scale of the knowledge challenge and focus it towards key objectives but we can do so in ways which yield surprising additional benefits. They effectively turbocharge our innovation system.

In particular they contribute in the following ways:

  • Reach — one of the obvious ways in which platforms can help is that they create a network which even remote users can connect to. We can spread the innovation net far and wide, can reach the parts other innovation approaches don’t. For example, recruiting ideas from people on ships at sea or working on an off-shore oil platform would have been impossible until recently. Now they can join the innovation conversation as simply as placing a phone call. Working under extreme conditions like in a humanitarian disaster area can now also be a space for crowdsourcing new and urgent solutions to problems. (We’ve seen this in Ukraine where the problems of getting urgent supplies in and vulnerable people out of a war zone are being addressed by many people sharing ideas across makeshift collaboration platforms based on mobile phone networks). We’re now able to involve people in innovation anywhere on the planet and on a 24/7 timescale.
  • High involvement innovation has always worked well in teams — that’s been at the heart of the success of lean approaches. But until recently that depended on the team being physically together, exploring and co-creating solutions — not easy if you’re working with a distributed team. Platforms solve this challenge, enabling virtual team meetings and collaboration and asynchronous collaboration.

    Organizations like Conoco-Philips employ around 10,000 people, globally distributed and often in hard to access places like off-shore oil platforms. Airbus has around 130,000, again globally distributed and engaged in multiple activities. And Bombardier have over 15,000 ‘knowledge workers’ around the world with whom they want to engage. Through the use of collaboration platforms organizations like these are able to achieve sustained high involvement and significant traction on their innovation challenges.

    • Richness — successful high involvement innovation isn’t just about assembling lots of people. By their nature people are different and diversity matters in innovation. They bring different perspectives, different ways of framing and working with the problem being explored. Plus they are not just cardboard cut-outs, they have a rich history of different experiences — their origins, their education, their work experience. All of this represents potentially useful strands of knowledge spaghetti, and platforms help us draw on this.

    Subsea7, a major player in the world of offshore services for the oil and other industries has used a platform approach to great effect. In one example a long-running concern with turnaround times for fitting out ships was solved when someone on the platform identified a solution which he had originally seen in action at a previous employer. The resulting savings ran into millions of dollars.

    People also bring with them networks of connections; knowledge is socially distributed and connecting to these networks can yield surprising possibilities. It means the innovating organization can access different skills and specialized knowledge inside and outside the organization. It’s classic open innovation, building on the idea that in even the largest organization ‘not all the smart people work for you’.

    • Refining — one of the powerful features of collaboration platforms is that they enable — well, collaboration! They make it possible to comment, criticize (constructively), modify and refine ideas, setting up a process of true co-creation. This fits well with recent research which argues that there’s a fundamental flaw in the model of ‘brainstorming’ used by many organizations to source ideas. The principle of postponing judgment has been replaced by a ‘no criticism’ approach in which every idea is accepted. But the reality is that good ideas need to be tempered, hammered into shape, worked on — and processes of constructive criticism are really important. Pixar, for example, has made this a core feature of its daily ideation process.

    And having access to the diversity of perspectives which platforms allow means that there is real potential for shaping and developing interesting ideas into great and value-adding ones. They provide a way of creating those magical ‘water-cooler’ moments in an online and distributed world.

    • Requiring — using focused campaigns to draw out ideas in particular directions. One of the limits of the old model of suggestion schemes is that they operate in ‘bottom up’ fashion, solving problems which are important and visible at a local level. But the real power of HII lies in mobilizing it to work on ‘top-down’ strategic challenges. The campaign model sits at the heart of many collaboration platforms and allows short intense ‘sprints’ focusing the innovation energy on a key problem area, rather like a laser beam.

    Conoco Philips Alaska have been using a process targeted at continuous improvement of their extensive operations; they run between 6 and 8 campaigns every year, involve around 1500 employees and generate savings running into millions of dollars annually.

    But it depends on several things — not least spending time to ensure the ‘right’ question is being asked. Simply setting ‘how can we improve productivity’ as a target is too vague, a bit like using that medieval weapon, the blunderbuss. Chances are some of your shots will hit the target but there’s an awful lot of waste involved.

    So it’s important to ensure we’re asking the ‘right’ question; a key feature of successful collaboration platforms is the amount of effort which goes in to this kind of front-end problem exploration. The sharper the question the better the quality of answers and the chance that new creative pathways can be opened up.

    • Recombination — ‘ if only our organization knew what it knows’ is a source of concern for anyone concerned with innovation. So much knowledge which might be useful is locked up inside silos and not shared. Worse, we don’t always know what’s inside those silos or whether and how it could be relevant to someone else. Platforms have the power to make this visible, not least by drawing it out in response to focused and challenging campaigns.

    There’s also the possibility that someone else in the organization may have experienced a similar type of problem even if they don’t recognize the relevance of their experience. A powerful principle in creativity is looking for analogous solutions — for example, the challenge of cutting turnaround times in airports for low-cost carriers was solved by applying principles originally developed for Formula 1 pitstops. And the same approach was then adopted by surgeons in London looking to improve the utilization of operating theatres.

    • Reverse reinvention — lots of effort is often wasted by reinventing wheels, solving the same problem in different places. Platforms offer a way of reversing this process, highlighting solutions which have been tried elsewhere and also inviting creative improvisation around those solutions, extending their applicability and effectiveness. A kind of creative re-iteration.

    The Canadian engineering company Bombardier have been using a collaboration platform approach for over ten years and one of the biggest benefits they have seen is a significant increase in the amount of knowledge being shared across their organization.

    • Retaining and recording — making sure ideas are retained even if they can’t be applied right now. One of the challenges of mobilizing collective intelligence is that we may well attract thousands of ideas. Some can be shaped and refined for immediate implementation, some require further work and investment. And for some there is the problem of being the right idea at the wrong time. In the past organizations hitting this problem would probably lose sight of the idea, leaving it buried in a file somewhere or gathering dust. But platforms allow for effective curation of ideas, not only tracking and recording all suggestions but also retaining them to match against future campaigns and challenges.
    • Rewiring — organizations are like people — they have ‘predictive minds’ . They are inclined to take a lazy approach, picking tried and tested solutions off the shelf when they confront a problem. But being forced to redefine, to reframe, can trigger a search for new approaches to those old problems. We see this effect often under crisis conditions where traditional solution pathways may not be available and we have to think differently — to make new neural connections across the collective mind. Creating novel campaigns to provide this challenge can open up new idea space — they can help us ‘get out of the box’.
    • Refreshing — at heart high involvement innovation is about people and the key ingredient to its long term success is finding ways to keep the motivation high. People are brilliant problem solvers but they’re only going to give their ideas if they see some benefit. Research has shown that money isn’t a strong motivator — but having your voice heard and having the opportunity to create the change you’d like to see around your organization is. There’s a wealth of research to support this going right back to the early years of organization studies; the message on employee engagement remains the same but the question is then raised about how to achieve this. Collaboration platforms by their inclusive and open nature offer a powerful new tool to help and organizations like Liberty Global consider this motivational aspect to be a key factor in helping build a culture of innovation across a large organization.

    Knowledge Spaghetti Success

    So whether it is an upgrade to continuous improvement activity, harvesting employee suggestions for doing what we do but better, or pushing the frontiers to create novel products and services, there’s real scope for using this turbocharged approach.

    But powerful though they are, collaboration platforms are at heart still software. It’s not a case of ‘plug and play’ — getting the best out of these systems requires hands-on management, something we’ll look at in a future blog.

    For more on innovation-related themes like this please visit my website

    And if you’d like to listen to this as a podcast please visit my site here

    Image credits: Pexels, John Bessant

    Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.

    The Suggestion Box Strikes Back!

    How collaboration platforms can turbocharge your innovation efforts

    The Suggestion Box Strikes Back!

    GUEST POST from John Bessant

    Organizations need to innovate. So far, so blindingly obvious. But they also need to innovate their innovation approaches; the best recipes may no longer work in a context which is continually changing. Smart players recognize that they need to add innovation model innovation to their repertoire — constantly reviewing what they do to organize and manage the process of creating value from ideas and, if necessary, adapting it.

    Sometimes this will involve dramatic change. Think, for example, of the way Procter and Gamble have been re-engineering their whole business over the past twenty years from a model dominated by internal R&D to an open approach based on ‘Connect and develop’. Or how capital goods giants like Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce have shifted the entire basis of their business towards ‘servitization’, no longer developing and selling new products but rather renting out capabilities like ‘power by the hour’. This has required them to rethink the entire innovation model, putting customer focus much more center stage and involving extensive partnerships and strategic alliance to deliver the whole new package of service.

    But often it’s a quieter revolution, a gradual change in which new routines emerge or existing ones are upgraded to work in new ways, deploying new mechanisms to make them work better. That’s been the story of the suggestion box.

    Smart People Don't Always Have Smart Ideas

    ‘….the beauty of it is that with every pair of hands I get a free brain!’

    It’s a very old idea, and an obvious one. People are smart so why not tap into their ideas to help with the innovation agenda? Ask them, and you might be surprised at what they have to offer. Elements of this approach can be found in the medieval guild system where it was used to help develop and improve craft skills and practices. It was an idea which the eighth shogun of Japan, Yoshimuni Tokugawa tried out in 1721 with his ‘Meyasubako’, a box placed at the entrance of the Edo Castle for written suggestions from his subjects. And the British navy pioneered a similar scheme in 1770, asking its sailors and marines for their ideas — significantly reassuring them that such suggestions would not carry the risk of punishment!

    By the time of the Industrial Revolution innovation was recognized as a powerhouse — and not everyone thought that ideas should be confined to specialists with the workers simply employed as pairs of hands. In 1871 Denny’s shipyard on the banks of the Clyde began operating a suggestion scheme amongst its 350 employees; it enabled them to cut the time to build a warship from six months to four whilst contributing a variety of other quality and productivity improvements. And in 1892 John Paterson at the National Cash Register company in the USA began exploring ways of tapping into ‘the hundred-headed brain’ of his workforce; his success led the Eastman Kodak company to implement a similar scheme in 1896.

    It wasn’t just innovation rates which improved; a growing number of studies, not least in the famous Western Electric research at the Hawthorne plant, found that asking people for their ideas and enrolling them in workplace productivity improvements had the by-product effect of better motivation and employee satisfaction. The great quality management writer Joseph Juran talked about ‘the gold in the mine’, describing how unlocking the potential of employees to add their mental weight to the innovation problem could dramatically improve quality.

    By the late twentieth century these ideas were widespread; the 1980s total quality revolution gave birth to lean thinking and with it the core recognition that asking people for their ideas was a pretty smart way of driving up productivity, whatever the setting.

    Thinking Inside the Box

    Thinking inside the box

    So a great idea — but not without its limitations. The trouble with suggestion boxes and schemes is that they bump up against some unfortunate logistical challenges. Even in the best-intentioned companies, with enlightened leadership supporting the concept and innovation facilitators trying to make it happen the idea of high involvement quickly runs aground on some simple arithmetic around idea management.

    Suppose you have a workforce of 100 people and you convince them to join in the innovation effort and suggest improvements. By the end of week one you have 100 ideas, by week four 400 and pretty soon you can get into thousands of ideas. Lots of enthusiasm and there’s no shortage of good ideas — people generally have them and have probably been carrying a backlog around with them for some time. And when they tell their friends there’s an accelerator effect; the innovation wave starts to build.

    Your problem is most certainly not going to be a shortage of ideas — quite the reverse. But what do you do with them? Of course, a good percentage will be simple things which people can implement for themselves — and your job is to encourage them (and also to track the changes they’re making to ensure they don’t end up conflicting with your established operating procedures).

    But a lot more will need thinking about. They may need modifying and developing from a germ of a possibility into something polished. Juran’s raw gold ore doesn’t glisten straight away, it needs processing. And some of them will need quite a lot of effort and specialist input to yield eventually valuable results.

    All the while you are working on these the inflow pipeline is filling up, hundreds of ideas every week. But with the ideas also comes expectation — people not unreasonably asking ‘what are you doing with my idea?’ So you need to spend your precious time not only processing the ideas but also feeding back; sometimes this means saying no to unworkable ideas or those which don’t fit, and doing so in a way which doesn’t discourage people from suggesting further new ideas.

    Walt Disney Fantasia

    It doesn’t take long before you’re like Mickey Mouse in the wonderful Disney film ‘Fantasia’ where he plays the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He tries to improve the way he deals with his household chores by a little magic spell which at first helps him out with brooms, buckets and scrubbing cloths working hard on his behalf. But pretty soon things get out of control, there’s water everywhere and an army of brushes and mops threatening to take over his world. The resulting chaos is only halted by the arrival of the master Sorcerer who magically puts things back to how they were.

    It’s potentially the same with your magic spell of high involvement innovation. What began as a great movement towards innovation from everyone soon becomes a nightmare precisely because people are volunteering ideas. There isn’t the capacity to deal with them, they’re coming at you thick and fast but you can’t handle them all. And then things take a turn for the worse. People keep asking you what’s happening to their idea and when they get no response they start to grumble. They get fed up with seeing their great thoughts disappear into what seems to them to be a black hole. Nothing seems to happen and so they stop bothering to make suggestions and slip back into simply doing what they are told, albeit with a bad grace. And they tell their friends who nod their heads and agree that the system simply isn’t working, so why bother with it?

    Pretty soon you’re back to where you started. Not only has the flow if ideas dried up but now people are resentful and suspicious. They won’t get fooled again; next time you come around asking for their suggestions they’re not going to give them up so easily.

    Sadly, that kind of story is typical; the limitation of suggestion schemes is that they aren’t well-equipped to deal with a high volume of ideas or high levels of participation. There’s nothing wrong with the model which is why employee engagement can work so well in teams. Where the focus is local, based around workplace teams working on quality or lean six sigma a trained team can keep chipping away at its productivity improvement goals very effectively. There’s shared motivation, clear local targets and high visibility of the results. Getting everyone involved in innovation works and if you keep it going it delivers consistent bottom line benefits. The only trouble is that it’s hard to scale it.

    Doctor Superhero

    Technology to the rescue…

    Fortunately, around the turn of the millennium things began to change. Faced with the problem of idea management a number of people began working on IT-based solutions. Their earliest attempts were little more than electronic versions of the old physical suggestion box and they had limited success. Feeding ideas into complicated spreadsheets wasn’t particularly exciting or motivating even if it was now possible to do some rudimentary tracking of those ideas.

    But gradually things improved. The interface became more friendly and, with the growth of internal networks, the possibility of accessing a terminal and logging on to a screen became available to many more people. Instead of being a one-way posting process the beginnings of visibility emerged; people could see what happened to their ideas and get some feedback on them.

    It wasn’t just the technology which was getting better and offering a closer match to the needs which organizations had for effective idea management. The wider context was changing too, undergoing a revolution at scale. Social networking began to emerge and quickly caught on, offering new ways to interact with people in an online space. By 2008 close to 120 million people were using the MySpace platform every day and by 2012 Facebook had a user base in excess of 1bn and growing.

    This external shift opened up huge new possibilities for the ways in which interaction could happen across an innovation platform. People could not only connect but also share, like, comment, build the conversation — all features which developers of collaborative innovation platforms saw as rich in possibilities for their offering. User companies began to sit up and take notice as a new way of engaging employees emerged — one which offered the twin advantages of richness and reach. Through such platforms a high volume of people could be connected, forming the ‘neurons’ in a potentially giant innovation brain. And their activity could be extended way beyond simply posting up a suggestion; they could comment on other people’s ideas, like or suggest modifications, join into virtual teams building and shaping ideas into real innovation possibilities.

    As if that wasn’t a strong enough impulse to regenerate interest in high involvement innovation we also discovered ‘crowdsourcing’ as an approach to collecting ideas. This wasn’t a new concept; back in 1714 the idea of taking a big and apparently intractable problem and asking a lot of people for their help with solving it had been deployed to great effect. Faced with the growing crisis in navigation caused by ship’s captains being unable to calculate their longitude accurately because they lacked a reliable portable timepiece the British Admiralty launched what we would recognize today as an innovation contest. With the support of the king and with the attraction of a significant financial prize the challenge was taken up and solved very effectively; the winning (and wonderful) design by John Harrison was soon being fitted to all the ships in the British navy as standard equipment.

    ‘Broadcast search’ of this kind undoubtedly works — the trouble was that in those days it was a difficult process to organize and manage. But with today’s powerful communications infrastructure it’s possible to set up and run an innovation contest in an afternoon and reach out to the whole world for answers. Idea marketplaces have sprung up all over the internet, connecting seekers of solutions with potential solvers; one such platform, currently has a population of regular solvers over half a million strong offering their input to the various challenges posted on the site.

    Tapping into such ‘collective intelligence’ in this way isn’t just about increasing the volume of ideas coming into the system. Its real value is in extending the reach, drawing in ideas from across the ‘long tail’ of different perspectives on the problem you’re trying to solve. Karim Lakhani and colleagues highlighted this effect in their detailed studies of traffic across the platform; the benefits came not from having tens of thousands of people working on your problem but from the diversity in approaches which they brought. Fresh minds, new insights, alternative ways of framing the problem.

    Collaboration platforms 2022

    Today’s collaborative innovation platform resembles its suggestion box predecessor in outline only; it’s still a way of collecting ideas from employees. But it does so in an interactive space in which challenges can be posed, ideas suggested, comments added and shaping and welding together multiple knowledge sets and experience enabled. And in doing so they open up the very real possibilities of high involvement innovation — getting everyone to contribute to the innovation story.

    And it works. There are countless case studies drawn from contexts as different as aerospace and agriculture, medicine to microelectronics manufacture. High involvement works in in the public and not-for-profit world as well as in the commercial one, and the targets for such innovation range from straightforward cost-savings and productivity improvements to creating new crisis responses in the world of humanitarian aid or finding ways to improve access to shelter, health care and basic needs in the world of international development.

    Where it was once the exception to find firms like Toyota reporting high levels of participation and harvesting the benefits emerging from millions of suggestions, it is now commonplace to find benefits reported in terms of million dollar savings. One of the founder companies in the idea management field, Imaginatik, has a running total on its website suggesting that their platform has enabled over 2bn ideas to be suggested, generating $1.1bn of savings; similar data emerges from other suppliers of the technology.

    But it’s not just the raw return on investment which collaboration platforms offer — thought these benefits are impressive. Their real value lies in the way they have matured to enable systematic innovation routines to work at scale and across the entire process of innovation, not just the front-end idea generation.

    Idea Plugin
    Image: @studiogstock on Freepik


    So you might think that the answer is simple — invest in a platform if you want to turbocharge your innovation activities. But you’d be wrong, and for several reasons. First we need to remind ourselves that platforms are simply tools. They may be significantly more powerful than their predecessors but just like a power drill with lots of shiny new attachments, in the hands of an inexperienced amateur it will not deliver — and may leave you with a series of unsightly holes and marks on your wall!

    In particular they need embedding in a culture which supports the underlying values and behaviors associated with high involvement innovation. If you don’t actually believe that everyone can contribute, or if you believe it but don’t commit the resources to train and enable people to deliver their ideas, then your investment in a platform will simply be a white elephant. What makes it work is a culture, an integrated suite of behaviors which are articulated, supported, reinforced until they become ‘the way we do things around here

    For more on innovation-related themes like this please visit my website

    And if you’d like to listen to this as a podcast please visit my site here

    Image credits: Pixabay, Wikimedia Commons, Pexels, Freepik

    Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.

    Not Invented Here

    Sometimes Letting Go is the Hardest Part of Innovation

    Not Invented Here

    GUEST POST from John Bessant

    (You can find a podcast version of this story here)

    The Welsh valleys are amongst the most beautiful in the world. Lush green hills steeply falling into gorges with silver water glistening below. It’s a place of almost perfect peace, the only movement the gentle trudge of sheep grazing safely, shuffling across the jagged landscape the way they’ve done for thousands of years. And amongst the most scenic and peaceful of these valleys are those situated between Dolgellau in the north, and Machynlleth in the south.

    Except when there’s traffic in the ‘Mach loop’ — which is what the region is known as in military circles. It’s the place where young men and women from a variety of international air forces hone their skills at high-speed low-level flying, often as low as 75 meters from the ground. At any moment your peaceful walk may be rudely interrupted by the roar of afterburners, your view across the green hillsides suddenly broken by the nose of an F16 or Typhoon poking its way up from one of the gorges below.

    Your reaction may be mixed; annoyance at the interruption or admiration for the flying skills of those pilots giving you a personal air display. But it’s certainly impossible to ignore. And it does raise an interesting question — despite the impressive skills being demonstrated, do we actually need pilots flying the planes? Is there an alternative technology which allows low level high precision flying but which can be carried out by an operator sitting far away in a remote location? After all we’ve become pretty good at controlling devices at a distance, can even land them on distant planets or steer a course through the furthest reaches of our universe.

    UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles — are undoubtedly changing the face of aviation. But are they also a disruptive innovation, particularly in the military world where the heroic tradition of those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines is still so strong?

    A brief history of drones

    The idea of using unmanned flying vehicles isn’t new; back in 1839 Austrian soldiers attacked the city of Venice with unmanned balloons filled with explosives. During the early years following the Wright brothers successful flight researchers began looking at the possibilities of unmanned aircraft. The first prototype took off in 1916 in the form of the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target; as its name suggests it was a pilotless machine designed to help train British aircrew in dogfighting. Importantly it drew on early versions of radio control and was one the many brainchildren of Nikolai Tesla but its early performance was unremarkable and the British military chose to scrap the project, believing that unmanned aerial vehicles had limited military potential.

    A year later, an American alternative was created: the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane and successful trials led to the development of a production version, the Kettering Bug in 1918. Although its performance was impressive it arrived too late to be used in the war and further development was shelved.

    By the time of the Second World War the enabling technologies around control and navigation had improved enormously; whilst still crude the German V1 and V2 rockets and flying bombs provided a powerful demonstration of what could be achieved at scale. Emphasis was placed on remote delivery of explosives — using UAVs as flying bombs or aerial torpedoes — but the possibilities of using them in other applications such as reconnaissance were beginning to be explored.

    The Vietnam war saw this aspect come to the fore; the difficulties of operating in remote jungle and mountain zones made reconnaissance flying hazardous and the risks to aircrew who were shot down led to extensive use of UAVs. The Ryan Firebee drone flew over 5000 surveillance missions, controlled by a ground operator using a remote camera. Its versatility meant that it could be used for surveillance, delivery of supplies and as a weapon; UAVs began to be viewed as an alternative to manned aircraft. But despite their success and promise it was not until the 1990s that they began to occupy an increasingly significant role.

    Early Drone - Wikimedia Commons

    The technology found more support in Israel and during the 1973 Yom Kippur war UAVs were used in a variety of ways, as part of an integrated approach alongside piloted aircraft. A great deal of learning in this context meant that for a while Israel became the key source of UAV technology with the US acquiring and deploying this knowledge to improve its own capabilities, leading to the new generation deployed in the Gulf War. UAVs emerged as a critical tool for gathering intelligence at the tactical level. These systems were employed for battlefield damage assessment, targeting, and surveillance missions, particularly in high-threat airspace.

    Fast forward to today. There’s been an incredible acceleration in the key enabling technologies which has helped UAVs established themselves as serious contenders for many aerial roles. For example GPS has moved from its early days in 1981 where a unit weighed 50kg and cost over $100k to a current cost of less than $5 for a chip-based unit weighing less than a gram. The Internal Measurement Unit (IMU) which measures a drone’s velocity, orientation and accelerations has followed a similar trajectory; in the 1960s an IMU weighed several kilograms and cost several million dollars but today the chipset which puts these features on your phone costs around $1. Kodak’s 1976 digital camera could only manage a 0.1 megapixel image from a unit weighing 2kg and costing over $10,000. Today’s digital cameras are approximately a billion times better (1000x resolution, 1000x smaller and 100x cheaper). And (perhaps most important) the communications capabilities now offered by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enable accurate and long-range communication and control.

    With an improvement trajectory like this you might be forgiven for assuming that UAVs would have largely replaced manned flying in most applications. It’s a cheap technology, versatile and (in military terms) expendable — losing a drone doesn’t carry with it the tragic costs of losing a trained pilot. Yet the reality is that the Mach Loop continues to reverberate with the sound of fast jets and their pilots practicing high-speed low-level maneuvers.

    Not invented here?

    Continuing to rely on manned aircraft is also a costly option — when a British F-35 Lightning crashed after take-off from an aircraft carrier in 2021 it represented over £100m sinking beneath the waves. So why is the adoption of UAV technology still problematic within major established air forces? It almost looks like another case of ‘not invented here’ — that strange innovation phenomenon in which otherwise smart organizations reject or bury promising new ideas.

    At first sight it fits into a pattern which has been around a long time. Take the case of continuous aim gunfire at sea. Sounds rather dry and technical but what it boils down to is that 19th century naval warfare was not a very accurate game. Trying to shoot at something a long way away whilst perched on a ship which is rocking and rolling unexpectedly isn’t easy; most ships firing at other ships missed their targets. A study commissioned by the US Bureau of Ordnance in the late 1890s found an accuracy rate of less than 3%; in one test in 1899 five ships of the British North Atlantic Squadron fired for five minutes each at an old hulk at a range of 1600 yards; after 25 minutes only 2 hits had been registered on the target.

    Clearly there was scope for innovation and it took place in 1898 on the decks of a British navy frigate called HMS Scylla, under the command of Percy Scott. He’d noticed that one of his gun crews was managing a much better performance and began studying and exploring what they were doing with a view to developing it into a system. By the time he was in command, two years later, of a squadron in the South China Sea he had refined his methods and equipped his flagship, HMS Terrible with new equipment and trained his gun crews.

    Image: Painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, public domain

    The improvements were significant and importantly influenced a young US lieutenant on secondment to the squadron. William Sims learned about the new system and applied it on his own ship with remarkable results; convinced of the power of this innovation he decided it was his mission to carry the news to Washington and change naval practice. What followed is a fascinating story for what it reveals about NIH and the many ways in which it can be deployed.

    In his fascinating account Elting Morison highlights three strategies used by the US military to defend against the new idea. The first was simply to bury the idea; Sims’ reports to the Bureau of Ordnance and the Bureau of Navigation were simply filed away and forgotten. The second was to try and rebut the information; the response from the Bureau of Ordnance was along the lines of claiming that US equipment was as good as the British so any differences in firing performance must be due to the men involved. More important was their argument that continuous-aim firing was impossible; when that failed they conducted experiments to try to show there was no significant benefit from the approach. By running them on dry land they were able to cast doubt on the relative advantage of the new approach.

    And their third strategy was to try and sideline Sims, painting him as an eccentric troublemaker, stressing his youth and lack of experience, highlighting the fact that he’d spent too long with the British navy and in other ways undermining his credibility. Needless to say this only strengthened Sims’ resolve and he duly went over the heads of the senior staff and appealed to President Roosevelt himself. He finally ‘won’; he remained as unpopular as ever but the new approach was grudgingly adopted and quickly became the dominant design for future naval gunnery.

    Image: UK HMSO Public Domain

    On dry land and a decade later a similar outsider — Major J. C. Fuller — was working with the British Army. He’d seen the possibilities in using tanks as a fast mobile strike capability and his ideas were eventually borne out, briefly in the latter part of the First World War when they were used to good effect in Cambrai and Amiens. But despite being given responsibility for introducing the new technology he met with resistance (not helped by his abrasive nature); there were many who saw tanks as an unwelcome diversion. It didn’t help that the organizational location in the command structure was in the Cavalry Corps — the very group most threatened by the change to tanks. Their post-war strategy was to continue to rely on the equine model; ‘more hay, more horses’ rather than investment in tanks or learning about tank warfare. Elsewhere though his ideas found fertile soil and he was credited by Adolf Hitler himself as the architect of the idea of ‘blitzkrieg’ — the fast mobile warfare which helped overrun France and much of Europe within a few weeks at the start of World War 2.

    Drones as disruptive innovation?

    Of course it’s complicated but could the case of drone adoption be history repeating itself? One explanation for why NIH happens in this fashion can be found in what we’ve learned about disruptive innovation. When it was published twenty five years ago Clayton Christensen’s classic book exploring the phenomenon ‘The innovator’s dilemma’ had the intriguing subtitle ‘When new technologies cause great firms to fail’. His core argument was that the organizations which were affected by disruptive innovations were not stupid but rather selectively blind, a consequence of their very market success and the organizational arrangements which had grown up over a long period of time to support that success.

    For him the challenge wasn’t the old one of balancing radical and incremental change with the losing firms being too cautious. Rather it was about trajectories; whether a new technology was sustaining — reinforcing the existing trajectory — or disrupting, offering a new trajectory. As we’ve come to realize the core issue is about business models; disruption occurs when someone frames the new trajectory as something which can create value under different conditions.

    The search for such a new business model doesn’t take place in the mainstream as a direct challenge; instead it emerges in different markets which are unserved or underserved but where the new features offer potential value (often good enough performance at much lower cost). These fringe markets provide the laboratory in which learning and refinement of the new technology and development of the business model can take place.

    The problem arises when the new business model built on a new trajectory begins to appeal to the old mainstream market. At this point it’s a challenge to existing incumbents to let go of their old business model and reconfigure a new one. Jumping the tracks to a new trajectory is risky anyway but when you carry the baggage of years, perhaps decades or even centuries of the old model it becomes very hard. That’s when NIH rears its head and it can snap and bite at the new idea with surprising defensive vigor.

    There’s almost a cycle to it like that developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the grieving process. First there’s denial — ignore it and it will go away, it’s not relevant to us, it won’t work in our industry, it’s not our core business, etc. Then there’s a period of rationalization, accepting the new idea but dismissing it as not relevant to the core business, followed by experimentation designed not so much to learn as to demonstrate why and how the new model offers little advantage. Variations on this theme include locating the experiments in the very part of the organization which has the most to lose (think about giving tank development to the Cavalry Corps).

    Only when the evidence becomes impossible to ignore (often as a clear shift in the market towards the new trajectory and a significant competitive threat) comes the moment of acceptance. But even then commitment is often slow and lukewarm and the opportunity to get on the bus may have been missed.

    Meanwhile in another part of the galaxy…

    It’s not easy for the innovators trying to introduce the change. They struggle to break into the mainstream because they have no presence in that market and they are up against established interests and networks. Their best strategy is to continue to work with their fringe markets who do see the value in their model and to hope that eventually a cross-over to the mainstream takes place. Which is what has happened in the world of drone technology.

    Demanding users in fringe application markets have provided the laboratory for fast learning. Early markets were in aerial photography where the cost of hiring planes and pilots could be cut significantly but where challenges around stability and development of lightweight equipment forced rapid innovation. Or mapping and surveying where difficult and sometimes inaccessible territory could be explored remotely. Once drones were able to carry specialized lightweight tools they could be used for remote repair and maintenance on oil platforms and other difficult or dangerous locations. Their capabilities in transportation opened up new possibilities in logistics, especially in challenging areas like delivering humanitarian aid. Significantly the demands of these fringe markets drove innovation around stability, payload, propulsion and other technologies, reinforcing and widening the appeal.

    Estimates suggest the 2021 drone services market is worth $9 billion with predictions of growth rates as high as 45% per year. Application sectors outside mainstream aviation include infrastructure, agriculture, transport, security, media and entertainment, insurance, telecommunication and mining.

    Holding the horses?

    These days UAVs can do a lot for low price. Just like low-cost flying, mini mill steelmaking, and earthmoving equipment they represent a technology which has already changed the game in many sectors. They qualify as a disruptive innovation but they also trigger some interesting NIH behavior amongst the established incumbents. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ is particularly powerful when ‘this way’ has been around a long time and is associated with a history of past success.

    Elting Morison has another story which underlines this challenge. Once again it concerns gunnery, this time the firing performance of mobile artillery crews in the British army during World War 2. A time and motion study was carried out using photographs of the procedure; the researcher was increasingly puzzled by the fact that at a certain point just before the gun was fired two men would peel away and stand several meters distant. It wasn’t until he discussed his findings with a retired colonel from the First World War that the mystery was solved. He was able to explain that the move was perfectly clear — the men were holding the horses. Despite the fact that the 1942 artillery was transported by truck the procedures for horse-drawn guns still remained in place.

    Something worth reflecting on when you are walking in those Welsh hills…

    Image: Pixabay

    Image credits: as captioned, Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay

    If you’re interested in more innovation stories please check out my website here

    Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.

    Everyday Innovation

    Everyday Innovation

    GUEST POST from John Bessant

    We’re all innovators, even if we never thought of calling ourselves that…

    Here’s a challenge.

    Close your eyes and try to visualize an entrepreneur.

    There’s a good chance that what you’ve come up with will be one of the usual suspects — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, perhaps some of the older versions like Steve Jobs or even Thomas Edison. Hopefully there’s a fair number of women represented, players like Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce or Ariana Huffington; after all statistics show that close to half of the entrepreneurs in the world are female.

    But there’s an equally good chance that you won’t have come up with some of these characters, though they all have a strong claim to be featured in our ‘entrepreneur’s gallery’. They may not have become trillionaires but they certainly made an impact. People like Margaret Knight, back in the 19th century; a natural born inventor who was famous before she hit her teens for the wooden sledges she’d fashion for local kids. Working in a textile factory she witnessed an awful (but preventable) accident in which a worker was badly injured by a shuttle flying off a loom. It prompted her to develop a safety device to prevent this happening; she succeeded, her idea worked and it was widely adopted by other textile mills in the area. Unfortunately she was too young to hold a patent and in any case had little understanding of the legal mechanics of doing so. A hard lesson — but one which later served her well.

    Margaret Knight Patent Illustration

    She moved on through a series of jobs which gave her an appreciation of many different technologies and production processes and finally found herself at the Columbia Paper Company. Her job involved folding every paper bag by hand — a slow process and one with a high potential for human error. During her long working day (10 hour shifts, monotonously folding and gluing) she had ample opportunity to think about how to improve the process — and by night she’d sketch out her ideas in the boarding house where she was living. Within six months she’d managed to build a working prototype out of wood which could cut, fold and glue bags each time a crank was turned.

    This time she tried to patent her idea, only to find someone had got there first, having stolen her concept. He’d seen the potential in the design and had decided to copy it and pass it off as his own. After all who would believe that a woman factory worker could produce something so clever and complex?

    But Margaret Knight was tough as well as clever; she’d kept all her working drawings and was not going to surrender meekly. Although it cost her most of her savings she was vindicated; in 1871 she was granted US Patent 116842, the first woman in the country to hold a patent. It may have been an improvement innovation but its impact was radical. Her invention revolutionized the paper bag industry by replacing the work of thirty people with one machine. It provided the ‘dominant design’ around which others would innovate, and created the model for the paper shopping bags we still use today.

    Or how about Betty Nesmith Graham, a single mother working as a secretary in the Dallas headquarters of the Texas Bank. Which meant spending much of her time typing (or to be more precise, correcting the mistakes she’s made by re-typing). In her frustration she wondered if there was a way to cover up the mistakes, somehow magically clean the paper and type over it once again. After all, when she was painting (her hobby when she got time for it) she’d not spend ages rubbing out or throwing away the canvas so she could start again. She’d just paint over what she’d done wrong, fix it, move on.
    She began to experiment at home on the kitchen table. Took a small brush, mixed up some egg white and a little of her precious white tempera paint in the kitchen blender. Played around until the consistency felt right, then dipped her smallest water colour brush into the mixture and painted carefully over a line of typing on the polite letter informing her that her phone bill was overdue for payment. The black key strokes faded beneath the white, the page became blank again ready for someone to type a new line on it.

    Back at work the next day it didn’t take her long to make another mistake, her fingers overstepping themselves as she tried to type faster. But this time she carefully wound the roller up a few notches, took a nail varnish pot filled with her concoction from her handbag and painted over the mistake. After a couple of minutes she picked up the mistaken page — and saw her mis-typed words erased, the letter ready for her to try again.

    That was the birth of what became ‘Liquid Paper’; it wasn’t an easy journey from idea to successful business but by 1979 over 25 million bottles/year were being made and she employed over 200 people. At this high point she decided to sell the (by now very profitable) business to the Gillette Corporation for $47.5million.


    Or Brownie Mae Wise, another single mother trying to keep her family afloat and working as a demonstrator for Stanley Home Products, selling door-to-door. They began experimenting with a new idea, hosting demonstration events in people’s houses and she took to it like a natural. Her social skills coupled with her sales gift meant that pretty soon she was the top agent with much of her success coming with a new product the company had just taken on for a client — Tupperware. She pioneered the idea of social marketing, turning the Tupperware party into a model which transformed the Tupperware business and led to her becoming a powerful role model for women of her time. In 1954 she was featured as the first woman on the cover of Business Week magazine.

    With examples like these we clearly need to expand our picture of what makes an entrepreneur. We should, for example, add Dr Govindar Venkataswamy who worked all his life as a surgeon in India specializing in cataract treatment; on retirement he set himself the goal of bringing this operation within the reach of the rural poor in his native state of Tamil Nadu. To do so he needed to find a way of bringing down the cost from around $300 in a city hospital to $30, without compromising safety. He found an answer not in the world of healthcare but by adopting ideas from McDonalds, the fast-food business. The model for his Aravind eye care system worked, the average cost of the operation today is $25, it has one of the best safety records in the world and around 15million people can see who would otherwise have gone blind.

    Or how about students Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork who founded Luminaid as a response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake? They realized that there was a requirement for something beyond food, water and basic first-aid supplies — light. For vulnerable communities, access to a safe, waterproof and transportable light source, which can be powered by the sun could be valuable. Accessible lighting provides a sense of security and community; beyond this, light facilitates study into the evening, providing much-needed access to education for disadvantaged children across settings around the world. Since 2010 over 250,000 LuminAID lanterns and chargers have been distributed by major aid agency partners to those in need, 50,000 of which were sponsored directly through their Give Light, Get Light program.

    People like them are also change agents, driven by the desire not for money but for impact, making the world a better place.

    And what about the quiet unsung heroes who work away in organizations and who come up with new ideas and take them forward — they too qualify as change agents. People like George Laurer, working for IBM in the early 1970s. One Sunday afternoon he walked across the lawn to tell his neighbor Paul McEnroe (who also happened to be his boss) “I didn’t do what you asked.”

    What McEnroe had asked for was a circular bullseye optical scanning code which could be printed on labels. This needed to be compatible with the scanners being installed in supermarkets for which IBM was developing technology. But Laurer could see the problem — printed circles in a high speed press risked blurring at the edges and misinformation. So instead he devised his own code, a pattern of vertical stripes, readable even under difficult lighting conditions.

    McEnroe told him to go ahead with preparing his presentation for the next day anyway but didn’t exactly offer warm support, telling Laurer “…there’s nothing I can do about it now….you make the presentation but if it’s not accepted it’s going to be your butt not mine”

    Fortunately for George — and IBM — the idea was accepted; it was the bar code strip, formally known as the Universal Product Code — UPC — which provides us with a continuing reminder of the power of such ‘quiet innovation’.

    Another group we ought to add into our (now very large) community — user innovators. For many people in all walks of life frustration is often the Mother of Invention. They want a solution to a problem which is bugging them and they’re not afraid to experiment and hack their way to a solution which works. Very often they aren’t particularly interested in spreading their ideas more widely but if someone else can benefit then that’s OK. Examples include farmers improvising add-ons and fixes to their equipment or patients and their carers coming up with solutions to make living with chronic disease more comfortable.

    For housewife Valerie Gordon-Hunter back in 1947 the frustration was the endless process of washing nappies for her three children and her dream of finding some kind of disposable version. She developed her own solution– the Paddi — made out of old nylon parachutes, tissue wadding and cotton wool which she sewed together at her kitchen table.

    At the same time across the Atlantic Marion Donovan came up with the idea of a cover which would stop the contents of a dirty nappy from soiling surrounding clothes or bed linen. Once again the target was reducing the superhuman effort involved in constantly washing clothing; her invention was called the ‘Boater’ because of its resemblance to a boat. It involved a shower curtain as raw material sewn into a pair of pants which, with the addition of snap fasteners to replace safety pins, kept the nappy in place without soiling the surrounding clothes or bed sheets. And she hit on the idea of some kind of absorbent insert which could be disposable — experimenting with various mixes of cotton wool and once again nylon parachute material.

    Disposable Diapers

    Today’s market for disposable nappies is estimated at around $10bn.

    Sometimes it’s a matter of inspired improvisation. On a hot July day in 1904 at the St Louis World’s fair the ice cream seller next to Ernest Hamwi’s waffle stall hit the nightmare scenario — a queue of people wanting ice cream and no dishes left to sell it in. But Ernest came to the rescue — he had the idea of rolling one of his waffles into a cone shape, and one of the great ideas in the food world was born.

    Improvisation of this kind is often something which is born out of crisis; it’s useful to remember the Apollo 13 space mission which had the world holding its breath in the aftermath of the radio message “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” At 2am on April 14, 1970 the failure of a major part of the electrical system suddenly put the crew’s lives at risk. With one of its main oxygen tanks ruptured and with the clock ticking away the teams on the ground and in the module had to improvise solutions fast. They needed to secure enough breathable oxygen for three men in a capsule only designed to take two — and so built an air purifier system using plastic covers from their flight plans, plastic bags, some sticky tape and a soggy sock!

    The same kind of crisis-driven improvisation led Willem Kalff to develop the world’s first kidney dialysis machine. Because he was working during wartime under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands his was something of a ‘scrapyard challenge’; he built his machine out of salvaged car and washing machine parts, orange juice cans and sausage skins.

    It’s the same kind of spirit that led to ‘citizen innovators’ developing a wide range of apps to help deal with the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake; their solutions included crisis mapping, reuniting displaced families, mobilising an alternative banking system to help distribute aid and crowdsourcing design information to feed 3D printers creating urgently needed medical spare parts.

    We could go on but the point is clear. Innovation– creating value from an idea — is something which all sorts of people do in many different contexts. Peter Drucker’s famous comment is helpful here; ‘innovation is what entrepreneurs do’. We’re familiar with the start-up but that’s only one of the many places in which we might find ‘entrepreneurs’ — people who make change happen.

    In fact we are all potentially entrepreneurs — think about situations like these in your own life. Standing in a queue and turning over in your mind the thought that ‘there has to be a better way…’ You’re beginning the same kind of mental journey of innovation, frustration prompting you to think of alternative solutions. Or look around your home and list all the little hacks you’ve put in place to solve problems or make life easier. Innovation, once again.

    We shouldn’t be surprised; after all this is something human beings have been doing for thousands of years. Our survival as a species rather depended on being able to come up with now solutions to the problem of not being eaten or having enough to eat ourselves. We’re not big or fast — but we do have half a kilogram of grey stuff inside our heads which is pretty useful at coming up with new ideas.

    This isn’t just semantics. At a time when we need as much innovation as we can get (never mind trying to survive a pandemic we also have a planet whose future is in considerable doubt unless we change things pretty fast and radically) mobilizing the skills of innovation is an urgent priority. Not for nothing are efforts being made to introduce the core skills of entrepreneurial behavior to everyone from kindergarten kids through to care home residents.

    And the good news is that we have learned a lot about what those skills involve; far from entrepreneurs being somehow magically different (like unicorns) we now understand the core elements in the craft. Turning ideas into value is about learning to make a journey and we have a map for that which has been drawn from over 100 years of experience of success (and failure) — a kind of supercharged ‘Trip Advisor’ or Hitchhiker’s Guide.

    It still helps to have a growth mindset and plenty of ‘grit’ — being prepared to persevere in the face of obstacles and learning to manage failure as part of the process. But thinking about how to develop our skills as an ‘everyday entrepreneur’ might be a good resolution for kicking off the 2022 new year.

    Image credits: Pixabay, USPTO, Unsplash

    Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.

    An Example of Successful Alchemy

    Successful Alchemy

    GUEST POST from John Bessant

    At the age of eighteen Johann Friedrich Bottger was blessed with a strong pair of legs. Which came in handy for his chosen profession — that of alchemy. Earning a living by attracting sponsors to support you in your quest to transmute base metals into gold was not without its risks. Chief amongst which was the anger of disappointed patrons who might run you out of town, or worse, hunt you down, fling you in jail and throw away the key.

    Which is why, in 1704, young Johann was running as fast as his legs could carry him, heading south east along the banks of the river Elbe, away from some very angry Berlin sponsors and towards the city of Dresden. Hoping to find at least some peace and quiet and possibly a new patron.

    His wish was granted but not quite on the terms he’d have hoped for. He was taken into ‘protective custody’ by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland and — as the name suggests — not someone to trifle with. He was confined to a laboratory under instructions to produce gold in order to help pay for Augustus’s expensive lifestyle; something of a challenge since, like many of his contemporary alchemists, Johann wasn’t making much progress in that direction.

    Augustus the StrongThe world of innovation is full of the names of famous partnerships — Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Sergey Brin and Larry Page to name but a few. But Bottger and von Tschirnhaus isn’t a combination which springs easily to the lips or off the tongue. Yet it was this unlikely partnership which managed the impossible — between them they were able to transmute base material into weisses Gold — white gold.

    Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus was a much older man, a chemist in the town of Meissen who had worked all his life to try and improve glass making. But as a sideline he was interested in ceramics and in particular with trying to work out how to make porcelain. He heard of Johann’s plight and saw an opportunity; he persuaded Augustus to assign Johann to work with him in the quest and in 1705 Bottger, still under guard, was moved to Meissen to work with Tschirnhaus.

    Why would he do that? Mainly because he understood that Augustus had an obsession with porcelain. So much so that in order to add to his collection he “presented” 600 cavalrymen from his army to the Prussian king, Frederick William I in spring 1717; in exchange he received 151 Chinese porcelain vessels. This wasn’t a foolish obsession; at that time porcelain was prized highly amongst the aristocracy. Pale, thin, translucent, its delicate texture worked into wonderful and complex shapes. But above all it was rare. The only supplies came from China via the Silk Road and merchants were able to charge extraordinary prices for this strange exotic oriental material. They embellished the legends surrounding the stuff — that it all came from one mysterious location, Jingdezhen, in the centre of China and specifically from a hill which housed the mine from which porcelain emerged as if by magic.

    Chinese PorcelainTruth was the merchants didn’t know much about it and neither did the Chinese who supplied them. Marco Polo’s best guess at its origins? ‘The dishes are made of a crumbly earth or clay which is dug as though from a mine and stacked in huge mounds and then left for thirty or forty years exposed to wind, rain, and sun …by this time the earth is so refined that dishes made of it are of an azure tint with a very brilliant sheen.” The assumption that this was somehow magical can be seen in an account from 1550 suggested that “porcelain is …… made of a certain juice which coalesces underground…”

    Its origins didn’t matter; its rarity meant it was immensely valuable. So if anyone could find a way to make porcelain they would also make their fortune. An interesting business proposition which convinced Augustus to allow Bottger, under von Tschirnhaus’s supervision, to start work. Theirs was not an overnight success and their work was interrupted for a year when the Swedes occupied Saxony in 1706 and Bottger was moved to a distant fortress for safe keeping. And their progress wasn’t a matter of luck or sudden flashes of inspiration. It was about turning fragments of knowledge wrapped up in superstition and half-truths into something reproduceable, codifiable and manageable. It was a kind of transmutation — but of ideas, not metals.

    They kept at the project, bringing a discipline to their experiments and painstakingly recording the successes (few) and the failures (many) on the way to synthesising this material. Tschirnhaus died on October 11th 1708 from dysentery but he had the opportunity to see his life’s work come to fruition; that year they found a reliable and practical formula and developed a manufacturing process to convert handfuls of earth into white gold.

    By 1709 Bottger’s laboratories in the Albrechtsburg fortress in Meissen began producing batches of porcelain and the first pieces went on sale at the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1710. Augustus finished building a royal porcelain factory in Meissen in June the same year and the operation was transferred there. The first products were red (there are examples still around, now known as Bottger stoneware) but soon Bottger’s continued experimentation enabled him (in 1713) to make a pale white version and then to use different coloured glazes to enable the creation of beautiful and functional china wares.

    Which is where another important piece of the puzzle comes in; rather than develop production on a large scale to make porcelain a commodity product Bottger (with Augustus’s backing and the profits from early sales) began to add design into the mix. He commissioned artists to create a range of exquisite artefacts exploiting the potential of the new material and opening up a wealthy market niche to continue to fund his development work. Meissen porcelain figures were used to decorate the drawing rooms of great houses, sculptures took pride of place in entrance halls and even the more mundane business of eating and drinking became a pleasure when using beautifully crafted plates, cups, pots and jugs. What Bottger did was essentially create what we would call ‘experience innovation’ today.

    Porcelain Figures

    European porcelain had arrived — and just in time to catch another wave of change which fuelled its popularity and kept it a very profitable industry. In the early 18th century the growing middle classes discovered the attraction of exotic drinks — tea, coffee and chocolate and their popularity swept across the continent. It wasn’t just the drinks themselves, it was the social experience which surrounded them. But it also drove a practical revolution in both drawing rooms and later coffee shops. A premium priced drink needs a suitable vessel from which to drink it — not just a simple cup. And the trouble with using gold or silver or expensive metal cups is very practical — they get hot and burn your lips. That’s where fine china, exemplified by the thin translucent porcelain — comes into its own. The perfect material from which to construct cups, pots, milk jugs and all the other accoutrements of the tea or coffee service.

    Pretty soon everyone wanted one. Just like today when the advanced and expensive features in a vehicle begin with the luxury product targeted at the wealthy customer and then trickle down down to the mainstream mass market, so porcelain moved from a luxury item to one consumed on a far bigger scale. Helped along by the growing industrialisation of its manufacture and the strong scientific underpinning to those factories.

    Porcelain Dishes

    Open innovation isn’t a new phenomenon — innovation has always been about knowledge flows. Taking ideas from one source and adapting and redeploying them is a key feature of the way the game plays out. Bottger and Tschirnhaus themselves borrowed plenty of ideas from their Chinese counterparts; their knowledge base around porcelain was partly constructed of whatever they could find out about how the Chinese did it. ‘Reverse engineering’ existing successful products to learn is still a valuable approach today. Much of the success of South Korean companies like LG and Samsung can be traced back to the middle of the 20th century where they built on the principles of a strategy they called ‘copy and develop’. Importantly for them — as for our two German chemists — it’s not enough to imitate. The secret to long-term success is to use what knowledge you might acquire from someone else as a way of beginning a journey towards the frontier.

    But whilst it is good to draw on knowledge from other people open innovation raises the risk that your own hard-won knowledge leaks out. Despite taking precautions to protect their intellectual property the potential value of porcelain in the market place spawned many attempts to steal the ideas. It helped that the company’s R&D facility was located inside a castle — the Albrechstburg — with high physical walls to prevent things leaking out, but even these walls could be breached.

    In today’s terms we’d talk perhaps of a rather weak ‘appropriability regime’ — it was hard to keep the lid on what was going on. Samuel Stöltzel was a senior arcanist at Meissen, one of the few who understood the secrets (the ‘arcana’) of making the hard porcelain for which the company had become famous. But (for a suitably high price) he was persuaded to sell these to a competing venture which, in 1717, started to produce porcelain in Vienna. By 1760 there were over thirty porcelain factories in Europe.

    Knowledge movement of this kind isn’t always a bad thing at the level of an industry because it multiplies the amount of knowledge exploration. Others took the increasingly available ideas and added and improved on them. Not least a young chemist working in the British town of Plymouth, a thoughtful Quaker named William Cookworthy. One of the core secrets in porcelain was the use of kaolin (also known as china clay) in the mix. He broke down the production ratio and also demonstrated that the clay pits in Cornwall were rich in this material, helping establish the UK as a major player in the growing ceramics industry. It wasn’t long before big names like Wedgwood and Spode began producing their own versions of porcelain artefacts and exporting them around the world.

    Crossed SwordsFaced with the challenge of increasing imitation Augustus’s team set about differentiating themselves in other ways. They built a brand, building on the relationships they had already made and the values they and their product stood for — purity, exquisite design, high quality at a premium price. To make sure they got the message across they employed a trade mark — the crossed swords of the Meissen brand which can still be found on their ware today, three hundred years on.

    Innovation lessons

    What does this story tell us about innovation? Perhaps the most significant lesson is that success isn’t a matter of luck. There wasn’t a single ‘Eureka!’ moment but rather a long systematic search. Unlike the mystic dream of turning base metal into gold this industry was founded on the growing scientific premise that it would be possible to make porcelain and do so under controlled conditions, learning to repeat the trick and codifying the knowledge to do so. In many ways Bottger and Tschirnhaus’s’s work laid the foundations for the systematic industrial research and development which grew to underpin the great chemical industries of Europe — in dyestuffs, fertilisers, soap, pharmaceuticals and explosives.

    Patient money helps and having a wealthy benefactor isn’t a bad start for any entrepreneurial venture. But the growth of Meissen porcelain wasn’t simply a case of pouring in money. The continuous investment of time and resources wasn’t blind faith; it was based on a recognition of the potential market opportunity. There was a demand pull for the luxury item which porcelain represented, but in order to feed this the company needed to grow their niche. And a key part of that was design — not simply providing functional domestic ware but creating works of art which reinforced the perception of something precious to be desired and treasured.

    Building a business out of an idea and moving to scale needs a system — inside there are many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to be put in place. As well as commissioning designers to imagine the products the Meissen team also had to continue their hard work on process technology to be able to manufacture them. All the different stages like moulding, shaping, painting, glazing, firing needed to move from manual operations to controlled and systematic processes. Beyond that there were challenges in scaling around procuring raw materials of the right quality, and downstream development of sales and distribution networks.

    Was it worth it? For Bottger it was a way of surviving although he spent most of his time under house arrest. Augustus finally granted him his freedom in 1714 and he was able to spend the final years of his life enjoying the sense of achievement that came from having (at least partially) fulfilled the alchemist’s dream of transmuting base material into gold. He helped create an industry which continues to produce beautiful artefacts for widespread use around the world. And one which has grown in value; the ceramic tableware market size is expected to reach USD 3.09 billion by 2022.

    Not bad for an athletic runaway from Berlin.

    You can find a podcast version of this story here

    If you enjoyed this you can find more at my website here

    Image credits: Pexels, Wikipedia

    Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.

    Going with the Flow

    How Great Ideas Sometimes Come From Following the Natural Flow of Things

    Image: James Homans on Unpslash

    GUEST POST from John Bessant

    Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas which change the world. Barbed wire is nothing more than a cleverly twisted piece of metal, yet its role in taming the Wild West was much more significant than any cowboys or cavalry. It enabled settlers to graze their herds and property rights to be marked out and defended.

    Joe Woodland’s idle scratches in the sand on a Miami beach were the prototype for what became known as the Universal Product Code — and paved the way for bar codes identifying everything from supermarket items to surgical implants.

    And a simple metal box transformed the pattern and economics of world trade. Brainchild of Malcolm McLean containerisation changed the way goods were transported internationally, drastically cutting costs and saving time. In 1965 a ship could expect to remain in port being loaded or unloaded for up to a week, with transfer rates for cargo around 1.7 tonnes/hour. By 1970 this had speeded up to 30 tonnes/hour and big shops could enter and leave ports on the same day. Journey times from door to door were cut by over half and the ability to seal containers massively cut losses due to theft and consequently reduced insurance costs.

    McLean was a tough entrepreneur who’d already built a business out of trucking. He’d learned the rules of the innovation game the hard way and knew that having a great idea was only the start of a long journey. Realising the value at scale would take a lot of ingenious problem-solving and systems thinking to put the puzzle together. He needed complementary assets — the ‘who else?’ and ‘what else?’ — to realise his vision. And he understood the challenge of diffusion — getting others to buy into your idea and enabling adoption through a mixture of demonstration, persuasion and pressure.

    But he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea; that distinction probably goes to another systems thinker who played the innovation game well throughout his unfortunately short life. And, like McClean, he can take a big share of the credit for transforming the pattern of world trade, this time in the 18th century.

    Image: David Dibert on Pexels

    James Brindley was born in 1716 and spent his early years learning the hard way about how things work — and how to make them work better. He didn’t have much of a formal education, could barely read or write and worked as an agricultural labourer until he was 17. He used his savings to buy his way into an apprenticeship to a millwright, one Abraham Bennett. Bennett was an engineer who preferred to leave much of the work in his business to others while he relaxed (and drank away) the fruits of their labour. Which offered James an opportunity not only to learn fast but to try out ideas. He’d grown up around mills, (both wind and water driven) and was fascinated by their operations.

    He got a chance to put some of his innovative ideas into practice when he was given the task, in 1735 of carrying out emergency repairs to a small silk mill. His work so impressed the mill superintendent that he recommended Brindley to others; it wasn’t long before he’d acquired enough experience and skill from different projects to set up on his own as a millwright. He earned the nickname of ‘the Schemer’ because of his approach which was often unconventional but certainly delivered results.

    Photo by Ali Arapoğlu from Pexels

    Which is how he came to be associated with the Wedgwood brothers who were busy establishing their ceramics business in nearby Stoke on Trent. They sought him out to help with problems they were having in grinding flint, one of the key ingredients in their pottery. Brindley built a series of mills for them, finding ways to improve efficiency and cut costs, and consolidating his reputation They in turn recommended him to John Heathcote, owner of the large Clifton collieries near Manchester who was struggling with a big problem of flooding in his mines.

    Brindley’s solution seemed crazy at first — he proposed drawing in more water! But in fact his ingenious idea was to draw water from the nearby river Irwell, pass it through an underground tunnel nearly a kilometre in length and use it to drive a huge mill wheel which drove a pump. It was strong enough to pump out the mine and efficient since it returned the water to the river. It worked — and established his reputation not just as a skilled engineer but as an imaginative problem-solver and innovator.

    No-one could call him a lazy man — he worked incessantly on a wide range of projects. But he also spent a lot of time in bed — sometimes days at a time. This was his thinking space, a way of incubating novel and sometimes crazy ideas.

    And water was at the centre of his thinking; he seemed to have an intuitive grasp of how it flowed and how those principles could be applied in a wide variety of situations. As he famously replied to an early enquiry about how he had come up with a solution to a complex hydraulic problem he said ‘…it came natural-like…’

    And of course one thing about water is that it requires you to think in systems terms, how things are linked together. Brindley had a gift for seeing the interconnected challenges in realising big schemes like the mine pumping system — and for focusing on solving those to enable the whole system to deliver value.

    This approach stood him in good stead as he moved into the field for which we best know him — canals. Canals played a critical role in the early Industrial Revolution; they meant that raw materials could get in to factories and their finished products could find their way to ports and be exported around the world. Britain, as ‘the workshop of the world’ depended on the canals as the veins and arteries that enabled the giant to come to life.

    And canals represented just the kind of systems challenge which Brindley was so good at. When the Duke of Bridgwater approached him in 1759 to help create a canal to connect his mines in Worsley to the city of Manchester he began a journey which would eventually see him changing the face of Britain, constructing 365 miles of canals criss-crossing the country and revolutionising productivity.

    When the Bridgwater Canal was finished in 1761 it helped cut the price of coal in Manchester by 50% and it fell further over the coming years. He followed this with other major projects; he worked with the Wedgwoods to create the Trent and Mersey canal which linked the Potteries to the big industrial cities and ports, providing a way of climbing (through a total of 35 locks) the country and delivering their fragile wares to a global export market. Whether it was shipping coal, flint or other raw materials into cities or transporting their finished wares out to the great ports like Liverpool, Brindley’s canals connected the country.

    Photo by Inge Wallumrød from Pexels

    It wasn’t easy; quite apart from the eye-watering costs of construction building the canal posed many challenges. Brindley innovated his way around them, coming up with radical ideas for:

    • using natural contours, working with the grain of the land rather than in straight lines. His canals might have been longer as a result but they were much cheaper to dig since this approach reduced the need for tunnels or expensive cuttings
    • cutting narrower canals, which reduced the water consumption and hence the running costs. Of course to make these work required the design of narrow longer boats — something else which Brindley pioneered and which became the dominant design for the waterways
    • pumping and circulatory systems to ensure efficient water flow into and tough the canal systems — and improving the design and productivity of the equipment involved
    • raising and lowering boats as they traversed the country through a series of watertight locks, some of which survive to this day
    • using puddling clay — a watertight ceramic material which he devised (using knowledge picked up from working with the Wedgwoods in their pottery factories) and which offered a watertight base with which to line the canals and solve the problem of water seepage
    • imagining and realising things like the Barton viaduct, a bridge carrying the Bridgwater canal over river Irwell 12m below
    Image: Watercolour of Barton aqueduct by G.F. Yates 1793, public domain

    He also developed another innovation as part of his problem-solving for the coal industry. His narrow boats were nicknamed ‘Starvationers’ on account of the wooden braces across the hull which gave them strength. They looked like an emaciated torso but this design meant they were strong enough to haul tons of coal or iron ore. But there was a bottleneck in terms of loading and unloading and so Brindley designed a system of wooden containers for coal which could be filled and transhipped easily. His first boat with 10 containers began work in 1766, predating Malcolm McLean by close to 200 years.

    (The concept was elaborated and really brought to the mainstream by James Outram who linked the idea into a system in which horses pulled containers from mines along rails to the canal where they were quickly transhipped. As the railways emerged to replace horse drawn traffic so this ‘intermodal system’ took off)

    Water was what made him and indirectly it was the death of him. In 1771 he’d begun work on another visionary scheme, surveying the route of what was to become the Trent and Mersey canal. But he was caught in a heavy thunderstorm and drenched through. He wasn’t able to dry out properly at the inn where he was lodging and by the time he returned home he was severely ill; he died of pneumonia a few days later.

    He left a legacy of innovation, both in the 365 miles of canals which he built and in the locks, pumping stations, tunnels and other engineering solutions to the problem of creating a viable water-based transport system.,

    And he also offers a good reminder of some key innovation themes involved in bringing large scale ideas to fruition and having an impact at scale. He might have been nicknamed ‘the Schemer’, improvising his way to solving engineering problems, but he also understood things like:

    • the importance of systems thinking and the need for complementary assets — identifying and putting in place the many interlocking pieces of the puzzle
    • the value of prototypes and working models to help persuade and accelerate adoption. Legend has it that when he was presenting his ideas to a sceptical group of Members of Parliament whose approval he needed for the Bridgwater canal route he used a cheese out of which he carved a model of the aqueduct he proposed to build!
    • the power of open innovation, learning from the many different sectors and projects he worked with and integrating knowledge from these different worlds — for example, using his knowledge of ceramics to develop the puddling clay liners for his canals
    • the importance of business models in laying out the architecture through which ideas can create value. He not only understood the literal flow of water, he was also skilled at managing cash flow, acquiring a reputation for being ‘careful with money’ which undoubtedly helped realise some of the huge schemes with which he was involved.

    Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to get Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to your inbox every week.