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:

Innovation is Rubbish!

Why waste recycling and reuse may represent a valuable entrepreneurial opportunity…

Innovation is Rubbish!

GUEST POST from John Bessant

One of our family traditions at this time of year is the big clear-up. There’s a time limit on our tolerance for the accumulated junk, the temporary displacement of furniture to make space for Christmas trees, decorations, cards and mountains of discarded wrapping paper, piles of new toys and other festive fripperies. At a certain point (Twelfth Night, good of them to mark it on the calendar) some kind of alarm switch trips and it’s a case of loading up the car to transport the rubbish to the refuse tip. Where, we quickly discover, we are not alone — everyone else has had the same idea. Cue long wait in queue.

When I teach about searching for innovation opportunities one of the great tools to introduce is ‘find a queue’. It builds on a well-established principle of lean thinking — most times the presence of a queue means that value isn’t being added somewhere. Something or someone is being forced to wait for something to happen and that’s a waste of time, space, energy, etc. . So there’s an opportunity to think about how to change the process — to innovate to smooth out the bottleneck. Find a queue do a process map and begin the improvement journey.

So sitting in a queue for the refuse tip started me thinking on the innovation opportunities so much accumulated waste might have to offer. And whilst it might be possible to improve the ways and speed with which families can be separated from their rubbish the real benefits are buried a little deeper.


In fact it’s worth referring back to a well-known piece of Yorkshire wisdom, ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’. Waste needn’t be a problem to be hidden away — buried or burnt to get rid of it. Instead there are real opportunities in waste — as plenty of innovators have already found out. Think for example of Earl Tupper whose efforts to turn the black sludge emerging from 1940s oil refineries paid off when he created the bright shiny plastic kitchenware which bears his name.

Or Charles Goodyear who managed to improve the unpromising raw material of rubber with its tendency to become sticky and brittle into something elastic and flexible through the vulcanization process he literally cooked up in his kitchen sink.

Or Henry Ford who developed a plastic made from soybeans and used it to make car parts, demonstrating an early example of using agricultural waste to create valuable products.

It’s still happening — take the case of Terracycle, founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky as a business specialized in recycling and up-cycling various waste materials. Envar is a UK company which recycles coffee grounds into bio-fuel. An approach which has been deployed elsewhere; Virgin Atlantic picked up some helpful publicity and valuable learning when it flew an airliner from London to New York on November 28th last year on a diet of 100% bio-fuel, essentially derived from waste cooking oil.

In doing so they scored a notable PR bonus, being the first of many airlines seen to be doing something to help reduce their climate impact. Adidas has done something similar for the fashion industry; their partnership with Parley for the Oceans creates shoes and apparel from ocean plastic waste. And Nike, not to be left out, has been running its Grind program since the 1990s turning waste from shoe manufacturing into surfaces for sports facilities, turning manufacturing waste into valuable products.

In fact there’s growing interest in using waste as a feedstock for further use — through recycling or re-using in different forms. Waste tips are increasingly seen not as dumps but as mines, full of valuable resources which can be dug out. It’s a useful analogy.

Think of gold mining and the traditional picture is something like a hot and cramped shaft a mile below Johannesburg’s city streets. The results of long sweated hours are brought to the surface and end up mostly as huge piles of rock which are painstakingly separated to yield a few grams of gold. That’s not so far from what is now becoming commercially interesting — digging deep into waste heaps to extract and concentrate small flecks of gold (or many other valuable minerals) from the piles of discarded electrical goods.

When I took a tour of my local waste processing facility recently (I have so much fun in my holidays) I had a growing sense of déjà vu — where had I seen something like this before? Separating out an unpromising feedstock of unpleasant smelling raw material into different parts which could be further refined to produce something of value? Then it struck me — an oil refinery. The processes might be different — think physical separation instead of fractional distillation — but the underlying story is the same. Identify the value in different streams, find clients who will pay for it and manage the business accordingly.

It’s a profitable business — so much so that councils and local authorities are increasingly selling the licenses to process waste. Recent reports suggest profit margins at between 30 and 60% which suggest that it’s worth taking a close look. The global recycling industry is worth about $410 billion and is forecast to grow at over 5% per year, at least for the next 7–10 years. A 2023 McKinsey report offers an optimistic scenario for plastics recycling, for example, suggesting a future in which 50 percent of plastics worldwide could be reused or recycled by 2030. Following that path, plastics reuse and recycling could generate profit-pool growth of as much as $60 billion for the petrochemicals and plastics sector, representing nearly two-thirds of its possible profit-pool growth over the period.

It may not be so easy as waving a magic wand, though. There is widespread concern that plastics recycling is much more difficult to achieve because of the challenge of separation — most plastic waste is mixed and contaminated. But whilst manual separation may be cheap it is rapidly being supplanted by a new generation of smart sensors and actuators. CES 2024 might have some glamorous consumer products and plenty of AI on the front stage but behind the scenes there’s huge improvements in the sensor and actuator field which could drive the cost of separation down whilst improving its efficiency.

Robot Recycling

And it’s not just economic pressure in the marketplace. Increasingly regulation is pushing for higher rates of recycling and for manufacturers to take responsibility for their products over the whole life cycle. Which is promoting some ambitious innovation in recycling. Henry Ford’s ghost might enjoy a trip to the southwest of England where the Charles Trent scrapyard in the town of Poole has quietly reinvented itself as one of Europe’s most advanced ‘de-production’ facilities.

It has cost over £10m and looks at first sight like a car assembly plant — except that this one is focused on disassembly. Whole cars go in at one end and their skeletal remnants emerge at the other. Around 96.3% is reused or recycled by weight — above the 95% legal target and the UK average of 93% or less. Part of what makes the model work is the emphasis on separating out the valuable but harder to get at elements rather than simply recycling the steel for scrap.

On a typical day 120 cars arrive on trucks from all around the area and engineers crawl over them attaching bar codes which identify key valuable items. It’s a high-tech operation. Robot arms lift items clear so that humans can get in with cutting torches, bar codes label and track everything.The wheels, batteries and tyres are the first to be removed — many can be refurbished and resold, others can go to a specialist recycling facility. Fluids are drained off- fuel, oil even water — and are used in the company’s own vehicles. And then the carcass is hoisted on to a disassembly line where it visits four stations; at each one the bar codes are scanned to identify what has to be done and instructions for how to deal with different parts. It’s got a lot in common with Ford’s old lines — the same race to complete tasks against the clock, for example, 15 minutes being allocated for each set of instructions. The stations are specialized; number 1 deals with doors, panels and interiors, 2 handles lights and dashboards, 3 is moving parts like engines, gearboxes, axles and cat converters ad the last stage is electricals. Engine blocks are washed, labelled and assessed for re-usability — or stripped down for parts. What’s left after all this is to crush the rest into a metal bale and send to scrap recycler. The whole process takes about 60 minutes and handles 75 cars/day

A key element in the process is the downstream platform where parts can be sold online; eBay has become the UK’s largest retailer of car parts and preferred not least because it offers guarantees of provenance and quality. It has grown as a marketplace partly because since the Brexit split from the EU spare parts are scarce. Prices have risen and consumers and repairers are prepared to pay and use recycled ones, especially with a guarantee. The approach is not only greener but also up to 70% cheaper!

Innovation is continuing to help develop the process further; as the CEO comments ‘within the next couple of years our target will be to close that recycling loop to nearly 100%…this is the future of car recycling’.

So innovation in processes is a key — but so too is innovation in the underlying ways in which we frame business opportunity. Business model innovation. Current concerns around the availability and complex geopolitics of key raw materials is promoting a rethink and a re-evaluation of opportunities. Key minerals like lithium and cobalt are going to be critical and the search for alternative sources of supply comes into the equation. How about re-mining as one route forward?

In another recent article in New Scientist Graham Lawton reports on thinking — and the technology development behind it — around revisiting coal waste as a source of key valuable materials. A recent webinar hosted by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine explored some fascinating options which revalue the thousands of sites of old coal mines which are littered with unsightly waste heaps. There’s a lot of collateral waste associated with coal mines — slag heaps, ash ponds and so on do not make for green and pleasant landscapes. These are mostly the consequence of burning coal — but they may represent a rich source of opportunity. Burning coal concentrates residual chemicals in the rock and those residuals include some of the most sought after minerals in today’s world. Lithium is close to the top of the list, essential for our current electromobility revolution and the batteries which will drive it. But there are other members of the so-called ‘dynamic dozen’ of key strategic materials present on slag heaps. Estimates suggest US coal waste alone contains around 288,000 tonnes of the stuff, enough to supply the US market for 130 years. Plus it also contains other high value minerals like cobalt (think mobile phones), platinum, iridium, gallium and germanium (semiconductors anyone?)

Rethinking waste in this way takes not only money but the classic entrepreneurial skill of reframing — of seeing what others don’t see. At its core, the Trash-to-Cash business model is all about re-imagining waste as a valuable resource. It requires an open mindset but also a long-term vision; the changes which might make such a business model viable may take time to materialize. But somewhere in that future of uncertainty about resource availability, concern for pollution and an increasingly strong regulatory framework lie the seeds of significant opportunity.

There’s also a need to think big and recognize that this kind of change may require a rethink at systems level. Much of the circular economy argument hinges around this theme of bringing together different players to create something viable which has emergent properties — the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Sustainability led innovation is easy and obvious — up to a point. Only a very short-sighted organization would fail to try to do what it does better — saving energy, reducing carbon footprint, etc. — it’s a no brainer. And there’s scope for the visionaries who see that this might be a route to new products and services, a way of creating a company or of renewing and transforming an existing one. The role model of Ray Anderson who took Interface Flooring from a small carpets company to being a major player in the industry through committing wholeheartedly to the sustainability vision is a powerful one.

The big challenge in sustainability-led innovation is working at the system level, assembling and aligning multiple players into a coherent ecosystem. And that takes a lot of entrepreneurial vision, re-framing and dogged perseverance! But the prize may be worth it; in earlier centuries alchemists were seen as the somewhat lunatic fringe with their attempts to transmute base material into gold. With today’s technological, political and economic environment we may be closer to reaching that goal. To paraphrase a classic one-liner from the Hollywood depictions of the Gold Rush — ‘there’s gold in them thar hills….!’ could become ‘there’s gold in them thar landfills….!’

Golden Rubbish

You can find my podcast here and my videos here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Image credits: Dall-E via Bing, John Bessant

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

Pathways to Scale

Why planning your innovation expedition helps avoid a lot of trouble on the journey…

Image: Dall-E via Bing

GUEST POST from John Bessant

When I was a child a big feature of the social landscape was the annual visit to my uncle’s house on Christmas Eve. My dad came from a big family and they’d gather at his brother’s place to celebrate; my kid brother would already be asleep but I would sit in the small room next to the place they were all gathered, drinking, talking, occasionally singing. It was warm there; a small electric fire in the grate and a blanket to wrap myself in if I felt the cold.

Which was just as well since I invariably spent the evening with my nose in a book. Not just any book; as soon as we arrived I’d make a beeline for the bookshelf and haul out John Hunt’s account of the ascent of Everest. And I’d spend the evening while the ice crawled up the windows outside the room I’d imagine hearing the wind howling against the flimsy side of my tent as we shivered over a primus stove, trying to warm ourselves and get some rest before tomorrow’s big day. The last painful yards towards the summit…..

I was fascinated by the scale of the thing; a huge expedition, involving over 400 people (362 of them porters helping carry the 5000-plus kilograms of equipment) and relying on the intimate knowledge of the mother mountain held by the 20 Sherpas in the team. Those Nepalese guides had grown up in the shadow of the peak and knew to fear and respect it. The months of planning in smoky rooms in London clubs, the assembly and trek towards the base camp and the allocation of roles to help lay the foundations for what would certainly not be a simple walk in the park.

The extended discussions around which paths to take, the weighing up of different challenges along the prospective routes. Obstacles reckoned into the equation and balanced with the specialist skills and equipment needed to tackle them. A whole new language of cols and crevasses, of pitons and crampons to be learned, a crash-course in high altitude physiology and technology to be mastered.

And that was all before they even took their first tentative steps up the slopes.

It was engrossing, exciting and scary; for an 8-year-old kid whose experience of mountaineering extended to scrambling over the South Downs during our annual trip to see Grandma this was heady stuff. And as the evening wore on and we approached the summit, so it became a race against time. For the climbers, whittled down to Hilary and Tenzing, struggling up the last stage, their oxygen and energy running low and storms looming.

And for me hearing the chatter from next door rise to the climax which portended the taking of farewells, the wrapping of my kid brother in a blanket to continue his pre-Santa sleep in the car and me being bundled into a coat. Would I get to the summit in time — or have to wait until next year to continue the journey, abandoning mine at the eleventh hour?

I took a couple of lessons from that book, the first being that I’m not cut out for mountain climbing. There have to be easier and still thrilling ways to get your kicks and ‘because it is there’ isn’t a good enough reason for me to devote my energies to that particular kind of madness.

But the other is a healthy respect for people who scale mountains successfully. It takes a lot of planning, great team work and an approach to uncertainty which is all about agility and pivoting, adapting and improvising your way upwards.

Pretty much the key ingredients for successful innovation — and certainly relevant to another kind of scaling journey, enabling great innovations to have impact.

Because taking an innovation from a small-sized success story to something which delivers value at scale is not an easy one. The Holy Grail of impact has a lot in common with that elusive quest pursued by King Arthur’s knights, taking them along strange paths, meeting with dragons and disasters and lasting a long time. Similar odds of success too.

Having spent a long time focused on the challenges facing start-ups the innovation spotlight is now moving to the question of scaling — and there’s a helpfully growing body of knowledge and codified experience around this theme. Including the important decision about which route to take for the journey to scale.

One thing about mountain climbing which I remember thinking about when reading my Everest book was how they chose which route to take. Faced with 29,000 feet of sheer white walls with the occasional dangerous looking black rock poking its jagged edge through the snow like a knife through a curtain, how do you decide which path to take? It’s not as if there are well-worn tracks and clear signposts which you can follow — all you have is a lot of very unfriendly and treacherous ground on which to try to make your way.

It’s the same with scaling your innovation. Choosing your preferred pathway to scale is a key first stage on the journey; fortunately — like today’s Everest climbers — there’s a wealth of experience available from previous attempts and some important lessons on which we can build.

In particular we need to see the choices available as lying on a spectrum where we trade off additional external involvement with giving up a degree of control.

It’s a strategic decision, trying to balance the resource commitments you’ll need to make with the amount of control you want to retain. And with deciding what parts of your innovation knowledge are core, what parts are modular and can be adapted and customized with others in mind and what parts are you prepared to let others engage with, ‘hacking’ their own version of your ideas. Scale stories give us valuable clues about possible options, which include not doing it!

Some innovations aren’t really about a scaling journey. They work for a particular problem in a particular context; what’s needed for impact over the long-term is sustainability, being able to continue to deliver over an extended period of time and becoming something which is used and relied upon.

But if you are going to aim for scale then your choices include:

· Parachute — develop the venture, then try to get acquired, a classic start-up exit strategy. Let someone with the experience and the resources buy your solution, let it go. Easy on paper but you give up all your control and can only watch from the side-lines as your venture develops, and hope it’s in safe hands…

· Go it alone — keep on adding staff and spreading your solution across different geographies, gradually paint the world (or your chosen part of it) in your colors. There are plenty of advantages to doing this — mostly you keep control and you can directly manage quality, message, brand, etc. But the downside is you’ll need a lot of people and resources and you’ll pretty soon reach the point where you need to rethink your structure. The old tight-knit start-up team has to give way to a structured organization, complete with policies, procedures and a slowing down of the decision-making process. Plus you’ll need to adapt your solution to different local conditions — compatibility. And cost management will be important, finding ways to grow without bloating.

In reality this organic growth kind of approach can’t be a solo act — there will be things you need to outsource like legal services, manufacturing, distribution or maintenance. And it can also take time to build your own networks.

· Replicate — maybe your solution idea is one you think will work simply by replicating, placing the same offer in different geographies with only minor tweaks to help it fit. If your solution is something which can be ‘packaged’ and exported — a plug’n’play option — then this can work. It can either be a ‘grow your own’ approach, repeating the pattern by putting down your footprints on an increasingly broad geography. That’s the kind of route followed by IKEA and many other retailers, embodying their innovation solution in something which can be replicated.

Or you can franchise, allow others to take on the task and replicate on your behalf, sharing the revenues and building on your original innovative efforts. That’s the route which McDonalds has followed, exporting its original innovative fast-food format to over 39,000 locations around the world. But as Ray Croc, their scale architect realized, there’s a critical need to make sure the rules are clearly codified and then control via the franchise agreement so your proxies don’t damage the brand, compromise quality or change the core product. It’s a kind of remote control based on a clear constitution….

· ‘Relay replication’ — another version which involves another organization adopting and using your solution. Like franchising it requires protocols, training, standardization of core elements and processes but it also allows the adopting unit to continue to adapt and innovate within agreed parameters. A classic model here might be the diffusion of chemical plants like oil refineries; the core technology is transferred and the user learns to operate. It needs more than simple delivery, not plug n play — it involves a shared extended handover process until the user can make ‘product in a bottle’ with its own staff operating the equipment.

The advantages here are that you learn every time as you coach different organizations in the use of your innovation, plus there’s the chance that their downstream learning feeds back to you and allows you to improve your innovation. But it takes time and resources to ensure a successful handover, with key knowledge being shared through training, manuals and protocols and a long-term commitment to support.

· Licensing is another variation on the replication theme where other players can take on and (depending on the terms of the license) do things ranging from simply selling the core package through to adapting and extending it to suit local conditions. The big advantage is that other players are putting their shoulder to the wheel, helping spread the innovation, plus there’s a direct financial return to the original innovator. But once again it does involve letting go of control.

· Open source/open licensing — much commercial innovation is about finding ways to appropriate the benefits. So there’s pressure to keep a tight rein on what’s shared and how. But if you want to spread something, especially a novel approach, you might want to open up more to accelerate diffusion and seek your returns from being a first mover, growing with the market. There’s plenty of examples — Philips wanted to change the way we consumed recorded music in 1993 when they launched the Compact Cassette and so licensed it for free to others like Sony and Matsushita. It makes sense — if you are trying to establish a new ‘dominant design’ and move the world away from the current incumbent then recruiting others via open licensing is a good road to take.

And in the world of social innovation this has particular relevance; innovators who want to change the world for the better face the same challenge and recruiting others to the cause offers one way of doing so.

There are several advantages to such an open approach, not least it recruits many innovators who may help improve on your ideas. Communities of practice and using the crowd have become powerful innovation engines through this approach of free sharing; Linux is a good example.

Image: Dall-E via BIng

Lego’s approach to the hackers who started to modify the original ‘Mindstorms’ product is interesting here; they were presented with a different option to the traditional lawsuit which they might have been expecting. They were invited to Denmark to add their innovative ideas to those of the core design team!

But the downside, of course, in such open approaches is the loss of control and the risk that the innovation may be hijacked or developed in directions which do not match those of the original authors or reflect their social values.

· Strategic partnerships make sense where there is a clear need for ‘complementary assets’ of knowledge or other key resources and where win-win arrangements and contracts can be put in place. Christopher Sholes and colleagues had developed a great solution to the typewriter opportunity back in the 1850s but it took their strategic partnership with Remington and their accompanying mass-manufacturing and marketing to scale their innovation.

· Multi-player consortia may be needed when the range of complementary assets needed goes beyond a single partner. Sears and Roebuck pioneered the remote retailing model with their mail order catalogue approach but they needed to bring together many other players into the model to make it work — finance houses, logistics and distribution and a wide range of different suppliers. Boeing and Airbus do the same today, orchestrating extensive networks of players and partners to deliver their aerospace solutions at scale.

Such consortia bring real power to the scaling challenge but also require careful integration around a core mission. Managing such ‘strategic networks’ is well-known for its high transaction costs and co-ordination challenges.

· Value network and ecosystems — today’s innovation language extends this multi-player game, recognizing that there is a need for multiple players to work together to create value at scale. The challenge is that not all of these players have the same goals or aspirations so balancing their needs with the overall ‘mission’ becomes a tricky balancing act. It’s also important to recognize that such ecosystems don’t just have shared value creators in the mix like our strategic partnerships; they may also involve other players who affect the journey to scale by shaping the ways in which the value creation game is played. Examples of such shapers include government regulators, trade unions and standards organizations.

Once again this has particular relevance for scaling social innovation where system change which delivers real impact may depend on finding ways to bring many diverse players, like government agencies or regional authorities onside. As an influential IDB report puts it, such collaborations require ‘…different actors to coalesce around a shared set of priorities and best practices’.

· Platforms — we’re also now seeing the rise of platform businesses which enable scaling through linking innovators and markets more effectively. The Taobao market approach pioneered in China mimics in many ways the ecosystems around Apple’s developer platform or much of the Amazon operation. For small start-up innovators such platforms become a powerful alternative route to scale, but at the cost not only of accessing the platform but also in letting go some degree of control.

For any innovator climbing Mount Scale remains a key challenge. Meandering around the foothills may be a pleasant way to pass the time but if you want your innovation to have real impact then that peak has got to be climbed. Which means putting together and planning your expedition with the kind of care and attention John Hunt brought to his Everest team. And my guess is that his reflections probably have relevance in the world of innovation. Working out the most appropriate route up those slopes is something best done in the comfort of base camp rather than halfway up the mountain with the wind howling and the snow lashing at your face as you realise that the other path might have been a better one to take….

Image: Dall-E via Bing

This blog is based on our forthcoming book ‘The Scaling Value Playbook’ — click here for more details and to pre-order

You can find my podcast here and my videos here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Image credits: Dall-E via Bing, John Bessant

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

Why Evidence Plays a Key Role in Scaling Innovation

Prove it to me!

Why Evidence Plays a Key Role in Scaling Innovation

GUEST POST from John Bessant

A good idea will sell itself, right? Unfortunately not — Emerson was spectacularly wrong when he suggested that all you needed to do was build that better mousetrap to have the world beating a path to your door.

History is full of examples of innovations that, whilst being good and proven solutions, more than just a gleam in their inventor’s eye, stubbornly refused to scale. They failed to have impact on a widespread basis.

Think about Earl Tupper and his alchemical miracle, creating an award-winning product out of the unpromising raw material of black sludge waste from oil refining. Tupperware eventually made it as an innovation which scaled but it was only after Brownie Wise teamed up with him and pioneered the social marketing which brought the product into the homes of key influencers.

Or Toshiba, investing close to a billion dollars in the technology underpinning what they saw as the next generation of high quality DVD recording, only to fall in the final straight as the market opted instead for Sony’s Blu Ray system. This was a fascinating echo of the story which Sony had encountered decades earlier when its Betamax video tape format lost the battle to the VHS standard, despite having many technical advantages over its rival.

Or Better Place, an ambitious green start-up that offered to make the world more sustainable by introducing battery swap technology for electromobility. Despite raising a huge amount of venture finance and gaining the backing of world leaders and CEOs prepared to set up factories the vision fell apart after three years.

These are not the failures of foolish and unprepared entrepreneurs; they all had much to offer and had proven their technologies worked. But they each stumbled over one or other of the many rocks strewn in the way of those trying to make the journey to scale. There are plenty of them in the world of commercial innovation — and in the field of social change, innovations designed to have an impact and change the world, it’s even more difficult.

Evidence and scale

One of the challenges is around the role of evidence. At its simplest we adopt new things because we see some benefit in them, they make our lives easier, more comfortable or better in some way. That’s what gives rise to the S-curve shape which you can find associated with any innovation — it isn’t a case of all or nothing, adoption takes time. And one of the key influences on that is the role of evidence.

For early adopters it’s a matter of being convinced enough by data or demonstrations that the innovation has real advantages to offer — they’re looking for hard and measurable facts to underpin their decision. But as we move along the road diffusion becomes more of a social process as well.

The more we see others getting benefit, the more we’re prepared to take the risk. Shaping our perceptions of new things so that we adopt them sooner is a huge part of what advertising does and it plays on our desire for evidence. Being persuaded — by facts, figures, demonstrations or simple observation accelerates the process.

Think of Washington Carver’s famous attempts to get rural farmers in the southern USA (a sceptical breed) to adopt new strains and methods. Simply giving them the hard facts wasn’t enough — his success came when he could show that the crops in his demonstration fields grew higher or thicker than those around. Seeing is believing — and it reminds us that evidence comes in many forms and can be communicated in different ways.

It’s also a matter of who is offering us the evidence — can we trust it, can we believe it? The advertising industry has played this tune for a long time, persuading us about the virtues of better toothpaste or headache pills by invoking the (eminently trustworthy) authority of medical practitioners. We also listen to key influencers, opinion leaders whose perceptions we trust — and we’re much more likely to adopt something if it is recommended by ‘people like us’.

All of these factors help shape the familiar S-curve pattern which we see over the life of innovations whereby adoption accelerates after the initial first wave. There’s a kind of snowball effect with the accumulation of evidence (especially the experience of satisfied adopters) driving up the pace of adoption. (Or not — negative evidence or word of it can quickly stop adoption in its tracks).

So if we are concerned with trying to scale our innovation it’s worth looking a little more closely at the role evidence plays, at the monitoring and evaluation processes which build that evidence base, and at how evidence is communicated. We could do a lot worse than break our review down into some key question areas — the who, what, when and how of scaling evidence.


Who needs evidence? Well, self-evidently (!) adopters, as we’ve seen, it’s a key part of the innovation decision process. But we often use proxies — opinion leaders — to influence our decisions — whether it’s the Jones’s we try to keep up with or our favourite social media influencer. Adoption is based on trusting others judgment and we assume they have reviewed the ‘evidence’ in coming to their decision.

Beyond that there’s another group — investors. Whether it is donors funding social innovation or government promoting a new technology or individual investors in a crowdfunding campaign those investors are looking for evidence to shape their behaviour. Is the innovation worth doing — is there evidence of demand and potential impact? Is there evidence downstream of actual impact, and along the way are the trends in the right direction? And afterwards, was the investment worthwhile, was it done well, could it have been done better, what have we learned? All questions which require evidence.

And then there’s the innovators themselves, the teams growing and scaling their innovation. Their core approach in coming up with their original solution will have been based on prototyping and experimenting, pivoting as they learn from the market what works and what doesn’t. And that experimental learning cycle doesn’t stop once the solution is established. If anything the journey to scale requires even more of this pivoting and adaptation to suit different contexts and situations on the scaling journey. Once again what the team needs is evidence.

In the field of social innovation there are other stakeholders to consider, all of whom have influence on whether or not an innovation can scale. Research on innovation scaling in the humanitarian sector suggests that there are many different players involved, each of whom have different evidence needs, as shown here.

(Source: ‘Building evidence for scaling’, ALNAP Response Innovation Lab, 2020)


So what kind of evidence do we need? And, in a world increasingly plagued by fake news and unreliable facts ,what constitutes ‘good’ evidence? There isn’t one size fits all, different players (as we’ve just seen) look for different kinds of evidence.

During a recent webinar Lydia Tanner of The Research People showed a helpful graphic which underlines this point; evidence is very much a matter of horses for courses.

(Source: ‘Building evidence for scaling’, ALNAP Response Innovation Lab, 2020)

Of course we’re looking for evidence of impact, of relative advantage. But in the field of social innovation where donors and funders may be asking the question there’s also a need to provide evidence that the problem is important and the ‘right’ one to address, and that the solution has real value to end-users. Is there real advantage to the solution, is it compatible with the context into which it will operate?

And on the left had side of the diagram there are considerations of how well the solution is delivered. This involves reflecting and collecting data on the innovation process itself and how well it is working , alongside the nature and experience of the solutions being offered.

There’s also something important about the quality and reliability of the evidence we assemble. Clearly our aim should be to provide proof, facts which can be verified — not for nothing does the healthcare sector place so much weight on randomised control trials as a gold standard to help determine whether a new medicine is effective or not. RCTs are all about assembling an evidence base of reliable and robust data. The trouble is that getting at good evidence is difficult, not least because there are so many kinds of information we can assemble as ‘evidence’ — not least those vanity metrics which tell us that ‘20,000 people can’t be wrong…..’!


And then there’s the when question. When should we start to assemble our evidence base and when does it have most impact? The simple answer is ‘always’ — throughout the innovation and scaling process.

At the start of the scaling journey we want evidence to reassure us that there is potential demand, that our innovation will be solving a big enough and important enough problem and that what we have developed represents a robust solution which is capable of being scaled. Without this to back up our claims we’re unlikely to get very far in trying to convince others to buy into or support our solutions.

During the process it’s all about pivoting, using evidence of success and failure to help shape and adapt our innovation to suit different contexts. In the social innovation field the ‘market’ may involve a number of different players but the principle is the same. We can use the different kinds of evidence outlined above to help us get a better fit between innovation and context. Which will increase our chances of successfully scaling it.

A simple example might be the case of Netflix. Early on in their innovation journey Netflix realised that their entertainment supply model based on shipping DVDs by post was not the way to go; whilst their model worked there was increasing evidence that people were turning to online streaming of music and the same was likely to happen to video as high speed internet bandwidth became available. So they pivoted to a streaming approach, learning with the newly-emerging market while at the same time maintaining their video-by-post approach.

(And contrary to popular myth Blockbuster didn’t simply plough on with its old bricks and mortar solution using shops as rental hubs. They saw the evidence of Netflix ‘s successful new online model and developed their own solutions to emulate it. But their wider value network had too much invested in the original model and was reluctant to let go. So in spite of the evidence they couldn’t change their business model with the resulting collapse of their operations).

And at the end of the process there’s an opportunity for collecting a different kind of evidence, around learning. If we succeeded, why and what can we do more of next time? And if we failed, what can we change? Smart organizations concerned with learning to repeat the innovation trick develop ‘routines’ — embedded patterns of behaviour which become ‘the way we do things’ around innovation. These routines find their way into polices , procedures and processes — but not by accident. There’s a need for post-project reviews, set down meetings and other devices to capture learning. The trouble is , particularly with projects which have not gone so well, that there’s a tendency to cover up and disguise things — obscuring the evidence we need so badly to help us improve things next time.


Which brings us to the how? How do we set up robust and flexible monitoring and evaluation so we can collect the different kinds of evidence needed to by different stakeholders? What frameworks and tools are available? What different approaches might be needed under different circumstances? Not surprisingly there is no simple answer to this but a clear need to put an evidence strategy in place at the outset of the innovation scaling journey. Since evidence will play such a key role we need to allow time and resources and develop or bring in expertise to work on this aspect of our project in parallel with rolling out our solution.

And we need to think hard about how we communicate the evidence we acquire to a variety of different audiences. How do we build on good evidence to tell the innovation story? Adoption of innovation is a social process which is accelerated or retarded by more than facts; it depends on perceptions and on social influence. That’s a lesson which comes through repeatedly in the work of Everett Rogers, the ‘godfather’ of innovation diffusion research and it continues to play a key role according to current research findings. It’s also clear from the experience of would-be innovators trying to scale their solutions

There was nothing wrong with Earl Tupper’s product innovation except that no-one was particularly interested in buying it. That all changed when he switched his marketing from in store sales to doorstep selling and through that to the in-home party. Brownie Wise was one of the early demonstrators and quickly proved her facility at persuading home-makers to adopt the product. Her sales pitch was essentially around changing the way in which the core evidence — that the product worked and was a viable better food storage solution than traditional glass jars — was communicated and perceived.

She had great attention-grabbing skills — for example one of her ‘party tricks’ involved filling a Tupperware bowl with tomato soup and throwing it across the room where it landed, seal still intact and without spilling and staining the carpet. But she accompanied these tricks with a much more powerful approach which was to engage the party hostesses as sales agents. Their ‘source credibility’ — the degree of trust and respect in which they were held by their peers — meant that they were powerful opinion leaders, able to accelerate adoption across social networks. These days we’d call them ‘influencers’ but whatever the label the way in which they could amplify the positive perception of evidence played a key role on the successful scaling.

So what lessons can we take from this? First we should remind ourselves that scaling innovation is not automatic it’s a long and difficult Journey — and one in which evidence makes a difference. Evidence is what drives and accelerates (or retards) that S-curve around adoption.

But we need to consider an evidence strategy — it’s not just that we need evidence but we need to think about who’s it for and their different needs, what form it can take that will be convincing, how are we going to communicate the story, etc.?

Innovation is what what’s helped us as a species to survive and grow in what is still a very hostile, turbulent and uncertain world. But that innovation process hasn’t been a matter of simply adopting every new idea because it’s new. That’s a very dangerous approach, not least because many innovations may take us in the wrong direction. We’re actually quite cautious about adoption; we’re not risk averse but we’ve evolved to be careful about the risks we take. Having credible evidence occupies a place centre stage in that adoption decision. Which means that if we’re serious about scaling our innovation then we need to take the evidence question seriously.

You can find my podcast here and my videos here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Image credit: Dall-E via Bing

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

Stringing Together an Innovation Story

How convergence and creative collisions fuel invention

Stringing Together an Innovation Story

GUEST POST from John Bessant

It was the Covid lockdown that did it. Got me into compulsive listening. As my physical world contracted so I spent more and more time taking voyages inside my head, carried along by music. These days the choice of vessels in my harbor is impressive; I can embark on a whole series of different journeys depending on my mood — jazz, classical, soft folky reminiscence or driving angry rock. But whatever the journey there’s a pretty good chance a guitar will feature somewhere in the mix.

(Confession; I’m a guitar player, have been since I was twelve years old and managed to persuade my parents to let me trade the trumpet I was learning as part of the school orchestra for a six string I’d seen in a shop window).

Even allowing for my bias and your many different musical tastes, you’d probably agree that taking the guitar out of our aural landscape would leave it a poorer place

And it would certainly be a commercially poorer one as well — the market for guitars is booming. It’s currently worth around half a billion dollars and is estimated to grow steadily. Covid-19 was an important sales agent, nudging millions of people to try and fulfill their dreams of converting air guitar playing to the real thing. Fender, one of the biggest names in the industry, had the best sales of its 80 year history during 2020 while James Curleigh, CEO of market leader Gibson, commented that during that year “we literally couldn’t deliver enough. Everything we were making, we could sell!”

But how did the guitar get here? And what role did innovation play in the process?

It’s an instrument with a long history — in fact if you take the idea of stretching strings across some kind of frame and letting the vibrations conjure sounds then we’re back at least three thousand years. There’s a stone carving of a Hittite musician entertaining at a Babylonian party in the Ancient Orient Museum in Istanbul and what he’s playing looks suspiciously close to being a guitar. It clearly didn’t take long for others to catch on the concept of the ‘chordophone’ (to give the technical term for a device which generates sound in this fashion). The Greeks and Romans had their harps and lyres, the Egyptians adding the lute, originally developed in Mesopotamia. And the Moors of north Africa have the oudh, an instrument with a lute-like body and a long neck, probably based on a dried gourd and later fashioned of wood. As it journeyed across to Spain it morphed into what we’d recognize today, a multi-stringed wooden necked device. Encyclopaedia Britannica has the origins of the Spanish guitar as something emerging in the 16th century, deriving from the guitarra latina, a late-medieval instrument with a waisted body and four strings.

Along with the lute, mandolin and other derivatives of the plucked instrument variety it became a widely-played instrument over the next four hundred years. Its popularity came partly from its versatility — it could sit center stage in an orchestral concerto but it could also accompany a lone balladeer or form the centerpiece of a fiery flamenco stomp. And partly from its portability — it was the ideal traveling instrument for the itinerant musician. You could find it in taverns and town squares, concert halls and at court and it spread far and wide, migrating from Europe with the early settlers to the emerging New World.

From the innovation point of view the guitar followed a classic pattern — plenty of experimentation with materials, number of strings, neck length and a host of other parameters in search of the right balance of sound and functionality. And then the emergence of a ‘dominant design’, the configuration which set the pattern, laid down the roadway along which the development of the instrument would travel in an extended period of continuous improvement. Most sources agree it was the Spanish guitar builder Antonio Torres Jurado who did this in 1850 with his invention of the fan-braced design. Bracing the hollow body with struts of wood meant it didn’t keep collapsing in on itself because of the tension in the strings and you could build a big enough body to give you the balance of tone, projection and volume which players required.

But by the end of the 19th century the guitar had come up against an increasingly frustrating limit. It wasn’t loud enough. You could have the sweetest, most lyrical tone but if you were trying to make yourself heard amongst the dance bands which emerged as the twentieth century dawned you had a problem. Innovation, of course, thrives on these conditions and a whole new breed of entrepreneurs began experimenting to try to make louder guitar. They explored many routes — making the whole instrument bigger (but more cumbersome), changing materials (like the steel guitars pioneered by the National company), and playing around with alternative sound amplification principles (like the resonator cone, a kind of dustbin-lid built into the guitar top which vibrates like a speaker and replaces the simple sound hole of the guitar).

This last was particularly embraced by the Dopraya Brothers, Slovakian immigrants to the USA who set up the Dobro company and gave their name to the guitar variant whose haunting sound instantly conjures the wide prairie landscape with its rolling tumbleweed in a thousand films.

Plenty of innovation — but no real breakthrough, nothing radical enough to bring a step change in performance. Until entrepreneurs began to borrow ideas from different industries and to import alternative technologies. As Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones expertly explained in a BBC interview looking at the history of the electric guitar, ‘all they did was put a phone in it….’ Then, after a trademark raspy guffaw, he added “But it was the right phone at the right time!

Electronics in the early twentieth century had already given us the telephone, the radio and the gramophone and it had become clear that converting sound waves into electrical impulses and then reversing the process offered opportunities for amplifying instruments like the guitar. Patents from around 1910 reinforce Richards’ analysis; people were putting telephone transmitters inside violins and banjos. By the 1920s hobbyists used the (by then widely available) carbon button microphones from telephones, attaching them to the bridge of their instruments. Unfortunately these had a weak signal and as you increased the sensitivity to try to make it louder the microphone picked up other sounds and generated the unpleasant squeal of feedback.

The breakthrough came in 1931 when George Beauchamp designed a one piece instrument, cast in metal and resembling more a frying pan rather than a guitar. Harry Watson of the National Company takes the credit for having built the design which qualifies as the world’s first electric guitar. The key innovation was the use of a device to convert the instrument’s vibrations into electrical signals which could then be amplified — an arrangement of coils of wire wrapped around a metal core and designed to ‘pick up’ the signal. The concept of the pickup belongs to Watson’s friend Arnold Rickenbacker; the idea worked and in 1932 the two of them formed the Rickenbacker company and in 1937 they were awarded a patent.

That breakthrough fired the starting pistol for another innovation race with established manufacturers rushing to bring imitations to market and entrepreneurs looking to exploit the new possibilities in new (and hopefully better) designs. There was plenty of innovation space to play in. Not least dealing with the main limitation of the frying pan idea which was that it was a lap steel guitar, designed to be played horizontally with the instrument resting on the knees. Whilst the ‘Hawaiian sound’ associated with such an instrument was popular it had its limits; Rickenbacker quickly came up with their ‘electro-Spanish model B’ which was designed to be played upright with a strap — the instrument we know and love today.

Some sought to move the new idea to scale through celebrity endorsement. The Gibson company was one of the biggest players in the rapidly-growing musical instrument industry; they launched their Electro-Spanish 150 with the backing of the celebrated jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and a price tag of $150 trying to create a Model T Ford machine.

There was plenty of pent-up demand in the market; with the expansion of the dance band era musicians needed to play louder. But the limits of the design were still there — even if you replaced the sound hole with f-holes or did away with it altogether you still had the problem of sound waves bouncing around inside a hollow-bodied instrument and generating unwanted feedback.

Enter a user innovator, one Les Paul. Already a guitar player with a big following on the country and western circuit he was also a tinkerer. And in 1940 he came up with a solution to the feedback problem — why not dispense with the hollow body altogether and make the guitar solid? He built the Log — a wooden post with a pickup attached along which he stretched the strings. Recognising that he might have trouble pitching his new design he disguised it by gluing two halves of an old Epiphone guitar to the wooden post to give it the familiar guitar shape. This was simply a cosmetic addition to reduce the shock factor; in terms of the sound it made no contribution whatever.

In classic user innovator style he wasn’t particularly interested in producing and marketing the device himself — he had plenty to do as a performer. So he took it to the Gibson company, reasoning that with their history they might be interested in a radical innovation like this. Gibson had built their success on (and took their name from) the ideas of an eccentric mandolin maker who revolutionised the design of that instrument in 1910, doing away with the round bellied Neapolitan model and replacing it with the flat-backed variety. Unfortunately (for them as it later turned out) their response was decidedly lukewarm and so Les shelved his project.

Innovation is often like a soup; market needs and enabling technologies being stirred together by various entrepreneurs and coming slowly to the boil. As it reaches the right temperature so a breakthrough idea bubbles to the surface in two or three places simultaneously. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that in another part of the country someone else was playing with a similar idea to Les Paul.

This one was taking shape in the workshop of Paul Bigsby, an engineer with a passion for two things, country music and motorcycles. He shared this with a friend, Merle Travis, another successful country singer who talked about his ideas for improving the guitar he played — making it easier to tune, capturing the sustain which he could get from a steel-bodied guitar but without the feedback. Bigsby built guitars as a sideline to his motorcycle business and was able to bring Travis’s ideas to life; together they developed their own version of a solid bodied electric guitar.

And meanwhile in another part of the galaxy, or at least further up the road in California another player was about to join the game. Leo Fender wasn’t a guitar player — his instrument was the saxophone. He was an accountant by training though his passion was electronics — he’d spent his childhood disassembling and rebuilding radios and enjoyed exploring the growing potential of the new technology. While working as a book-keeper in Anaheim he was contracted by a local band leader to build a public address (PA) system; it was a success and he was asked to build six more.

That nudged the entrepreneur in him; in 1938 along with his wife he opened a radio repair shop with a borrowed $600 — “Fender Radio Service”. He quickly built up a business repairing and servicing the amplifiers and occasionally guitars for the many roadhouse bands coming through. This was a valuable apprenticeship; through the many projects he worked on he developed a deep understanding of the typical problems and how to improvise solutions to fix them quickly. He was continuously prototyping and experimenting with new ideas and implementing those ideas in the next project which came through his door.

He wasn’t alone; in particular he shared ideas with another enthusiast — Doc Kaufman — who was a lap steel guitar player, with a day job working for the Rickenbacker company. The two of them played around with ideas and eventually launched their company, K&F, to build lap steel guitars; in 1944 they patented their version incorporating Fender’s own design for a pickup; Kaufman left in 1946 and Leo renamed the company Fender Manufacturing. He worked on their ideas further, coming up with a thin solid body electric guitar which would be easy to tune, wasn’t too heavy and crucially didn’t feedback in the way the hollow bodied machines did. Pretty much the specification which Merle Travis had brought to Paul Bigsby.

In 1950 he launched it as the Fender Esquire and then, having added a second pickup, renamed it the Broadcaster in 1951. The threat of a lawsuit from the rival Gretsch company forced him to change the name and so the guitar became known as the Telecaster. The new wave was about to break.

Fender’s skills weren’t just in electronics; he was a pretty good listener too. He picked up on plenty of feedback from customers in his service business and so instead of improving on the Telecaster for his next product he set about designing a new machine incorporating many of their ideas. This led to a guitar which built of the strengths of the Telecaster but which added innovations in pickups — 3 instead of 2, giving the player plenty of control via a 5-way switch. The result was the Stratocaster, launched in 1954 and about to change the world of music.

Its success owed a lot to timing; the growth of Rock ’n’ Roll changed the format of dance bands towards the smaller trios and quartets and the sound and capability of the machine lent itself perfectly to the loud driving style. (Fender also had a hand in changing the shape of the ‘back line’ of the band, displacing the double bass with his solid-bodied Precision bass, introduced quietly alongside the Telecaster in 1951).

The Stratocaster appeared in Buddy Holly’s hands on the cover of his 1957 album and around the world musicians began taking notice. In the UK Hank Marvin, lead guitarist in Cliff Richard’s backing band The Shadows, was one of the first to own one and their success with a strong of instrumental hits firmly established the new sound. Not least in the ears of a generation of youngsters who aspired to own one and make their own music; as one of them, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour said, ‘(the Stratocaster) is about as perfect as a guitar gets’. In the hands of another, one James Marshall Hendrix, the machine was pushed to its limits — not least through exploiting the very feedback which Leo Fender, Paul Bigsby and Arnold Rickenbacker had worked so hard to try and reduce!

The response from the other guitar manufacturers was once again one of copy and develop, rapid imitation and improvement. Gibson were quick to pick up on the new trend but had a long hard slog up the learning curve to reach the point where they could master the new tricks of building solid bodied guitars with complex pickups. In 1955 they launched their new guitar and went looking for another celebrity to help them promote their new product. They recruited one of the top performing acts of the time, Mary Ford and her partner — Les Paul. The man who they remembered as ‘the guy with the broomstick with the pickups on it’, and whose ideas they had turned down a decade earlier. They made slight amends by naming the guitar after him — and alongside the Stratocaster it is still one the most sought after models and has been widely imitated around the world — not least because of the exposure given it by a rising blues guitarist, Eric Clapton.

The rest is (recent) history. The market for both professionals and increasingly amateur musicians grew and with it a rising tide of innovation. Variations on the basic dominant design established by Leo Fender, Les Paul, Merle Travis and others proliferated with different shapes, different materials, extensive improvements around the electrics and so on. Bringing us to today’s world where — unless the person in the next apartment is at the early stages of trying to master thrash metal riffs — those innovations have helped create the soundscape into which we can escape, whether as players or listeners.

You can find my podcast here and my videos here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

The Power of Position Innovation

How creating experiences for underserved markets can be a key innovation strategy

The Power of Position Innovation
Image: Dall-E via Bing

GUEST POST from John Bessant

It’s summertime, at least here in the northern hemisphere and chances are that August is a holiday month. Which might well see you sitting somewhere and watching an exotic sunset, glass of something suitably refreshing in your hand. As you see that golden disc slip below the horizon and the wonderful display of red shifting colour begins to settle towards nightfall you might spare a thought for the memory of Tom Gullick who died this month. Because for many of us jetting away to our exotic location might not be happening were it not for his innovation efforts….

An avid bird spotter (he held the record for the most birds (over 9000) spotted by an individual) he was a bit of a Don Quixote figure, not least because he took up residence in La Mancha in Spain and pursued a conservationist crusade during his later years, saving at least one species of duck from extinction.

But he has another claim to fame — as one of the founding fathers of the low-cost travel experience. His bird-watching abilities gave him good observational skills and led him to spot an opportunity in classic entrepreneurial fashion — and then to go after it with a passion.

Working for a hundred year old firm of shipping brokers (Clarksons) he was given the task one day of getting people to Brussels to attend the World Fair Expo58. The entrepreneur in him rose to the challenge; he chartered a DC-3 plane to fly from Southend airport and arranged coaches, refreshments and even a tour guide, offering the entire package for £6. It worked well but his interest was piqued when he found out that another entrepreneurial member of the party had seen his offer and bought a sheaf of tickets, reselling them via an advert placed in the London ‘Evening Standard’ newspaper for £8! That was the trigger.

Image: Dall-E via Bing

He managed to persuade his rather conservative employers to set up a travel subsidiary and became a pioneer of what became known as package holidays. Coming after years of post-war austerity his offer of trips to places abroad, whether the tourist sights of Belgium or Switzerland or the beaches of the Costa del Sol was avidly taken up. He pitched his offer to those previously underserved by the travel industry, offering experiences to those whose normal holidays might be spent in a beach hut at Bridlington. As he later explained in an interview,

“My happiest moment was standing at Rotterdam airport at the end of the day, watching the buses return from the bulbfields with the Dakota DC-3s lined up waiting to take our customers home. They were so happy because they had never believed they could afford to go abroad.”

Within a decade Clarksons had become one of the major players in a market which was exploding with pent-up demand. They offered a wide variety of experiences, from wine tours in France to trips along the Norwegian fjords; their sunshine holiday business was particularly popular , built on a fixed price all inclusive model delivered at low cost. His skills as negotiator helped deliver this — he could guarantee to fill hotels or aircraft if the supplier was prepared to offer competitive pricing.

Other companies joined the party and it wasn’t just the British who were travelling; increasingly horizons for European tourists were extending. Inevitably this brought a highly competitive edge to the market and required a business strategy based on investing in being able to deliver experiences by assembling the different elements and engineering them down to a package with a thin profit margin. He found increasing difficulty in explaining this to a company whose core business in ship-broking operated on very different models and so he finally left in 1972, retiring to Spain to begin his second career as a bird watcher /conservationist.

He got out just in time; by 1974 cut-throat competition from the growing number of players, a devalued UK pound and the emerging oil crisis with its pressure on fuel costs forced Clarksons into collapse in the middle of the summer tourist season.

Image” Dall-E via BIng

The business model hadn’t failed — but it did need development and fast learning. All the pieces were there — interesting destinations, hotels, buses, aircraft and so on. The difference was in the market — classically growing at the edges of an existing one. But bringing this new business model to life required reframing how both product and process worked. Margins were thin and so new approaches were needed to booking and operations, while delivering the package experience required a new profession — the tour rep — who would need enormous versatility (dealing with everything from entertainment, health and safety, administration, currency exchange, etc.) while all the while smiling for the customers!

It wasn’t disruptive innovation — yet. What was going on was learning to serve a very different market with a new experience based on lower cost. But the learning about how that model might work sowed the seeds for what later did become a revolution which transformed the travel industry. The evidence for this is with us today. Low-cost airlines like Ryanair, Wizz or Easyjet have revolutionised the world of short-haul travel and although they faced heavy setbacks during the Covid-19 crisis they are now returning to profitability and popularity.

Image: Wikicommons

But the package holiday was not a new idea. Some 100 years previously a certain Thomas Cook was looking for a new offering for his growing travel business. Originally a printer and Baptist lay preacher he’d built his original business organising day trips; his first didn’t run too far (the relatively short hop from his home town of Leicester to nearby Loughborough) but in 1841 it gave birth to his travel business. Four years later and he’d clearly tapped into a rich potential market; his trip to the seaside at Liverpool was booked by 1200 people and he had to repeat it two weeks later for another 800 happy travellers.

Cook began to extend his trips across the Channel and by 1863 had seen the possibilities of offering people the opportunity to see far-off places and sights (like the famous Mount Rigi in Switzerland) for themselves. In doing so he pioneered what effectively became the package tour, organizing not only the travel (by road, rail, boat, even mules) and accommodation but also providing guides to help conduct the tour.

Mind you his tour was not for the faint-hearted. In her diaries an intrepid young woman, Jemima Morrell described in detail a world of 4am alarm calls, 20-mile hikes and other challenges — not least of which was also being able to dress for dinner every evening in the hotels in which she stayed! But she clearly felt it was worth it for the experience.

“The days spent on foot, or by the sides of mules, afford the greatest satisfaction …..It was then that, away from the life of the city, we were taken into the midst of the great wonders of nature and seemed to leave the fashion of this world at a distance … It was an entire change; the usual routine of life was gone. All memory of times and seasons faded away and we lived only in the enjoyment of the present.”

Thomas Cook’s ideas changed several things. From the point of view of Switzerland it helped transform a poor rural economy into a travel destination; today the Swiss Alps are one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

Cook also created a system-level innovation, much as Henry Ford was to do with the motor car fifty years later. Putting together a successful package tour involves much more than simply arranging travel and tickets. Cook pioneered the complex logistics, arranged for integration of different travel and accommodation options, provided a system of coupons (the forerunners of traveller’s cheques) to help pay for goods and services, developed a network of guides and other support staff and printed brochures not only as sales tools but as a way of engaging customers in imagining and dreaming about the journey they were about to embark upon. In doing so he can rightly be considered one of the founding fathers of an industry which today is worth over $7 trillion.

What he pioneered was ‘experience innovation’ — not simply offering travel but a whole new experience. In his case it was the wonders of the Grand Tour brought to everyone, in Clarksons’ case it was the joys of sun-drenched beaches, endless sangria and exotic food to try.

‘Position innovation’ of this kind begins with a reframing of possibilities — classic entrepreneurial territory. Tom Gullick saw an opportunity in meeting needs for a different group and packaging the experience up rather than leaving them to select their own. Travel agents were involved at the time because the infrastructure for booking wasn’t developed; the later low cost revolution saw increasing disintermediation and the emergence of platform models where you buy your travel, car hire, hotel, parking, currency, anything else you might want, all of it via a one stop online platform.

But in order to meet the needs of an unserved or underserved market requires close interaction and fast learning with that market. By definition it doesn’t exist yet in developed form so the process of co-evolving with it is going to involve a bumpy ride. The Clarkson experience was one of experimentation and building fast learning — from the prototype of Expo58 to the slick summer exodus managed in the heydays of the 1970s.

This is challenging but it also means that position innovation can provide a valuable learning laboratory for those wanting to get out of the box which serving the mainstream market can sometimes represent.

A good example is the fascination (and huge market potential) of digital wallets and mobile money. We’re still (well I am) excited by the fact that we can now use our phones to pay for a whole raft of goods and services and the potential is of course huge. Given an accelerating shove by Covid-19 the shift towards a cashless society has been rapid. Not for nothing is Elon Musk trying to create a new brand X (why do I think of washing powder when I hear that?!!!) and give the bird the bird? It’s got little to do with messaging and everything to do with trying to emulate the power of the WeChat platform in China which is an ‘everything app.’ But at its heart it is about mobile money — so much so that even beggars in China have QR codes so that you can support them with a click of your phone button.

So the cutting edge of innovation — right? Not necessarily. If you live in East Africa you might greet a lot of this with a yawn, it’s nothing special or new. Because M-PESA has been enabling this for over a decade, so much so that the mobile money app running on any phone now accounts for over 50% of all GDP transactions in Kenya and is widely used across much of Africa. What is M-PESA? Essentially it’s a mobile money app which was developed originally as a joint venture between Safaricom (Vodafone’s South African subsidiary) and the UK Department for International Development. The name comes from the Swahili pesa meaning money and the original idea began as a development aid project to enable microfinance repayments. Launched in 2007 it is now used by close to 20 million people and the system processes more payments than Western Union does across its entire global network.

What’s gone on, of course, is a classic piece of position innovation where learning has driven improvements and developments, not only to serve the new market but in products and processes to enable it to grow. And it’s created a platform economy, bringing in shops, transport, government services, etc. — and all of this with the innovative support of the central bank. It’s a model which has grown beyond Kenya to have world-wide impact. For example a valuable spin-off has been the use of this technology to enable more efficient aid distribution to help cope with humanitarian crises.

So position innovation matters and should form a key plank in our innovation strategy. It’s at the heart of the innovator’s dilemma — the emergence of innovation at the fringes of your core market was the threat so potently identified by Clayton Christensen. How you deal with that strategic challenge is still a major question — but making sure you spot emerging position innovation early at least buys you time to think through a strategic response.

And for entrepreneurs looking for new opportunities the challenge is simple — spot a market before it exists and then grow it! Not an easy thing to do when you can’t analyse or run focus groups about it. But — as Thomas Cook and later on Tom Gullick found out, being prepared to experiment can pay off handsomely. Which is why it might be worth raising a holiday glass in their direction to remind ourselves of the challenge…

Image: Dall-E via Bing

You can find a podcast version of this here and a video version here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

Scale Your Innovation by Mapping Your Value Network

How understanding the players in your game can help you scale successfully

Scale Your Innovation by Mapping Your Value Network

GUEST POST from John Bessant

There comes a time in innovation when you realize you might have taken on something a bit too big. No matter how hard you throw yourself into the challenge, creating value from your idea is going to need a little help. Changing the world, or even a small piece of it, takes a lot of push. That’s the moment when you realize you need ‘complementary assets’ – the ‘who else?’ and ‘what else?’ pieces of your innovation jigsaw puzzle.

It’s a challenge at the very beginning – how to put together a network of people and resources to bring your idea to life? But it’s an even bigger challenge when it comes to scaling innovation – how to get widespread adoption of your ‘best thing since sliced bread’ innovation.

Something which Otto Rohrwedder, the inventor of sliced bread (or more precisely the machine which enabled it) came to understand. He spent fifteen years working to develop and scale his invention and set up the Mac-Roh Company to launch his great idea. Only to see it arrive with more of a whimper than a bang. The bakers to whom he tried to sell it were underwhelmed. They thought the machine too complex for everyday production, it was bulky and took up precious space – and they weren’t convinced of the need anyway. Teetering close to the edge of bankruptcy he persuaded a local baker, Frank Bench, to invest and install the first machine.

On July 7, 1928, the first loaf of commercially sliced bread was produced by the Chillico the Baking Company of Missouri and sold under the brand name Kleen Maid. And while bakers had been skeptical of the benefits local families in the mid-West were much more enthusiastic. As a review in the local newspaper (the Constitution Tribune) put it:

“So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.

Within two weeks bread sales from the bakery had increased by 2000%! The idea began to take off across the country and two years later the New York-based Continental Baking Company began using Rohwedder’s machines to build an entire business around sliced bread. Their product – Wonder Bread – (and the accompanying marketing campaign) helped lift awareness to a high level. By 1933 almost every bakery in the USA had a slicing machine and 80% of the bread produced in America was sliced

Otto isn’t alone; many innovations which ultimately scaled successfully spent a long time in the doldrums, great ideas which drifted because of the lack of partners to give the required momentum. J. Murray Spangler’s invention of the electric vacuum suction sweeper nearly wheezed its last before it could make it into everyday home use. It was only when he connected with William Hoover that the venture took off. Mark Twain’s enthusiasm for the typewriter was that of an early adopter but the only way Christopher Sholes and his colleagues could get their machine to a widespread market was by teaming up with the experience of the Remington company who understood mass production, marketing, logistics and all the other ‘complementary assets’ they needed to scale their innovation.

And Earl Tupper’s brilliant bit of alchemy in turning black sludge waste from oil wells into brightly colored polypropylene storage vessels signally failed to impress American families until the link-up with Brownie Wise who brought her social marketing skills literally to the party. Home demonstrations via a social get-together not only accelerated sales but also laid the foundation for a powerful new addition to the marketing repertoire.

So scaling innovation is a multi-player game. We’ve learned that to create value at scale needs a network – but importantly one which goes beyond the sum of its parts. Systems have ‘emergent properties but these only emerge if there is an organizing energy to enable the process. And they need to share a common purpose, reflected in the current discussion of innovation ‘ecosystems’ , a concept which comes originally from biological science and refers to the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit

It’s been applied in many branches of natural science with the same focus on an interdependent collection of elements with a shared goal or purpose, for example in geography:

An ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life… Every factor in an ecosystem depends on every other factor, either directly or indirectly. (National Geographic Encyclopedia)

It’s pretty clear that ecosystems don’t just happen; in the physical world they take millions of years to settle into a viable pattern. And in the world of organizations it’s going to involve much more than just assembling a set of components. It will need active management to secure the emergent properties.

Systems of this kind aren’t just a challenge in the world of commercial innovation. In fact social innovation – making changes to create a better world – requires even more attention to assembling ecosystems which create value. Take the World Food Program, one of the agencies within the United Nations which tries to help deal with the severe and age-old challenge of making sure people get enough to eat. They have a long history of innovation and recent examples include the Optimus programme which aims to improve efficiencies on the supply-chain which eventually makes it possible to feed a hungry child – or not. Optimus uses digital tools to help, and it worked as an effective pilot project back in 2015 in Iraq. But scaling it required many players coming on board and working together, not least national governments. Thankfully the results have moved the needle in the right direction; Optimus now operates in 20 countries including Ukraine, Yemen and Syria, reaching close to 7.5m beneficiaries and with efficiency savings (which equate to more effective food relief) running at over $50m.

So ecosystems matter in the innovation journey to scale. Which introduces three challenges for innovators:

· How to find complementary partners?

· How to form them into a coherent value network?

· How to get that value network to perform as an ecosystem?

All three of these rather depend on having a good understanding of who ‘they’ are and the different roles they play. So we need a map and a way of charting our journey to scale using it. We’ve developed a model for our new book about scaling innovation which identifies 9 core roles which entities in a value network can play:

Value Creators

· 1. Value Creators are those who develop new value – the innovators. This can be one organization, a partnership or joint venture, or it can be done across a distributed network. The key aspect of this creation is that it is new value.

· 2. Value Consumers are those who consume the value which our system creates. Although we often talk of ‘the market’ we should remember that such ‘markets’ are often multi-layered. Our innovation might be used by individuals, businesses, organizations or governments. For many products and services, those who gain value from it may not directly purchase it – that’s often the case with public services like education or health.

· 3. Value Captors – so far this looks a simple enough story – value being created and consumed. But there’s another key role here which is occupied by those who capture value from the innovation not by using it, but by being a part of it.

This is where the entrepreneur takes their profit from the risks they have expended. It is investors in the company which launches and sells the product or service. And it’s all the other supply-side players whose complementary goods and services link together to create the offering.

We need these different players to be part of our value network, our ecosystem. But we also need to recognize that they need an incentive – what’s in it for them? Importantly this doesn’t have to be a financial gain or reward – it could also be an investment in learning new approaches or accessing new markets or it could be about reputation and social identity. Think about the brand-building possibilities for companies which help scale social innovations as part of their ESG story.

These 3 entities are ‘bookends’ – the principal players in the value process. But there’s a second set of roles played by ‘movers’ – those entities which enable the process to happen. These include:

· 4. Value Conveyors are players actively involved in the process of adding value to how our solution comes into being and how it is experienced by consumers. Essentially, the value of the innovation grows through the activities they perform. They are more than just channels: their actions actually increase the value of the innovation itself, be it a product or service. Conveyors might be supply side partners upstream or marketing and distribution partners downstream; either way we need them in our ecosystem to ensure value gets created and moved to where it can be consumed.

Brownie Wise’s performances at Tupperware parties were the stuff of legend. She had all sorts of tricks including throwing a container full of tomato soup across the room to demonstrate the strength of the seal (no messy carpets). But her real contribution to the success of the brand was in the role she played as a conveyor, mobilizing an army of other women to act as demonstrators and sales agents across the country.

· 5. Value Channels are passive in the sense that, like roads or railways, they exist as infrastructure but are independent of the nature of the traffic using them. They are important, necessary elements in scaling but they are not sufficient to assure scale. If they weren’t present or if they are disrupted then value movement couldn’t take place, but they are not active elements in the value creation process. It’s important to think about them not least to explore dependencies and how alternatives might be brought into play.

Think about the huge impact to global value flow when the container ship Ever Given got stuck in the physical channel of the Suez Canal for a week back in 2021! Or the way in which the containers on that ship represented a revolution fifty years earlier in the way that the channel of intermodal transportation (road/rail/sea) operated – Malcolm McClean’s innovation of containerization literally changed the world.

· 6. Sometimes there is a role for Value Coordinators to help to make connections and bring different players together to enact value. For example, a department store offers a physical space in which multiple value creators can connect with value consumers; street markets and large-scale shopping malls offer a similar opportunity. Today’s platform businesses like Alibaba, Amazon or Apple build on this model, providing ‘digital department stores’ across which millions of transactions can take place between creators and consumers.

A third group of players in our value network are those we call ‘shapers’ – because they do just that. They shape the potential amount of value that can be created, consumed, moved and captured within a value network.

· 7. Value Cartographers are the ones who make the maps; they play key roles in structuring a market and determining how much value is possible within a value network. Examples might be regulators, trade unions or influential umbrella organizations. Cartographers can play a major role in accelerating – or slowing – the journey to scale. Think about the current moves towards scaling electromobility; much of the journey to scale will be influenced by the regulatory roadmap. Policies like subsidies or tax relief on electric vehicles, or those which militate against fossil fuels, will provide acceleration – for example, the UK has a target of no new cars running only on fossil fuels by 2035. Equally, legislation to ensure compliance can slow down scaling possibilities – think about the EU’s stance on genetically modified organisms which has acted as a brake on investment and exploration of this technology.

· 8. Value Competitors compete with us for the attention of value consumers. They might be direct competitors offering a similar product or service or they might be indirect competitors – for example Netflix is not only in competition with other streaming services but with other ways in which people might allocate their attention– reading, sleeping, looking at their partner while having a conversation. The important thing is that these competitors all shape the context in which value creation/consumption can take place.

· 9. Lastly we have Value Complementors – entities which complement the value an innovation offers. Sometimes they are essential: Thomas Edison’s attempts to revolutionize domestic lighting arrangements depended on having something (an electricity supply) into which users could plug his new light bulb innovation. Bluetooth devices like intelligent earphones depend on having the technology available and operating to a common standard.

So nine different roles which may be present in a value network. Some are obvious – for example, we clearly need a value creator and a value consumer to bookend our model. But even here the lines can blur. Consumers can also play a role as creators – think about what Lego has done with its efforts to engage users as co-creators. GiffGaff is a small but highly successful player in the tightly competitive world of mobile phone networking; its excellent customer service record is in no small measure down to the way in which it has engaged its community of consumers to play this role…

And some are less obvious but important. Take cartographers and the ways in which they can make or break scaling efforts. Mobile money is still an exciting new field for apps and hardware players – yet it’s been a reality in east Africa for over a decade. M-PESA has been a transformational innovation and has scaled around the world – but its early success depended critically on the support of the central bank rather than its opposition to newcomer ideas. It helped create a fertile regulatory landscape within which mobile money could develop and scale.

Sometimes these roles are emergent – for example the TV and movie industry is increasingly interacting with fans who organize themselves into active communities whose activities and opinions can influence (for better or worse) the scaling possibilities of a core offering. Think about the role played by the ‘Star wars’ community with its conventions, costumes and huge online presence. This is not directly controlled by the film companies but instead exists alongside it, complementing the rate and direction of development. Fans of this kind increasingly play a role in creating new characters and backstories for fringe players who later make it to the mainstream of the media offerings – think about some of the Star Wars spin-offs. Robert Jenkins work atMIT has been tracking the huge influence such fandom has on innovation in the creative industries.

It’s useful to think in terms of the different roles we need and how they might interact, first to help us in our hunt for finding partners. But we also need to form them into viable ecosystems – each system has different configurations but drawing a system boundary is a good starting point. Then we have to work with them to create high performing ecosystems – and this is where the work really starts. It’s about creative relationship building, getting to win-win partnerships.

Which is another story, one which we’ll follow up in a future post.

You can find out more on the model and our approach in The Scaling Value Playbook, published shortly by de Gruyter.

Image Credits: John Bessant, Ian Gray, Pixabay

You can find a podcast version of this here and a video version here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

Time for Innovation

Why keeping an eye on the clock matters in the world of bright ideas

Image: Dall-E via Bing

GUEST POST from John Bessant

On 29th September 1707 a fleet of 21 ships under the command of Admiral Cloudesley Shovell was returning from Gibraltar where it had been supporting action during the long-running war with the French. Crossing the Bay of Biscay the weather grew worse and they were struggling to make their home port of Plymouth in the south-west of England. At around 6pm they believed they were in safe waters but in fact were heading on to the rocks near St Agnes’s Bay in the Scilly Islands — fifty miles west of where they thought they were. Four ships were lost in the disaster including HMS Association, the flagship of the fleet which carried Sir Cloudesley and over 1400 other sailors to their deaths. It was one of the worst naval disasters to befall the British Navy.

And an avoidable one. The problem — which urgent follow-up enquiries highlighted — was familiar. The ships were lost because the experienced seamen steering them didn’t know where they were. Navigating the rocky coastline with hidden shelves and shallows depended on accurate awareness of position — but the methods available at the time weren’t up to it. Depth soundings could help but the key missing ingredient was an accurate measurement of longitude. For which they needed a reliable timepiece on board; despite an array of clocks and pocket watches the technology wasn’t good enough to maintain an accurate sense of the time relative to the Greenwich clock on which all naval longitude is based. Time slipped away — and with it any clear sense of where they were.

Cue one of many early innovation contests — attempts at crowdsourcing a good solution to the problem as fast as possible. The British government offered a huge prize of £20,000 in 1714 equivalent in today’s money to around £3m) to anyone who could construct a clock that would enable sailors to calculate their longitude at sea with an accuracy of within half a degree. It was famously won by John Harrison, a carpenter by trade who spent over twenty years working on the problem, producing four models of chronometer each improving on the previous one. His H4 model finally achieved the accuracy and reliability required and he duly won the prize. More important he — and the many others working on the problem — changed the face of seaborne navigation forever.

Image: Dall-E via Bing

We’re used to thinking about the Industrial Revolution in terms of Britain as the ‘workshop of the world’, driven by a steady stream of manufacturing technology innovations coming from men like Arkwright, Wedgwood, Boulton and Watt. But we should add the clockmakers to that list; without them the workshop of the world would not have been able to get its wares reliably to anywhere but the closest markets. Their innovation heralded the first wave of globalisation in world trade and we’re still building on that legacy.

Nor was their effort confined to seaborne navigation in its impact; with reliable clocks it became possible to standardise time itself. Prior to 1880 different cities in the UK kept different versions of time, each geared to a local standard timepiece. But the introduction of standardised time, all linked to Greenwich Mean time allowed for important shifts like the expansion of railways with trains running on a clear and predictable timetable.

Time is in many ways a key part of the enabling infrastructure, a foundation on which so much innovation can be built. Like today’s internet it enables things to happen which would not have been possible before — and in similar fashion the early days spent innovating towards a reliable infrastructure represent an important but often neglected innovation history.

So time deserves credit as a macro-level innovation enabler — but it also has an impressive history at the micro-level in terms of its innovation impact. In 1909 Frederick Taylor published his book on ‘The principles of Scientific Management’ which became, (in the view of the 2001 members of the Academy of Management) the most influential book on management ever. His principles laid the foundations for the ways in which factories and later many service businesses were constructed and operated and paved the way for Henry Ford’s mass production model. At heart the approach involved applying rigorous engineering principles to the flow and execution of activities throughout a process and they still underpin much of the industrial engineering curriculum today.

Its impact was huge — for example in Ford’s Highland Park factory where he began experimenting towards the model using Taylor’s ideas, the productivity gains were stunning. In the first assembly line, installed in 1913 for flywheel production for the Model T, the assembly time fell from 20 man minutes to 5. By 1914 three lines were being used in the chassis department to reduce assembly time from around 12 hours to less than 2.

Model A Ford 1928 Wikimedia Commons

Key contributors to enabling this to happen were an American couple, Frank and Lilian Gilbreth. They worked on what became known as ‘time and motion study’, analysing and breaking down work processes into individual motions, and then eliminating unnecessary motions to improve efficiency. (They also followed in the above illustrious tradition of creating reliable timepieces, in their case developing the micro-chronometer, a clock that could record time to the 1/2000th of a second).

The image of stop watches and clipboards goes back to their influence — and while (like Taylor) their work often receives a negative press (think Charlie Chaplin in the film ‘Modern Times’ in which he is literally caught up in the machine and under enormous time pressure), the reality is that the Gilbreth’s enabled major improvements not just in productivity but in working conditions and employee satisfaction.

They were early but key figures in what later became ‘lean thinking’ — essentially reducing unnecessary waste, especially in movement. Ergonomics owes a lot to their measurement approach which charmingly gave us a unit of measurement — the ‘therblig’ (Gilbreth spelled backwards) which they applied to analyse a set of 18 elemental motions involved in performing a task in the workplace. These elements include movements such as reach, move, grasp, release, load, use, assemble, and disassemble, as well as unnecessary ones like hold, rest, position, search, select, plan, unavoidable delay, avoidable delay, and inspect.

Paying attention to detail, especially around the time taken to carry out a task, and then redesigning it to reduce wasteful effort, movement, queuing, temporary storage, etc. lies at the heart of another revolutionary process innovation — lean thinking. Pioneered in Japanese factories during the post-war years lean is essentially a focus on waste elimination through the application of core principles and key tools. Amongst the ‘seven deadly wastes’ which lean focuses on is time — and not surprisingly the toolkit which emerges from that places a premium on reducing unnecessary expenditure of that precious commodity.

For example one of the early challenges to the emerging car industry was set-up time. With giant machines capable of pressing a piece of steel into the required shape the ability to make different models depends on how quickly those presses can be set-up for a new job. In the early days this typically took up to a day to reset; now (using the widely-applied techniques originally pioneered by Shigeo Shingo and captured in his excitingly titled book ‘Single minute exchange of die — the SMED system’) that time is routinely counted in single minutes.

The implications of this reach far beyond the car factory. Anywhere where rapid changeover of a key resource is needed can benefit from the approach — and has done. Formula 1 pitstop teams can ‘reset’ an entire car with new tyres, fuel and many other changes within seconds. Hospital operating theatres can maximise the productive (and life-saving) time for operations by applying the principles to changeovers. And the revolution in short-haul flying which we have seen in recent decades owes a great deal to the simple performance metric of turnaround time — how fast can a plane land, empty , be cleaned, refuelled and refilled with passengers and take off again? Southwest Airlines have held the crown for years with turnaround times typically around 15 minutes.

Saving time is at one end of an innovation spectrum — it’s worth looking at because wasted time adds no value and saving it enhances productivity. But there’s another end of this spectrum, one which William McKnight discovered in his work at 3M in their early years. It’s all about spending time.

Innovation is about ideas and sometimes coming up with the good ones , the ones which may offer a whole new angle on a problem, needs time for the innovation to incubate. He observed that by giving people a sense of having a little extra time in which they could play around paid off for the company. His 15% policy did just that, giving people the sense that they have time to think and explore without needing to show productivity — the opposite of the tightly-controlled time of the Gilbreths.

(In reality this didn’t cost much in the way of lost productivity since McKnight observed that 15% of a working day, is taken up with coffee and tea breaks, lunch and other time. Plus people don’t religiously take their 15% and then stop thinking about their innovation; most give much more of their own thinking time for free!)

Breakthroughs (of which 3M has many to be proud of) come more frequently if people have time to think — which is why the approach has been successfully adopted by many other organizations. Google, for example, links many major innovations like Gmail to allowing their engineers to spend 20% of their time on their own projects.

There’s another reason why time pressure shouldn’t always be too strong in the innovation area. By its nature innovation is uncertain — which means that we need to experiment and things will go wrong which need time to explore and fix. But sometimes the project level pressure is too strong — prestige, racing the competition, the need to meet performance targets — there are plenty of culprits turning the temporal screws. Think about the fateful Challenger space shuttle explosion back in 1986 which eventually was blamed on a faulty O-ring seal. But importantly — as the Rogers commission of enquiry commented later — it wasn’t the component which was the problem but the system which put so much pressure on the engineers to push past it and press ahead.

That’s sadly not a new tale; the novelist Nevil Shute spent much of his early life working in the aircraft industry and had first hand experience of the race to design an airship. In response to the German dominance with their Zeppelin designs in the 1920s the British government pushed for a challenger and backed two projects, the R-100 which was built on a shoestring by Shute’s company and the other the R-101 which was built with government resources. The latter had all the advantages of unlimited resources and budget but that came with enormous political pressure to get the job done — and fast.

Image: National Archives UK

Sadly on a test flight in 1930 the R101 ploughed into a French hillside killing all on board. Once again the enquiry found that the engineers had been pushed to cut corners and ignore safety concerns; Shute and his fellow engineers had enormous sympathy for the difficult situation in which their R101 colleagues had found themselves. As he describes in his book ‘Slide Rule’

‘The R101 team was working under impossible conditions; they had to design and build an airship that was larger and more complex than anything ever attempted before. They had to meet unrealistic deadlines and specifications imposed by the government. They had to cope with constant changes and revisions to their plans. They had to deal with political interference and public scrutiny…… they were doomed to fail’.

It would be good to think we’ve finally learned this lesson — but the 2022 well-researched Netflix documentary ‘Downfall’ which charts the disastrous history of the Boeing 737-Max points once again at the same kind of time pressure as being responsible for pushing too far too fast.

There are many more places where we can see time playing a role as a key innovation enabler or shaper. For example the challenge to board-level patience in the face of the long slow haul towards bringing innovation impact at scale. Evidence shows it takes a long time to move from pilot success to widespread impact. As Ray Croc (the architect behind the scaling of McDonalds) pointed out, ‘I was an overnight success all right, but 30 years is a long, long night’.

So providing support and commitment over the long-haul is going to be as important as having an innovation team with a clear vision and strategy to undertake the expedition. Not for nothing does the term ‘patient money’ first appear in the findings of the famous Project Sappho study back in the 1970s which looked at factors affecting success and failure in innovation.

Or the challenge of innovation timing — we hear a lot about ‘first mover advantage’ and it would be easy to think that speed is always the key factor. But being too early is often as risky as being too late; pushing untried innovations into the market too soon can sometimes mean being cut by the bleeding edge of technology. And sometimes the innovation is so far advanced it has to wait for the wider infrastructure or for the social or political climate to catch up. Shai Agassi’s vision for making the world a better place through his electromobility solutions is a good example. The collapse what had been one of the world’s biggest start-ups came ten years before the underlying idea (of battery swap technology for electric vehicles) found widespread acceptance in niche markets like city taxi networks in China.

Time is a precious commodity which, used wisely, is a key part of the innovation story. So when you glance at your watch or the little clock running in the corner of your computer screen spare a thought for the innovators, thousands of them over the centuries, who solved the problem of measuring it reliably and accurately.

Additional Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

You can find a podcast version of this here and a video version here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

Underground Innovation

How giving people space can make a big difference to your innovation profile

Underground Innovation

GUEST POST from John Bessant

If you’d snuck up behind me last weekend you’d have caught me in the act of painting walls. Not the most exciting of pursuits but it needed to be done so that now I can sit here and write in a freshly-painted room. And importantly one where even my clumsy brushwork doesn’t show in unsightly streaks and overruns. I am amongst millions of painters, professional and otherwise who regularly mutter small votes of thanks to Richard Drew and his invaluable contribution to the world of painting and decorating — masking tape.

This humble but essential innovation is getting on in years but still turns a profit for the company which originated it way back in 1925–3M. But it would never have seen the light of day if company strategy and official policy had prevailed. It exists because of Drew’s late night and unofficial efforts in direct defiance of his boss’s orders.

Drew was working as a technical salesman, dealing with some of the copmpany’s biggest customers for their core product — sandpaper. He spent a lot of time visiting car factories in that newly-growing industry, and in particular the paint shops where sandpaper was used to prepare metal surfaces for painting.

The paint crews were well aware of the good old days when Henry Ford had simplified their job — in 1909 he’d outlined a strategy for his company, which concentrated on a single model (the Model T) which could be built in high volume at low price. Doing this involved a number of trade-offs, not least in terms of massively editing down the choices available to customers. It was at this strategy meeting that he reputedly said ‘Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.’

That decision helped establish the Model T as ‘a car for Everyman at a price every man can afford’, bringing the price down by 75% and putting it within the reach of many people. But it didn’t satisfy the market for long. People wanted more choice in models, styles — and colour schemes. All of which made life more difficult for the skilled craftsmen in the paint shops, trying to deliver ever more exotic paint jobs without slowing down production.

The problem is that when you want to paint with more than one colour then you need to cover up the area you don’t want painted. Which is a clumsy fussy business; early attempts involved using rags, newspapers and scraps of cardboard but then they had to be held in place, making a one-man job into a two-man job. Attempts to solve this by using sticky tape to hold the mask in place also failed; the solvents in the paint dissolved the adhesive on the tape making the whole mask slip and slide all over the surface.

An Innovation Dust-up

Which is where Richard Drew came in, trying to sell a new kind of sandpaper which 3M had launched which offered to cut down the dust created when preparing a metal surface for painting. Hearing some choice language coming from one corner of the shop he walked over to ask what the problem was — to be given an expletive filled tutorial in how not to mask up a paint job. What was needed — he was told in no uncertain terms — was a better adhesive tape which would actually stick and stay stuck!

He went back to his office and began to tinker around with various formulations to try and make something suitable. His boss wasn’t too pleased, ordering him to get back to his main job of selling sandpaper — but he kept on with the quest.

It took him two years and involved a variety of vegetable oils, chicle, linseed, various resins, glue, glycerine and treated crepe paper. What he eventually came up with was a tape strong enough to stick to the surfaces but easy enough to peel off without leaving any scars on the paintwork. Despite its promise his boss wouldn’t allow him to buy the machinery he needed to produce it in quantity — so Drew turned his innovative skills to the problem of financing capital equipment. He bought his machinery in small pieces, each of which cost less than the $99 he was permitted to spend on an item of equipment., and then assembled the machine himself.

This last act finally convinced his boss to let him go ahead — and also provided a lesson which became a company mantra. The boss in question was William McKnight and he made a key policy out of the experience. “If you have the right person on the right project, and they are absolutely dedicated to finding a solution — leave them alone. Tolerate their initiative and trust them.”

And so 3M’s ‘bootlegging’ approach was born, and it persists today embodied now in formal company policy. Give people permission to play around, don’t control them too tightly and let their natural creativity and entrepreneurship do the rest. Their 15% policy (allowing employees to spend up to 15% of their time in pursuit of their own ideas and hunches) has been responsible for thousands of product and process innovations, a few of which (like PostIt Notes) have gone on to be breakthrough radical innovations.

Operating Below the Radar

The masking tape story is a classic example of innovation happening below the radar screen (except the radar wasn’t invented in 1925!). We know today that smart companies who care about innovation invest in the capacity for innovation — R&D and market research, future scoping, etc. Organized innovation, buying themselves options on the future. All good — but maybe only focusing on the formal means potentially missing out on what might be happening underground. Because by their nature people are innovators, prone to experiment and tinker around, frustrated with aspects of their work which they think a little hacking around the edges might help them with. Why not tap into this as another source of innovation?

(Especially since it’s actually not that expensive in terms of lost productive time. The origin of the 15% figure at 3M was McKnight’s the observation that this was the time people spent on coffee breaks and on lunch breaks and so on, times when they could do some of this unofficial innovation).

It’s not just the benefits in terms of the possible product and process innovations which it might lead to. It’s also a powerful motivator, something which can help retain and inspire employees. Allowing people time and space to explore communicates a core company value — — it’s an invitation to tinker to hack things, to play around. And it has certainly paid off for 3M and other companies; consider these examples:

  • The Sony PlayStation started as a bootleg project by Ken Kutaragi, an engineer who secretly worked on a video game console with Nintendo without Sony’s approval.
  • The HP DeskJet printer was originally developed by a group of HP engineers who wanted to create a low-cost inkjet printer for personal use. They used bootleg parts and software to build their first prototype, which they hid under a tablecloth when not in use.
  • The first spreadsheet software was created by two programmers Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, who worked on their project without any formal support or funding from their employers. They went on to found their own company, Visicalc, which for a while was the market leader in the field.
  • Google’s 20% allowing employees time to spend on personal projects led to several innovations including Google Maps, Google News and Gmail.
  • Toshiba’s pioneering notebook computer was developed by a team of engineers who worked on it covertly for four years. They used their own laptops and software tools to create a prototype that featured innovative elements such as a lightweight design, a long battery life and a high-performance processor. The project was initially rejected by the management, but later accepted after some modifications. Introduced in 1985 it became a global leader in the portable computer market.
  • BMW has a long history of bootleg innovations which have gone on to become success stories. For example the Z1 roadster was developed by a small team of engineers who worked on it secretly for four years. They used their own time and resources to create a prototype that featured innovative elements such as a plastic body, retractable doors and a modular design. The project was eventually discovered by the top management and approved for production in 1986. And the iDrive was developed by a team of engineers who worked on it without any formal mandate or budget, using their own laptops and software tools. They also conducted user tests with their own cars and friends. The project was initially rejected by the management, but later became a standard feature in many BMW models. These projects helped legitimise what the company now calls ‘U-boat’ projects , recognising the value of the bootlegging approach.

Forbidden Fruit

Peter Augsdorfer made a classic study of the phenomenon, reported it in his wonderful book ‘Forbidden fruit’ in which he highlights many examples of such ‘bootlegging’ approaches. (The term originated during the 1920s when the US government banned the manufacture and sale of hard liquor; the measure didn’t have the desired effect of wiping out the industry and sobering up the country. Instead it triggered a wave of illegal but at times highly innovative ways around the problem, essentially driving innovation underground and out of sight . This included hiding illicit liquor down the inside of boots).

Augsdorfer argues that bootlegging can be seen as a form of learning under uncertainty, where employees experiment with new ideas and technologies without formal approval or support. In other words it’s an unofficial extension of the R&D/exploration work which companies need to do anyway.

Importantly it’s an approach which can have other positive benefits for organizations beyond the innovations which its employees create, such as enhancing motivation and employee retention and fostering a culture of internal entrepreneurship. But it has its ‘dark side’; there are negative outcomes including wasting time and resources, violating ethical norms and — a big challenge for those trying to ‘manage’ it — undermining organizational control and co-ordination frameworks.

Innovation Missionaries

Augsdorfer orginally wrote about this 25 years ago but a recent article in the Sloan Management Review reminds us that such underground innovation is alive and well. It’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’ and their article highlights a number of different approaches. It also usefully identifies three key archetypes of characters who may be innovators of this kind. They call them ‘missionaries’, ‘users’ and ‘explorers’.

Missionaries have a particular interest in the development of the company; their self-adopted ‘mission’ is to improve things. Characters like Richard Drew would fall into this category, seeing their own progress as being tied up with the fortunes of the company they work for and tapping into its resources to help them achieve their goals.

User innovators are essentially frustrated in what they are doing — they develop hacks and work arounds to solve problems particularly in the area of process innovation and their ideas can often be surfaced through suggestion schemes and other mechanisms.

And explorers are concerned with pushing the frontiers of what they do, sometimes going in directions which the company does not believe is possible. The risk here is that they pursue their ideas too far, detracting from their mainstream work and official company strategy.

Making Space for Innovation

So what makes underground innovation work? It’s not simply waving a magic wand, Harry Potter style, and casting the ‘Innovate!’ spell. Instead a number of things need to come together:

  • Allowing space — time, access to resources, etc. The exact amount — 15, 20 or even higher percentages of time — is irrelevant. It’s the signal that matters, communicating that it is OK to experiment around the edges and that there won’t be negative consequences for such action. What often happens is that this small amount of investment encourages employees to spend much more of their own time and initiative, often working long unpaid hours in pursuit of their ideas. At the limit (as Paula Criscuouolo and her colleagues point out) there are good examples of bootlegging arising from contexts in which there is no formal space or time allocation but an underlying perception that it is still OK to ‘dig around a little’.
  • Giving boundaries — defining the space within which innovation is possible and permission to explore there. For example we don’t necessarily want bootleg innovation in the formulation of pharmaceutical products but that leaves plenty of scope for other ideas, particularly in process innovation.
  • Establishing a development pathway to pick up on bootleg ideas. There’s no point stimulating lots of bootlegging behaviour if employees have nowhere to channel their ideas once they start to develop. In the case of 3M there’s a clear pathway which allows employees to take bright ideas and pitch for varying amounts of internal funding and other resources to grow and scale their innovations. Such functionality is increasingly built into innovation collaboration platforms and many companies — such as Liberty Global with their Spark programme — have established employee entrepreneurship pathways in parallel to their suggestion schemes.
  • Communicate trust as a core value — allowing bootleggers to feel a sense of psychological safety about what they are doing and that they will not be penalised for their activities.
  • Reward and recognise — it’s no coincidence that one of the things about 3M is that the people who have been involved in developing bootleg projects to fruition are then rewarded not just with resources and money but also with the opportunity to carry their venture forward. One of the two people involved in the development of Post it notes was Art Fry who moved on to run the division for 3M. The originator of the laptop computer within Toshiba similarly went on to run that division of their business.
  • Encourage intelligent failure — the down-side of allowing people to take initiative is that they will make mistakes. Importantly one of McKnight’s famous comments was that Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.’

Underground innovation has a lot to offer -but as the above suggests it isn’t a simple matter of mimicking Google or 3M, allocating a percentage of time and then waiting for the magic to happen. Successful organizations make employee involvement a key plank in building their innovation culture; something William Mcknight learned from his experience as Richard Drew’s manager. By 1929 he was running the entire 3M company and he pulled together some of the core principles through which their culture developed — including what he called his ‘Basic rule of management’. It’s deceptively simple and it serves well as a motto for anyone interested in tapping into underground innovation:

“delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise their initiative.”

Image Credits: Pixabay

You can find a podcast version of this here and a video version here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

A Flop is Not a Failure

Why innovation thrives on being able to reframe

A Flop is Not a Failure

GUEST POST from John Bessant

Mexico City, Olympic Games, 1968. The stadium is packed, the wider world looks on via TV coverage. Everywhere there’s an air of expectancy but also an awareness that at such high altitude it’s going to be hard for athletes to beat their best. Records are there to be broken, you have to hope for something special.

And in the high jump event they weren’t disappointed. The record for men’s high jump had hovered around 2.23 m for several years. But a young 21-year-old was about to change that; Dick Fosbury, representing the USA broke this with a height of 2.24 m and won the gold medal.

What was so spectacular was not just the achievement but the way it was accomplished. Unlike other athletes who did the (apparently obvious) thing of running and then jumping over the bar, swinging one leg behind the other, Fosbury paused at the moment of jumping, turned his back and flopped over it backwards. Why would anyone do that?

Fosbury had an answer — he’d been working on it for five years before his Mexico success. He’d been frustrated with the limits of the traditional ‘straddle’ jump and experimented with alternative ways of getting over the bar, finally hitting on and perfecting his backwards approach. The big advantage of doing this was that it gave him a lower and different centre of gravity and allowed for more clearance over the bar.

The ‘Fosbury flop’ as it quickly became known opened up new possibilities for the sport; within ten years it had become the dominant mode for all jumpers and helped move the world record to 2.45 m which was set in 1993 by Javier Sotomayor. These days anyone attempting the high jump has come to resemble the ‘fish flopping on the deck of a boat’ as one newspaperman described Fosbury’s Mexico model.

John Bessant Doodly Image

What Fosbury’s feat reminds us of is the power of reframing in innovation. Innovation can take place anywhere along a continuum from doing what we do better — incremental — to doing something completely different — radical. And it can cover what we offer the world — product or service — and the ways we create a deliver that offering — process. That gives us plenty to keep us busy in our innovation day.

But sometimes we can reframe, look at what we’re doing in a different way, identify novel approaches. For example we can rethink the positioning of our innovation — opening up a new market segment or moving into a new geographical area. There’s plenty of learning and pivoting involved in doing that — as Netflix discovered when it began to extend its offer from the USA to Canada and then Europe and beyond.

We can be more radical and change the story we tell and who we tell it to — think about Starbucks and others and the way they repositioned coffee from a simple hot drink to something consumed in as many varieties and combinations as fine wine. Or Haagen Dasz and others who reframed the idea of ice cream as a sensuous adult pleasure rather than as a treat for kids on hot days. Or Henry Ford, bringing the motor car from the small luxury goods market to being a ‘car for Everyman at a price every man can afford’.

This kind of reframing opens up new possibilities but poses new challenges. Just as Fosbury and his followers had to rethink so much of their approach and learn new tricks (not least about where and how to land!) so this kind of position reframing requires major modifications to our product/service offering and our delivery processes.

Think about low-cost airlines — if your main idea is to offer flights at half the price of your competitors, you’ll quickly find out how fast you can lose money. The only way you can make that model work, selling seats to a market who otherwise couldn’t afford to fly will be to radically change your processes, stripping costs and complexity out of everything from booking to check-in, to boarding right through to turnaround time management. Master those tricks and you not only have a viable business model, you’ve got something which the rest of the pack have to catch up with.

But reframing doesn’t stop there; business model innovation is a very hot topic these days and at heart it is finding ways to change the game by replacing one business model with an alternative. Business models set out the architecture through which an innovation can deliver value– for which market segments, with which value proposition and so on. Business model innovation is all about replacing that system with a different better one.

We’ve got plenty of examples of this happening — think about Uber or AirBnB and how they’ve not only become successful new models themselves but also offered templates for others to use in different fields. Or what Spotify and the music streaming services have done to entertainment by changing the model from ownership to rental.

It’s the same with capital goods makers like Caterpillar or Rolls Royce. Instead of selling products on a one-off basis they now offer the functionality of those products to their customers on a rental basis, charging them for ‘power by the hour’ for example.

Once again such reframing isn’t trivial, it drives innovation in product and service and it requires major rethinking about the processes which create and deliver such service. If Rolls-Royce, General Electric and others are being paid for the number of hours their engines are keeping airliners in the air then they need to work hard to ensure that they are reliable and well-maintained. So, they’ve had to innovate in their products to improve reliability through intelligent condition monitoring, they’ve had to install skilled staff at airports making sure engines are quickly and regularly checked and serviced and they’ve had to rethink their financial and support operations to reflect the changed approach.

Beyond all of this comes the possibility of completely reframing the whole approach to innovation — innovation model innovation. Sometimes it’s not enough just to tweak and adapt the product or service development pathway or revise arrangements for process improvement. Sometimes there’s a need for a radical rethink.

A good example of this is the experience of Procter and Gamble and their emerging response to the opportunities and challenges posed by ‘open innovation’. Faced with a world in which ‘not all the smart people work for you’ they reframed their approach to creating thousands of new products from one which had dominated a century and a half of growth through Research and Develop. They replaced it with a new strategic approach to innovation, with the deceptively simple label of ‘Connect and develop’.

The challenge was easy to express and CEO Alan Lafley did so in 2000 when he launched the program. In the future P&G would get 50% of its innovations from outside as distinct from the previous model which was 100% home grown. Simple to say but it has taken then 25 years to turn the challenge into a viable and successful new model. On the way they’ve had to re-engineer so much, finding ways to identify and filter external ideas, to assimilate them and deploy that new knowledge in new directions for the business and simultaneously to make better use of knowledge which P&G had created and then never found a home for.

There’s a useful Greek word — paradigm — which can be used to describe the way we see the world. It’s like the mental spectacles through which we see which problems to focus on and which solutions might be relevant. Change the spectacles — reframe to a new paradigm — and everything looks different, opening up new and fruitful possibilities. It’s an idea which has been put forward by Thomas Kuhn the philosopher of science to explain how our thinking progress follows a pattern of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ — long periods of working within a particular frame followed by a transition to a new way of looking and thinking.

Paradigm innovation is powerful and influential; it changes the world. Which might be a fitting epilogue to the fulsome obituaries which have appeared in response to the sad news of Dick Fosbury’s death last month. He was a true innovator and he changed the way athletes thought about their challenge, helping them aim and reach higher.

Image Credits: Eugene Register-Guard (From the Medford Star-Tribune, 1964), John Bessant (Doodly)

You can find a podcast version of this here and a video version here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

Our Innovation is All on Tape

Why Old Technologies Are Sometimes Still the Best Ones

Our Innovation is All on Tape

GUEST POST from John Bessant

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment a computer room in the early days of the industry. Chances are you’ll picture large wardrobe-sized metal cabinets whirring away with white-coated attendants tending to the machines. And it won’t be long before your gaze lands on the ubiquitous spools of tape being loaded and unloaded.

Which might give us a smug feeling as we look at the storage options for our current generation of computers — probably based on some incredibly fast access high-capacity solid state flash drive. It’s been quite a journey — the arc stretches a long way back from the recent years of USB sticks and SD cards, external HDDs and then the wonderful world of floppy discs, getting larger and more rigid as we go back in time. The clunky 1980s when our home computers rode on cassette drives, right back to the prehistoric days where the high priests of mini and mainframes tended their storage flock of tapes.

Ancient history — except that the tape drive hasn’t gone away. In fact it’s alive and well and backing up our most precious memories. Look inside the huge data farms operated by Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft Azure or anyone else and you’ll find large computers — and lots of tape. Thousands of kilometres of it, containing everything from your precious family photos to email backups to data from research projects like the Large Hadron Collider.

It turns out that tape is still an incredibly reliable medium — and it has the considerable advantage of being cheap. The alternative would be buying lots of hard drives — something which increasingly matters as the volume of data we are storing is growing. Think about the internet of things — all those intelligent devices, whether security cameras or mobile phones, manufacturing performance data loggers or hospital diagnostic equipment, are generating data which needs secure long-term storage. We’ve moved long past the era of measuring storage in kilobytes or megabytes; now we’re into zettabytes, each one the equivalent of to 250billion DVDs. In 2020 estimates suggest we produced close to 59Zb of data, projected to rise to 175zb by 2025! Fortunately IBM scientist Mark Lantz , an expert in storage, suggests that we can keep scaling tape and doubling capacity every 2.5 years for the next 20 years.

Plus tape offers a number of other advantages, not least in terms of security. Most of the time a tape cartridge is not plugged in to a computer and so is pretty immune to visiting viruses and malware.

In fact the market for magnetic tape storage is in robust health; it’s currently worth nearly $5bn and is expected to grow to double that size by 2030. Not bad for a technology coming up on its hundredth anniversary. Making all of this possible is, of course, our old friend innovation. It’s been a classic journey of incremental improvement, doing what we do but better, punctuated with the occasional breakthrough.

It started in 1877 when “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was recorded and played on Thomas Edison’s first experimental talking machine called a phonograph; the sounds were stored on wax cylinders and severely limited in capacity. The first tape recorder was developed in 1886 by Alexander Graham Bell in his labs using paper with beeswax coated on it. This patented approach never really took off because the sound reproduction was inferior to Edison’s wax cylinders.

Others soon explored alternatives; for example Franklin C. Goodale adapted movie film for analogue audio recording, receiving a patent for his invention in 1909. His film used a stylus to record and play back, essentially mimicking Edison’s approach but allowing for much more storage.

But in parallel with the wax-based approach another strand emerged in 1898, with the work of Voldemar Poulsen, a Danish scientist who built on an idea originally suggested ten years earlier by Oberlin Smith. This used the concept of a wire (which could be spooled) on which information was encoded magnetically. Poulsen’s model used cotton thread, steel sawdust and metal wire and was effectively the world’s first tape recorder; he called it a ‘telegraphone’.

Which brings us to another common innovation theme — convergence. If we fast forward (itself a term which originated in the word of tape recording!) to the 1930s we can see these two strands come together; German scientists working for the giant BASF company built on a patent registered to Fritz Pfleumer in 1928. They developed a magnetic tape using metal oxide coated on plastic tape which could be used in recording sound on a commercial basis; in 1934 they delivered the first 50,000 metres of it to the giant electronics corporation AEG.

The big advantage of magnetic recording was that it didn’t rely on a physical analogue being etched into wax or other medium; instead the patterns could be encoded and read as electrical signals. It wasn’t long before tape recording took over as the dominant design — and one of the early entrants was the 3M company in the USA. They had a long history of coating surfaces with particles, having begun life making sandpaper and moved on to create a successful business out of first adhesive masking tape and then the ubiquitous Scotch tape. Coating metal oxide on to tape was an obvious move and they quickly became a key player in the industry.

Innovation is always about the interplay between needs and means and the tape recording business received a fillip from the growing radio industry in the 1940s. Tape offered to simplify and speed up the recording process and an early fan was Bing Crosby. He’d become fed up with the heavy schedule of live broadcasting which kept him away from his beloved golf course and so was drawn to the idea of pre-recording his shows. But the early disc-based technology wasn’t really up to the task, filled with hisses and scratches and poor sound quality. Crosby’s sound engineer had come across the idea of tape recording and worked with 3M to refine the technology.

The very first radio show, anywhere in the world, to be recorded directly on magnetic tape was broadcast on 1 October 1947 featuring Crosby. It not only opened up a profitable line of new business for 3M, it also did its bit for changing the way the world consumed entertainment, be it drama, music hall or news. (It was also a shrewd investment for Crosby who became one of the emerging industry’s backers)

Which brings us to another kind of innovation interplay, this time between different approaches being taken in the worlds of consumer entertainment and industrial computing. Ever since Marconi, Tesla and others had worked on radio there had been a growing interest in consumer applications which could exploit the technology. And with the grandchildren of Edison’s gramophone and in the 1940s the work on television, the home became an increasingly interesting space for electronics entrepreneurs.

But as the domestic market for fixed appliances grew saturated so the search began for mobile solutions. Portability became an important driver for the industry and gave rise to the transistor radio; it wasn’t long before the in car entertainment market began to take off. An early entrant from the tape playback side was the 8-track cartridge in the mid-1960s which allowed you to listen to your favorite tracks without lugging a portable gramophone with you. Philips’ development of the compact cassette (and its free licensing of the idea to promote rapid and widespread adoption) led to an explosion in demand (over 100 billion cassette tapes were eventually sold worldwide) and eventually to the idea of the Walkman as the first portable personal device for recorded and recording music.

Without which we’d be a little less satisfied. Specifically we’d never been introduced to one of the Rolling Stones’ greatest hits; as guitarist Keith Richards explained in his 2010 autobiography:

“I wrote the song ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep. I didn’t know at all that I had recorded it, the song only exists, thank God, to the little Philips cassette recorder. I looked at it in the morning — I knew I had put a new tape in the night before — but it was at the very end. Apparently, I had recorded something. I rewound and then ‘Satisfaction’ sounded … and then 40 minutes of snoring!”

Meanwhile back in the emerging computer industry of the 1950s there was a growing demand for storage media for which magnetic tape seemed well suited. Cue the images we imagined in the opening paragraph, acolytes dutifully tending the vast mainframe machines.

Early computers had used punched cards and then paper tape but these soon reached the limit of their usefulness; instead the industry began exploring magnetic audio tape.

IBM’s team under the leadership of Wayne Winger developed digital tape-based storage; of particular importance was finding ways to encode the 1s and 0s of binary patterns onto the tape. They introduced the commercial digital tape recorder in 1952, and it could store what was (for its time) an impressive 2mB of data on a reel.

Not everyone was convinced; as Winger recalled, “A white-haired IBM veteran in Poughkeepsie pulled a few of us aside and told us, ‘You young fellows remember, IBM was built on punched cards, and our foundation will always be punched cards.’ Fortunately Tom Watson Jnr, son of the company founder became a champion and the project went ahead.

But while tape dominated in the short term another parallel trajectory was soon established, replacing tapes and reels with disc drives whose big advantage was the ability to randomly access data rather than wait for the tape to arrive at the right place on the playback head. IBM once again led the way with its launch in 1956 of the hard disc drive and began a steady stream of innovation in which storage volumes and density increased while the size decreased. The landscape moved through various generations of external drives until the advent of personal computers where the drives migrated inside the box and became increasingly small (and floppy).

These developments were taken up by the consumer electronics industry with the growing use of discs as an alternative recording and playback medium, spanning various formats but also decreasing in size. Which of course opened the way for more portability with Sony and Sharp launching mini-disc players in the early 1980s.

All good news for the personal audio experience but less so for the rapidly expanding information technology industry. While new media storage technology continued to improve it came at a cost and with the exponential increase in volumes of data needing to be stored came a renewed interest in alternative (and cheaper) solutions. The road was leading back to good old-fashioned tape.

Its potential was in long-term storage and retrieval of so-called ‘cold data’. Most of what is stored in the cloud today is this kind — images, emails, all sorts of backup files. And while these need to be around they don’t have to be accessed instantly. And that’s where tape has come back into its own. Today’s tapes have moved on somewhat from IBM’s 1952 limited 2mB of capacity version. They are smaller on the outside but their capacity has grown enormously — they can now hold 20Tb or even if compressed 60pTb — that’s a 10 millionfold increase in 70 years. The tapes are not wound by hand on to capstans but instead loaded into cartridges, each of which hold around a kilometer of tape; companies use libraries containing tens of thousands of these cartridges which can be mounted via automated systems deploying robots. This process takes around 90 seconds to locate a cartridge and access and load the tape, so you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit slow compared to your flash drive which has an access time measured in milliseconds.

There’s a pattern here — established and once important technologies giving way to the new kids on the block with their apparently superior performance. We’ve learned that we shouldn’t necessarily write the old technologies off — at the minimum there is often a niche for them amongst enthusiasts. Think about vinyl, about the anti-mp3 backlash from hi-fi fans or more recently photography using film and plates rather than their digital counterparts.

But it’s more than just nostalgia which drives this persistence of the old. Sometimes — like our magnetic tape — there are performance features which are worth holding on to — trading speed for security and lower storage cost, for example. Sometimes there is a particular performance niche which the new technology cannot enter competitively — for example the persistence of fax machines in healthcare where they offer a secure and reliable way of transmitting sensitive information. At the limit we might argue that neither cash nor physical books are as ‘good’ as their digital rivals but their persistence points to other attributes which people continue to find valuable.

And sometimes it is about the underlying accumulated knowledge which the old technology represents — and which might be redeployed to advantage in a different field. Think of Fujifilm’s resurgence as a cosmetics and pharmaceuticals company on the back of its deep knowledge of emulsions and coatings. Technologies which it originally mastered in the now largely disappeared world of film photography. Or Kodak’s ability to offer high speed high quality printing on the back of knowledge it originally acquired in the same old industry — that of accurately spraying and targeting millions of droplets on to a surface. And it was 3M’s deep understanding of how to coat materials on to tapes gained originally from selling masking tape to the paint shops of Detroit which helped it move so effectively into the field of magnetic tape.

Keeping these technologies alive isn’t about putting them on life support; as the IBM example demonstrates it needs a commitment to incremental innovation, driving and optimising performance. And there’s still room for breakthroughs within those trajectories; in the case of magnetic tape storage it came in 2010 in the form of the Linear Tape File System (LTFS) open standard. This allowed tape drives to emulate the random access capabilities of their hard disk competitors, using metadata about the location of data stored on the tapes.

Whichever way you look at it there’s a need for innovation, whether bringing a breakthrough to an existing field or helping sustain a particular niche for the long haul. And we shouldn’t be too quick to write off ‘old’ technologies as new ones emerge which appear superior. It’s worth remembering that the arrival of the steamship didn’t wipe out the shipyards building sailing ships around the world; it actually spurred them on to a golden era of performance imporvement which it took steampships a long time to catch up with.

So, there’s often a lot of life left in old dogs, especially when we can teach them some new innovative tricks.

You can find a podcast version of this here and a video version here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.