Tag Archives: Creativity

Using Limits to Become Limitless

Using Limits to Become Limitless

GUEST POST from Rachel Audige

While it dates back to the 1970s, the expression ‘think outside the box’ is still in vogue. Yet the idea of creativity being best when unrestrained is at best a bit of a fable and at worst, unhelpful – particularly when we are confined to the four walls of our home! What is really helpful is when people actually impose constraints on their thinking. It’s counter-intuitive but creativity loves constraints.

So, what sort of constraints does it love? In my experience, there are five. The first — contrary to popular belief — is to artificially create a frame or a ‘box’. In her inspiring TEDx talk at Newark Academy, Tess Callahan spoke about “the love affair between creativity and constraint.” We all admire people who think outside the box but how do they do it? What if the key to thinking ‘outside the box’ is to create a box to think outside of?”, she says.

For many, thinking ‘outside the box’ means exploring new paths and “being open-minded” and “brainstorming without judgement”. This makes sense but how to do this is not very clear. Subject to the rigour of the facilitator, brainstorming sessions are likely to generate a huge list of ideas that are more or less out of reach. I call these ‘aromatherapy ideas’ (inspired by an ad where the brainstorm led to aromatherapy candles in the hire car putting everyone — even the driver! — to sleep). The team feels empowered and hyped but months later when nothing has happened to their ideas, they are cynical and will boot out the next person who wants to talk innovation.

In workshops we illustrate the difference between outside and inside-the-box thinking by asking people to go create a piece of exercise equipment that we’ve never seen before. Faces look blank, the buzz is low but the pairs come up with a few nice ideas. In a second round we ask them to do the same but to make it exercise equipment that we can use at the wheel of our car. The noise level trebles, ideas fuse and even those who had nothing have some interesting ideas (along with the odd aromatherapy one!). We then ask them ‘Which exercise was easier?’. 95% will say the second (there’s always an outlier or two…). Give people the context; the box. Zoom in and work from there. This gives people focus and avoids the blank canvas syndrome.

The second constraint loved by creativity is the natural corollary of the first: once you have a defined ‘box’, you should follow a path of most resistance and limit the resources you can use to ideate or create.

Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), the Israeli company and innovation method that I believe really enhances creative thinking (as opposed to simply providing a process) is grounded in this belief that constraints foster creativity. The founders were so convinced of this that they imposed an artificial constraint on the creative process so that you have to strive to only use resources that are inside what we call the ‘Closed World’. The key to this is being systematic about how you go through the ‘inventory’ of this closed world. If you’re not, your cognitive biases will blind you to some great ideas…

That brings us to the third idea: once you have limited your frame and your resources, creativity is enhanced by drawing on inspiration; on templates. These help bust these biases and take a different path through our minds. When artists want to paint, they often learn by copying the masters. Likewise, in creative thinking and innovation it is powerful to draw on the most inventive ideas. There are countless templates to draw from. Biomimicry is based on the templates tried and tested by Mother Nature. The Speedo swimsuits inspired by shark skin to reduce drag were banned in the Olympics were seen to be a nice example of this. TRIZ (the inspiration for SIT) covers 40 patterns that not only inspire but are said to serve as predictive models for future innovations…

In SIT we work with five inventive thinking tools that come from five patterns present in the 80% of the most inventive ideas (‘surprising for some but there is a sort of DNA to creative ideas). They include removing an essential component (like Apple did with the Shuffle) or dividing up a process or product and moving a component in time or space (like H&M did when they moved the step of paying from the end of the shopping process to the moment the decision is made in the fitting room). The brilliant thing is that these templates not only increase our chances of coming up with something exciting but they help bust the cognitive biases that may lead us to miss resources that are right under our nose.

The fourth constraint is to diligently follow a workflow. In design thinking we have learnt to start with our customers’ needs and pain points (the “function”) and develop a solution (the “form”) to fit. This has been a crucial shift that taught organisations to stop product push but what if we could learn another workflow? And what if this workflow could help us suspend our embedded thinking so that we can unearth more original ideas?

Back in the early 90’s, a group of psychologists made an interesting discovery. When it comes to creating, people are innately better at uncovering the potential benefits of a given form than creating a new form to satisfy a given need. Or, to put it differently, we struggle to come up with a solution to a problem more than a problem for a given solution. Those of us who work with this find that this “back-to-front” approach is great way to stop ourselves from default thinking and embedding the structures, functions and relationships that we are used to into the new idea.

In SIT we call this ‘Function Follows Form’ and the more strictly we apply this workflow constraint, the more impactful it is on our creative thinking. We start by defining the closed world and listing the resources we have available. We then apply a template (depending on the most likely cognitive fixedness). This manipulation leads to a ‘virtual’ process, product or ‘situation’. This is when our resistance is greatest and if we are not strict about limiting our thinking to this oddly manipulated virtual form, we are likely to reject it and possibly miss the opportunities it offers. Once we have visualised it and described how it could work, we then explore its desirability, feasibility and viability, make any necessary adaptations and then test the idea if it warrants it. It is invaluable to know how to think both form to function as well as function to form.

The last constraint is that of embracing unchosen limitations. Phil Hansen (TEDxKC) tells a beautiful story of how he harnessed the power of embracing a ‘shake’’ to create even more extraordinary art.

After years of painting with a method of tiny dots, Hansen developed a shake in the hand that made it impossible to paint as he was used to doing. His dots “had become tadpoles”. It was good for “shaking a can of paint” but for Phil it was “the destruction of his dream of becoming an artist.” He left art school and he left art.

This didn’t work for him, however, so, after a while, he went to see a neurologist who diagnosed him with permanent nerve damage. This wasn’t great. What was great though was what he said to him: “ Why don’t you just embrace the shake?”

So he went home and started making art with nothing but scribbles . He then limited himself to his feet. He then moved to wood… He moved to larger materials where his hand wouldn’t hurt. He started with a single way of painting and ended up with endless possibilities. “This was the first time that I encountered the idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity,” he says.

He finished up school and got a new job. This enabled him to afford more art supplies. He explains that he “went nuts” buying stuff and took it home with the intention to do something incredible. He sat there for hours and nothing came. Same thing the next day. And the next. He was “creatively blank”; paralysed by all these choices that he never had before. That was when he thought about what the neurologist had said…

He realised that if he ever wanted his creativity back, he had to quit trying so hard to think outside of the box, and “get back into it”. In fact, he started exploring the idea that he could get more creative by actually looking for limitations? “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless, he says, very poignantly.

He took this approach to being ‘inside the box’ and did a series of artworks where he imposed tight constraints: he could only paint on his chest, or he could only create with karate chops or what if he created art to destroy after its creation (an image of Jimmy Hendricks made out of 7000 matches — crazy!), what if he used frozen wine…“What I thought would be the ultimate limitation turned out to be the ultimate liberation as each time I created the destruction brought me back to a place of neutrality where I felt fresh to start a new project,” he explains.

He found myself in a state of constant creation “coming up with more ideas than ever…”

We don’t all have the honed creative skills of my new artist friend or of the astonishing Phil Hansen but that’s all the more reason to boost our creative potential. As individuals and in organisations, we need learnable, robust, repeatable tools to be more skilled inventive thinkers — and to be able to harness this on demand. We need methods that impose limitations. So try getting back inside the box and embrace the constraints!

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Top 10 Human-Centered Change & Innovation Articles of December 2022

Top 10 Human-Centered Change & Innovation Articles of December 2022Drum roll please…

At the beginning of each month, we will profile the ten articles from the previous month that generated the most traffic to Human-Centered Change & Innovation. Did your favorite make the cut?

But enough delay, here are December’s ten most popular innovation posts:

  1. Forbidden Truth About Innovation — by Robyn Bolton
  2. A Letter to Innovation Santa — by John Bessant
  3. Preserving Ecosystems as an Innovation Superpower — by Pete Foley
  4. What is a Chief Innovation Officer? — by Art Inteligencia
  5. If You Can Be One Thing – Be Effective — by Mike Shipulski
  6. How to Drive Fear Out of Innovation — by Teresa Spangler
  7. 3 Steps to Find the Horse’s A** In Your Company (and Create Space for Innovation) — by Robyn Bolton
  8. Six Ways to Stop Gen-Z from Quiet Quitting — by Shep Hyken
  9. Overcoming the Top 3 Barriers to Customer-Centricity — by Alain Thys
  10. Designing Innovation – Accelerating Creativity via Innovation Strategy — by Douglas Ferguson

BONUS – Here are five more strong articles published in November that continue to resonate with people:

If you’re not familiar with Human-Centered Change & Innovation, we publish 4-7 new articles every week built around innovation and transformation insights from our roster of contributing authors and ad hoc submissions from community members. Get the articles right in your Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin feeds too!

Have something to contribute?

Human-Centered Change & Innovation is open to contributions from any and all innovation and transformation professionals out there (practitioners, professors, researchers, consultants, authors, etc.) who have valuable human-centered change and innovation insights to share with everyone for the greater good. If you’d like to contribute, please contact me.

P.S. Here are our Top 40 Innovation Bloggers lists from the last three years:

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Why is it important to innovate in 2023?

Why is it important to innovate in 2023?

GUEST POST from Janet Sernack

At ImagineNation™ we have just celebrated 10 years as a global innovation consultancy, learning, and coaching company. During this time, we’ve identified some of the common patterns that people demonstrate as a result of feeling uncomfortable, frozen, inert, stubborn, and confused and as a result, are resistant to innovation. Where many organizations, teams, and leaders appear to walk backward as if they are sleepwalking through this time in their lives.

At the same time, we know that innovation is transformational, and why, at this moment in time, it is more important than ever to create, invent and innovate. We also know that is crucial to be better balanced, resilient, and adaptive to grow and flow, survive and thrive, in today’s chaotic BANI environment. We also know exactly what transformative innovation involves, and how to enable and equip people to connect and collaborate in new ways to effect constructive and sustainable change in a world of unknowns.

Innovation is, in fact, the water of life!

Shaping the next normal

According to a recent article by McKinsey and Co “The future is not what it used to be: Thoughts on the shape of the next normal” the coronavirus crisis is a “world-changing event” which is forcing both the pace and scale of workplace innovation.

Stating that businesses are forced to do more with less and that many are finding better, simpler, less expensive, and faster ways to operate.  Describing how innovative health systems, through necessity, constraints, and adversity have exploited this moment in time, to innovate:

“The urgency of addressing COVID-19 has also led to innovations in biotech, vaccine development, and the regulatory regimes that govern drug development so that treatments can be approved and tried faster. In many countries, health systems have been hard to reform; this crisis has made the difficulty much easier to achieve. The result should be a more resilient, responsive, and effective health system”.

We all know that it is impossible to know what will happen in the future and yet, that it is possible to consider and learn from the lessons of the past, both distant and recent.  On that basis, it’s crucial to take time out, be hopeful, and positive, and think optimistically about the future. To be proactive and innovate to shape the kind of future we all wish to have, through making constructive and sustainable changes, that ultimately contribute to the common good.

Strategically deciding to innovate

Strategically deciding to innovate, is the first, mandatory, powerful, and impactful lever organizations, teams, leaders, and individuals can pull to effect constructive and sustainable change that enables people to execute and deliver real benefits:

  • Deal with, and find solutions to a world full of complex and competing social, civic, and political problems that are hard to solve and aren’t going away.
  • Better adapt, respond to, and be agile in fast-changing circumstances, uncertainty, instability, and to random and unexpected Black Swan events, like the global Covid-19 Pandemic and the Russian-Ukraine war.
  • Become human-centric to help people recover and manage their transition through the challenges of the global pandemic and enable them to exploit the range of accelerating technological advances in the digital age.
  • Develop corporate responsibility, sustainability, diversity, and inclusion strategies that are practical and can work and really deliver on their promises.
  • Compete by applying and experimenting with lean and agile start-up methodologies and take advantage of the opportunities and possibilities of the global entrepreneurship movement’s new models for leadership, collaboration, and experimentation.
  • Align to the range of changing workplace dynamics and trends, resulting from the pandemic, including WFH, the “soft resignation” and the demands of a hybrid workplace.
  • Shift individual, group, and collective consciousness towards collaboration and experimentation in ways that rebuild the trust that has been lost through incompetence, corruption, greed, and dishonesty.
  • Respond creatively to meet the increasingly diverse range of customer expectations and choices being made around value.

Important to innovate – three elements

To take advantage of living in a globalized world, where we are interconnected through technologies and values and where we have an interrelated structure of reality, we can:

  • Accept that innovation-led adaptation and growth are absolutely critical and develop targets and a willingness to invest in new scalable business models, achieve fast and effective developments, and launch processes to reflect these.
  • Invest in a coherent, time-risk balanced portfolio of initiatives and provide the resources to deliver them, at scale, strategically, to innovate to the right market, at the right price, at the right time, and through the most effective channels.
  • Adopt an ecosystem approach to adapt and grow by creating and capitalizing on both internal and external networks, and stakeholder management through developing workforce ecosystems – a structure that consists of interdependent actors, from within the organization and beyond, working to pursue both individual and collective goals.

Problem-solving, cultural change, and improving people’s lives

It is more important than ever to make innovation transformational, so that it delivers constructive, ethical, and sustainable change, by building on three critical successful abilities:

  1. Seeing and sensing the real systemic problem or breakthrough opportunity:
  • What problem are we solving? And is there a customer who wants to pay to have that problem solved?
  • What problem are we solving for the customer? Who needs this?
  • What are the possibilities and opportunities available to us? And is there a customer who wants to pay to have this opportunity realized?
  • What are some of our strengths? What are some of the things we are doing well that we can build upon or exploit?
  1. Shifting the culture:
  • Where are we today? Where do we want to be in the future?
  • What are our prevailing mindsets? How can we measure and contextualize their impact? What mindsets might we embrace to adapt and grow in an uncertain world?
  • How ready and receptive are we to really embrace change?
  • What do we need to unlearn and relearn to ensure our people are open-minded, hearted, and willed to embody and enact the desired change?
  • How engaged and passionate are our people in problem-solving?
  • How might we harness our people’s collective intelligence to solve problems and realize opportunities?
  1. Aligning technologies, processes, artifacts, and behaviors as a holistic system:
  • What is our appetite for risk? How do we define risk in our context?
  • What type of innovation do we strategically want to plan for and engage in?
  • What old legacy technologies no longer serve your needs? What new technologies might you be willing to invest in for the future?
  • What disciplines are in place to ensure that people have a common understanding of the key processes and comply with managing them?
  • How are we ensuring that everyone is motivated and skilled to innovate?
  • How are we ensuring that people are acknowledged, rewarded, and organized to repeatedly innovate?
  • What are the key mindsets and behaviours that enable and equip people to embody and embrace repeatedly innovate and design solutions with the end customer in mind?

Become an adaptive and resilient difference maker

As many of us are aware, Toys R Us and Blockbuster were huge companies, that enjoyed massive success; however, this was all brought to an end due to their failure to innovate.

We can all avoid this fate by choosing to innovate and create constructive and sustainable change through:

  • Accepting and acknowledging that to survive and thrive in a BANI world, where necessity is still the mother of all invention, and the urgency to do this is more important than ever.
  • Identifying, understanding, and dealing with our own resistance to innovation, safely and proactively, and transforming resistance into resilience, to be adaptive and safely innovate.
  • Understanding where we are today and then assessing the gap to what we want to be in the future, and mitigating the risks of both closing the gap and leaving the gap wide open.
  • Enabling leaders, teams, and individuals to connect, explore, discover and navigate new ways of approaching and delivering commercially viable, value-adding, constructive and sustainable change, and outcomes.
  • Leveraging innovation to transform an organization, a business, the way people lead and team, to improve the quality of people’s lives in ways they appreciate and cherish.

“In order to transcend mere adequacy and make a mark of creative transcendence on the world, organizations need to stop walking backward, following a trail that has already been blazed. The motto of the British Special Air Service is, “Who dares, wins.” It is time for businesses to be bold, inspired, and look to the horizon. The next great innovation is out there. Will you have the guts to create it?”

Will you make a fundamental choice to innovate?

According to McKinsey and Co “The point is that where the world lands is a matter of choice – of countless decisions to be made by individuals, companies, governments, and institutions”.

Will you make a fundamental choice to use the current crisis to lead to a burst of innovation, productivity, resilience, and exploration in 2023, to take advantage of our connected world to create the constructive and sustainable changes we all want to have?

Or will you continue walking backward and sleepwalking through life, and fail to take advantage of this moment in time, to innovate, and continue life with the same thinking that is causing the current range of results, that many of us don’t want to have?

Find out more about our work at ImagineNation™

Find out about our collective, learning products and tools, including The Coach for Innovators, Leaders, and Teams Certified Program, presented by Janet Sernack, is a collaborative, intimate, and deeply personalized innovation coaching and learning program, supported by a global group of peers over 9-weeks, starting Tuesday, February 7, 2023.

It is a blended and transformational change and learning program that will give you a deep understanding of the language, principles, and applications of an ecosystem focus, human-centric approach, and emergent structure (Theory U) to innovation, and upskill people and teams and develop their future fitness, within your unique innovation context. Find out more about our products and tools

Image Credit: Unsplash

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What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

GUEST POST from Mike Shipulski

When you don’t know what to do, what do you do? This is a difficult question.

Here are some thoughts that may help you figure out what to do when you really don’t know.

Don’t confuse activity with progress.

Gather your two best friends, go off-site, and define the system as it is.

Don’t ask everyone what they think because the Collective’s thoughts will be diffuse, bland, and tired.

Get outside.

Draw a picture of how things work today.

Get a good meal.

Make a graph of goodness over time. If it’s still increasing, do more of what you did last time. If it’s flat, do something else.

Get some exercise.

Don’t judge yourself negatively. This is difficult work.

Get some sleep.

Help someone with their problem. The distraction will keep you out of the way as your mind works on it for you.

Spend time with friends.

Try a new idea at the smallest scale. It will likely lead to a better one. Repeat.

Use your best judgment.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Sickcare Culture of Conformity versus a Culture of Creativity

Sickcare Culture of Conformity versus a Culture of Creativity

GUEST POST from Arlen Meyers

Sickcare is a culture of conformity and competition. Premeds know it. Medical students and residents learn it. But, once they graduate, they are told they will be paid for value. Unfortunately, few will teach them how to do it and reconcile the culture of conformity and competition with an innovative culture of creativity, collaboration and interprofessional communication.

We should be thankful that we are starting to see some cracks in the armor.

Here are some ways to balance the two mindsets:

  1. Start with higher education reform  To prepare students for a post-Covid future, colleges and universities need to double down on preparing them for digital jobs. But even teaching platform skills aren’t enough. Few employers are interested in hiring candidates who’ve just completed a training program, they’re looking for relevant work experience. The good news is that there are two promising models for colleges to go beyond the traditional career services function to provide students with relevant digital training and work experience.
  2. Overcome the fallacies about creativity. To avoid premature closure, teams should arrive at an “almost final” decision and then intentionally delay action in favor of additional incubation time. During this time, everyone should commit to thinking about the problem and sharing their ideas. If the team can’t find a better approach during the incubation period, they should proceed with their original solution. Leaders can improve group creativity by paying close attention to how ideas are discussed in diverse group settings. They should encourage team members to build on each other’s ideas instead of pushing individual ideas. This doesn’t mean that ideas should be accepted blindly when they contain flaws; instead, they should approach ideas with an open mind to acknowledge useful aspects and improve weaknesses using plussing or the similar “yes, but, and” approach. To promote more creative ideas, leaders should utilize simple tools to capture individual ideas before they are opened to the whole group. Group discussions should be conducted asynchronously, where team members look at each other’s ideas and use them to refine and create new ideas. If done remotely, leaders should find other ways to bring the team together to bond and build trust with each other
  3. Teach creativity and entrepreneurship in medical school and residencies. Here is something so you don’t have to do reinvent the wheel.
  4. Rethink how we recruit and accept medical students Medical education is not alone, as noted in a recent HBR article describing how Goldman Sachs changed how they recruited new hires. Perhaps it is time for medical schools to adopt three new ways of recruiting and accepting medical students.
  5. Give medical students the opportunity to get experience working in a more creative culture as part of an internship or rotation.

6.Train the trainers. Provide faculty with the knowledge, skills, abilties and competencies they need to integrate creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship as part of their basic science and clinical rotations. But, what should an introduction to entrepreneurship teaching and learning include for basic science and clinical faculty who do not have innovation and entrepreneurship domain expertise include?

The learning objective of the module should be to know how to integrate healthcare innovation and entrepreneurship topics into basic science courses and clinical rotations by challenging students with case based, problem based and project based learning in real world settings and applications to help them perfect sickcare entrepreneurial knowledge, skills, attitudes and competencies.

7. Let medical students and residents take a gap year to learn how to create and sell something. Over half of medical schools already have an arrangement whereby students can take a one year leave of absence. But they call it something other than a gap year. They call it getting an MBA. Or, offer them a fellowship in entrepreneurship and innovation.

8. Close the doctor-data scientist digital divide to create a more cooperative culture of data analytics creativity.

9. Hire leaderpreneurs to become department chairs and deans. Rethink the triple threat.

10. Give medical students and residents an exit ramp. The next phase of medical school education reform is in progress. One question medical educators and Deans will have to address is, “What business are we in?” Are you in the business of graduating doctors who will only take care of patients directly, or, are you in the business of creating opportunities for graduates to pursue biomedical careers of their choice, including non-clinical careers that do not involve seeing patients face to face for a significant part of their working life? Patients are not the only stakeholders that have a dog in the sickcare hunt.

11. Teach philanthropreneurship Philanthropreneurship has four elements. First, the driving force must be a passion to make life better for others, especially those who are underprivileged. Second, there has to be an element of giving, whether this is in terms of money or time. Third, there needs to be creativity, the envisioning of novel approaches to solving problems. And finally, philanthropreneurship requires leadership and strategic thinking– directing, organizing, and influencing the efforts of others.

12. Destroy your innovation silos Sick care badly needs innovation if it is to become healthcare . Yet, it’s questionable whether it can be fixed from inside. Despite the popularity of open innovation and community based, participatory innovation networks, healthcare organizations and doctors seem to shun outside ideas and collaboration and are perceived as arrogant know-it-alls, stuck in the ivory tower or healthcare city , when it comes to knowing what’s best for patients. They have a silo mindset that blocks collaboration with other stakeholders in the innovation supply chain. The challenge for most organizations is to create and engage stakeholders.

Innovation starts with mindset. The clinical mindset is different from the entrepreneurial mindset and the ethics of medicine are different from the ethics of business. We need to give experience, educate and train doctors who can reconcile the two. Thankfully, it is starting to happen and it will make better doctors.

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Going with the Flow

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

Image: James Homans on Unpslash

GUEST POST from John Bessant

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

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

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

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

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

Image: David Dibert on Pexels

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

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

Photo by Ali Arapoğlu from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Inge Wallumrød from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whither Innovation in Indiana?

Whither Innovation in Indiana?Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about homosexuality and whether it has any impact on innovation. There probably are two no more polarizing topics in the United States than homosexuality and abortion. But the truth is that if both sides of the political and religious spectrum focused on the golden rule, there would be less corruption, we’d all be a lot happier, probably have more innovation, and our politics would be more productive.

Today we have another great case study for how short people’s attention spans have gotten, how the government can help or hinder innovation, how little investigative journalism still remains in the United States, and how easily people are swayed by a soundbite that runs contrary to (or in support of) their own personal religious or political beliefs.

But this article isn’t going to be some diatribe in support or opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation (referred to by the media as an anti-gay law) because I freely admit I don’t fully understand all of the implications of a similar federal law and whether federal protections for gays apply to the state law.

Instead I’d like to focus briefly on what this controversy brings to mind for me in regards to the efforts of hard-working folks attempting to stimulate innovation in Indiana (and elsewhere).

Point #1: People Must Feel Safe to Innovate

If we take Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs as gospel (okay, maybe that’s dangerous word choice), then safety is one of the most important needs for people, and in order to innovate people must feel safe. True innovation usually requires taking risks and doing things in a new way, and if people feel that trying something new or even just being different has a high price, then people won’t step out of their comfort zone and push the boundaries of conventional wisdom. So if we are truly trying to do everything we can to inspire innovation in our region, shouldn’t we also try to do everything we can to make it feel like a place where it is safe to be different and where that difference is potentially even celebrated?

Point #2: Diversity is Important (to a point)

We all look at the same situation through different eyes and a different history of experiences, values and beliefs. This diversity can help create different idea fragments that can be connected together to create revolutionary new ideas with the potential to become innovations. But at the same time, having some shared experiences helps to make it easier to communicate and to have a higher level of trust (assuming those experiences were good ones). So if we are truly trying to do everything we can to inspire innovation in our region, shouldn’t we also do everything we can to make different groups of people look to our region as a good place to move to so we have a diverse talent pool?

Conclusion: If Culture Trumps Strategy, Environment Trumps Startups

The world is changing. It used to be that companies started and grew in the community where they were founded, hiring increasing numbers of people from the surrounding areas and attracting others from elsewhere. Now, an increasing number of companies (especially digital ones) are moving to more distributed models where they create satellite offices where the talent is rather than trying to attract all of the talent to a single location.

Economically this is meaning that it is becoming less important that the next Facebook starts in your town than it is for the next Facebook to want to have an office in your town. This means that for cities, counties, states and countries, the greater economic impact is likely to be made not from trying to encourage lots of startups, but instead from trying to create an environment that young, talented people choose to live in.

And when you create a place that is attractive for smart, creative people to move to, you know what, you’re likely to end up not just with more growing digital companies seeking a presence, but also a larger number of startups than if you started with the goal of specifically trying to encourage startups.

Does your region focus on creating startups as the primary goal or on making itself an attractive place for a young, diverse and talented population to live?

Does this uproar help Indiana establish its as an attractive place to be, or work against that perception?

I’ll let you decide!

P.S. If you’re curious, here are The Metro Areas With the Largest, and Smallest, Gay Populations (for what it’s worth, Indianapolis isn’t on either list)


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Eight I’s of Infinite Innovation – PDF Version

Eight I's of Infinite Innovation - PDF VersionIn the wake of my hugely popular article on Innovation Excellence I’ve decided to make it available as a PDF.

Download the Eight I’s of Infinite Innovation PDF now

Some authors talk about successful innovation being the sum of idea plus execution, others talk about the importance of insight and its role in driving the creation of ideas that will be meaningful to customers, and even fewer about the role of inspiration in uncovering potential insight. But innovation is all about value and each of the definitions, frameworks, and models out there only tell part of the story of successful innovation.

To achieve sustainable success at innovation, you must work to embed a repeatable process and way of thinking within your organization, and this is why it is important to have a simple common language and guiding framework of infinite innovation that all employees can easily grasp. If innovation becomes too complex, or seems too difficult then people will stop pursuing it, or supporting it.

Some organizations try to achieve this simplicity, or to make the pursuit of innovation seem more attainable, by viewing innovation as a project-driven activity. But, a project approach to innovation will prevent it from ever becoming a way of life in your organization. Instead you must work to position innovation as something infinite, a pillar of the organization, something with its own quest for excellence – a professional practice to be committed to.

So, if we take a lot of the best practices of innovation excellence and mix them together with a few new ingredients, the result is a simple framework organizations can use to guide their sustainable pursuit of innovation – the Eight I’s of Infinite Innovation. This new framework anchors what is a very collaborative process. Here is the framework and some of the many points organizations must consider during each stage of the continuous process…

To continue reading, download the PDF

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – June 9, 2012


“The real challenge, therefore, is to turn innovation from a buzzword into a systemic and widely distributed capability. It has to be woven into the everyday fabric of the company just like any other organizational capability, such as quality, or supply chain management, or customer service.”

– Rowan Gibson


“I believe that we underestimate children’s ability to understand the real world and I think that the education system and the business world need each other more than they realize. We need to re-imagine our public-private partnerships and expectations when it comes to education, and we need to start educating today’s young kids for tomorrow’s world.”

– Braden Kelley


“Before you start ideating, you need a set of really novel strategic insights. These are like the raw material out of which exciting innovation breakthroughs are built. If you ask people to innovate in a game-changing way without first building a foundation of novel strategic insights, you find that it’s mostly a waste of time. You get a lot of ideas that are either not new at all, or so crazy that they’re way out in space.”

– Rowan Gibson


“Instead of pursuing the current education mantra of more, better, faster, we need to instead rethink how we educate our children because we need to prepare them for a different world. A world in which flexibility, adaptibility, creativity, and problem solving will be prized ahead of the deep technical knowledge that is fast becoming a commodity and easily available.”

– Braden Kelley


What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – June 5, 2012


“Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.”

– George Kneller


“However, the large changes generated by disruptive innovation, often come from the imagination, and so these leaps forward for the business often disrupt not only the market but the internal workings of the organization as well – they also require a lot of explanation.”

– Braden Kelley


“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”

– George Lois


What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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