High Voltage Performance

I was delighted to be asked to give the opening keynote at the XPD High Performance conference recently in Nottingham and I’ve just been invited to give another keynote at the High Growth Summit in Nottingham on November 22 on the strength of this performance. I was also invited to speak at an event for the UK Tax Offices (HMRC), until they said that they could not afford to pay me. I pointed out that nearly 30% of the fee would return to them in taxes :-) but they were unmoved. Perhaps I should have offered to take “cash” as payment??  Anyway, here’s one of the conference photos:


It turned out that the XPD conference theme was generated from the evening’s entertainment, a Madness tribute act.  It had set me thinking about the concept of “organisational madness” – in other words:

“Doing the same things in spite of compelling evidence of a need for change”

In an age of discontinuity, “more of the same” can be a recipe for business meltdown.  We need to be nimble and quick to survive and that has all sorts of consequences.  So, what can businesses learn from organisational madness?

  1. Business strategy becomes an “approach which learns and flexes” rather than a “five year plan”. It’s madness to plod on regardless if your customers are constantly changing their wants and needs.
  2. Staff are hired for their ability to learn and adapt more than just what they bring to the workplace. More than ever staff need to have adaptability built into their attitude.
  3. Customers are involved and engaged in the marketing of new products and services. It’s what academics refer to as 6th Generation Innovation.

and so on …


Can I play with Madness … and Innovation?

We ended up contrasting companies which “LAG” (Learn, Adapt and Grow) from those that merely lag behind.  Are you a LAG or a laggard? A big thanks to David Langdown, Steve Robinson and the team at High Performance for making the event such a success. To book an experience like this, please get in touch with David Langdown at High Performance UK.  He does not accept deferred VAT payments as currency however … :-)

Here’s a trailer for our event on Friday 22 November in Nottingham, just before our two day event with a European Pharmaceutical company team in the Netherlands.

Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll - Live in Nottingham

Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll – Live in Nottingham


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock - Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics - Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585

What makes you happy at work?

What makes you happy at work?  Money? Praise? Doing something new? Meeting people? The ability to use your expertise? Giving something to others? Fame? Feedback? …  There’s some background to the question, in the form of a summary of Fred Herzberg’s work on satisfiers and dissatisfiers, and that of the other motivational giants in the book “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll

Business mixed with music

What turns you on at work? Find out here

I was reflecting upon my own motivators the other day when a client said to me “You’ve never had a care in the world.  For you, work is play”

Whilst I accepted this casual remark in the manner in which she intended it, as a piece of praise, the person in question obviously did not know just how much I care about my work and the painstaking design activity that sits behind what I do, so that it all looks easy on the day. But, indeed she was right.  We often do our best when there is a happy marriage between our own talents and what our job requires of us. When people have asked me “what is my secret to personal motivation”, I point out that I have simply brought what I love doing into close proximity with what my customers want and need, always ensuring that their needs come before my wants.  It’s what Wham were talking about when they came up with their ‘Choose Life’ T-Shirt:

If you're gonna do it, do it right

If you’re gonna do it, do it right …

That said, there are moments in my work when I do realise just how lucky I am .  One such moment occurred the other week after I had delivered an evening keynote address in innovation for a company and we had completed some team building activities with music after dinner.  Around 10.30 pm I realised that all was well and, just for a moment, I felt I could relax  and observe the scene.  I was playing “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath with Bernie Tormé, guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne, Ian Gillan, GMT et al, and was getting paid for it.  “How lucky am I”, I thought to myself.  Better still Bernie was kind enough to complement me on my playing when I drove him home later. Proof positive that praise and authentic feedback are huge “Herzberg motivators”.

Sharing a joke with a Monster of Rock - Bernie Tormé

Sharing a joke with a Monster of Rock – Bernie Tormé

So, never mind the boll…cks and books on personal development.  If you want to “Live to Work” rather than “Work to Live”, the goal is simply to marry something you love to do with something that someone else (a) wants / needs and (b) is prepared to pay you for.  If you wish us to come and do a masterclass on the topic plus a live music experience, please get in touch.  We’ve had enquiries from a wide range of people around the world, from pharmaceuticals in the USA to HMRC and a University who wants to help the local economy make a step up through innovation and export.

To finish, we must reach out again for George Michael and Co, who said it simply with the phrase “Enjoy What You Do” in their 1980′s benefit classic ‘Wham Rap”:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock - Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics - Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk

Waxing lyrical

I went to see Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell at the RSA event “How to tame your mind” just recently. The title of the event alluded to the general concept of “mindfulness”, which I’ve studied and practised over the years in order to be better at my job as a business consultant and musician.  The event was particularly targeted towards the use of mindfulness to address issues of mental health, especially depression, a topic which is becoming a bigger issue in 21st Century society, just when we seem to be moving towards a position of conquering many of the world’s most limiting diseases.  Some years back I met Professor Susan Greenfield who spoke convincingly on the part which neuroscience may play in dealing with depression in the 21st Century.  It turns out that Ruby and Susan are acquainted.  Small world, as I am connected to Susan via Professor Trevor Jones, who I had the great privilege to work for at the Wellcome Foundation, a truly great company that gave space to people to learn, grow and love their work long before we invented ‘three letter acronyms’ such as CSR, EFS, CBT, NLP and so on.  Perhaps this example comes from an age that time has forgotten.

Firstly some statistics:

  • One in four people will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives.
  • The NHS spends more tackling the problem than cardiovascular disease and cancer combined.
  • The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of the global burden of disease.
  • There is absolutely no doubt that mental ill health will happen either to us, or someone we love – so why on earth are we still so afraid to open up and talk about it?

Here’s some things to do regarding mindfulness:

  1. Find some time every day to ‘put distance’ between you and ‘your conversation with yourself’.  It’s what NLP masters call ’3rd position’ or detachment.  It’s what my MBA students would call ‘being a reflective practitioner’.
  2. We are confounded by our ‘busyiness in business’.  Being busy feels good and it gives us no time to think.  Yet, a mindful approach to business may help us focus on the things that bring us success, fulfilment and so on.  Our lives are full of distractions – social media, smart phones, security codes and so on – it’s what I called ‘thin-slicing’ in my question to Alastair and Ruby.  More that ever we need time to focus on what matters most.
  3. Whilst it’s good to think, the real killer is rumination.  This is where we spend ours focusing and reviewing our mistakes / foibles etc.  If something goes wrong in life, review it, learn from it and move on.  My wife has this down to a tee on the odd occasions when things go wrong in business and I commence the cycle of endless analysis.  I am firmly but politely told to shut up and move on! :-)
  4. The ‘myth of happiness’ as outlined by the book “The Secret” is debunked in a hilarious way by Wax in her book, yet the fundamentals are simple.  Find something to do that aligns with your skills, beliefs and values.  Or, in the words of George Michael “Enjoy What You Do”.  Easy to say, harder to do, although I guess I’ve had a pretty good go at this in my career.  I’ll be writing more happiness and work in a few weeks time.

Here’s the full video of the event, including the question I asked about ‘thin slicing’ our lives around 36 minutes in:

Those of you that know me will be aware that I juggle all sorts of things into a 24 hour period and tend to live live as fully as it is possible.  As a musician I also know the value of solitude and focus – a side of me that is less well known.  It’s important to have some kind of anchor to the ground if you live a pressured life and I have found some ways to attend to the mindfulness that Ruby and Alastair mention.  There are always many more ways to learn and I recommend their books.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 21.58.46

I met Ruby and Alastair at the end of the session.  I presented Ruby with a copy of “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and Alastair with a copy of “The Music of Business“, books which feature material on getting relationships right and the related ideas of flow and emotional intelligence.


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock - Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics - Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk

I’m not in love … with my car – Has Toyota lost its innovation mojo?

Some of you will know from reading my latest book “The Music of Business” that I’m a big fan of Toyota’s innovation.  It’s with some astonishment and disappointment that I must report a crack in the otherwise seamless seam in their unstoppable innovation drive.

I recently bought a new Toyota Prius from Beadles, having owned two previously and swapped to Toyota due to poor service from BMW. Compared with the last two cars, I’m afraid that this Prius has regressed, speaking electronically.

It has the facility to connect my iPod, yet on a number of occasions, the car has ‘frozen’ my iPod solid, so my only choice has been to reboot the iPod.  It has also destroyed some of the files.  The service centre has not been able to locate the cause of the fault.  Worse still, since they cannot locate the source of the fault, Toyota GB’s customer relations department have gone into denial over the problem.  If there’s one thing thats much worse than having a problem, it’s when customer relations people attempt to rewrite the story for fear of legal problems that they think might occur if they told the truth! OK, the ability to connect your iPod is not life threatening, so why am I writing this?

The satellite navigation is a permanent liability on this vehicle when all previous models were fine.  Toyota have redesigned the system and the screen is approximately 10% smaller than the previous model.  This seemingly small change has big consequences and I’m astonished that it was not picked up in focus groups and so on which are all part of the design process.

In brief, the sat nav, when set on the ‘shortest route’ i.e. the ‘straight line’ option, does some very strange things.  I spent two hours going about 5 miles in Wales recently, when the sat nav took me on a 270 degree excursion when there was a perfectly good trunk road available.  This included a trip through an unmade road and a farm.  As I was not familiar with the area, I trusted the sat nav and travelled approximately 30 miles on this straight line option, eventually arriving back nearly at where we had started.  The impact of this was that a 5 hour trip turned into a 10 hour one as we hit traffic on the motorway on our eventual return.  Small things can have much greater consequences.

Toyota's Sat Nav System in operation

Toyota’s Sat Nav System in operation

It has on several occasions advised me to take diversions due to ‘traffic congestion’ when there have been traffic lights ahead.  As a result, I have no faith in the system.  It is making me late for important business meetings and I regard punctuality as key in all my business dealings.

I was late for an important business meeting as the sat nav did not recognise an address in Tunbridge Wells recently.  The address was an established building and not a new build.  Toyota themselves have acknowledged that the system does not find “55 Calverley Road in Tunbridge Wells”, but moved back into denial when I asked them to put it right.

55 Calverley Road - It's just an illusion according to Toyota's customer service centre

55 Calverley Road – It’s just an illusion according to Toyota’s customer service centre

I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ as innovation is continuous in most companies these days.  But the previous sat nav worked just fine in terms of navigation and the new system is a retrograde step, which Toyota needs to learn from.  At this point in time, this will be the last Toyota I ever buy.  The petrol heads amongst you may well say, “but it’s not the engine Peter”.  Yet, the electronic features of a car are now as important as the engine imho.  I may be an unusual buyer as I buy a ‘stereo system on wheels’ rather than an ‘engine’.  I certainly don’t want a car that destroys my record collection and makes me late for business meetings.  I like it even less when I as the customer get caught in the ‘crack in the pavement’ when the Service Centre say its a matter for Toyota and Toyota say it’s a matter for the Service Centre.  What say you Toyota?  Have you lost your innovation mojo?

In the warped words of Roger Taylor and Queen “I’m in love with my car (NOT)”

The Innovation Factory … and blog roll

We’re off to New York to run an innovation summit for a major Pharmaceutical company w/c 02 September.  This prompts me to mention Andy Warhol, The Factory and the transferable lessons re innovation in business.  I see Warhol’s Factory as the ultimate ‘skunkworks’ in terms of the business literature from Tom Peters et al on the topic, where paradigm shifting art was produced from almost nothing in a kind of ‘guerilla’ approach to creativity and innovation.

As a bonus part of our process with the company in the evenings we will be working in a low tech way with a ‘garage innovation’ approach instead of iPads and high tech.  This for me models the idea that, whilst some people believe that creativity and innovation needs opulent surroundings and resources, the opposite is also true.  Many of the world’s greatest breakthrough drugs have come from shabby laboratories and people who were underfunded and under loved. Much innovation and entrepreneurship starts in garages like HP’s famous start up in a ‘shed’.

To emphasise the ‘garage’ approach to innovation and creativity we are working with toilet tissue as a means of capturing the process, or ‘blog roll’ as I like to call it :

Innovation in just three sheets of 'blog roll' - Image by Simon Heath - Corporate Illustrator who is working with us in New York on the project

Innovation in just three sheets of ‘blog roll’ – Image by Simon Heath – Corporate Illustrator who is working with us in New York on the project

The approach uses a successive series of divergent an convergent thinking stages, spread out over 24 hours to allow just a little time for incubation and improvement.  Not quite the levels of incubation that Wallas (1926) had in mind but hey ho, life is busy and this is a piece of added value we intend to use to develop the team’s ability to work confidently and quickly together for the evening.  This process admittedly will not produce the final innovations, as the whole process is designed to fit into a few hours.  But, it will produce about 30 ‘quick and dirty’ ideas to be taken to the board for further consideration via  a peer review process.  This is in addition to our main work at the summit to tackle some thorny strategic problems in their full detail.  Obviously that’s not shareable.  However, it’s based on our approach to what we call “wicked” problems:

Wicked problems

The wicked problem matrix

For more details on our process design skills, do get in touch.  For more on Andy Warhol, The Factory and Innovation, get hold of a copy of our books “Best Practice Creativity”, “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and the latest one “The Music of Business“, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith CBE and Professor Adrian Furnham.

We leave with an insight into The Factory and Warhol courtesy of Lou Reed and John Cale.  The Factory, Max’s Kansas City and The Chelsea Hotel may no longer be what they were, but we can still learn valuable lessons from their example.

New York, New York

We’re off to New York in a few days time to deliver an innovation summit for a major pharmaceutical company.  I’ve brought together an international team for this event and it’s going to be extremely hard work but a great deal of fun.  Here is the rogue’s gallery, expertly illustrated by Simon Heath, social media’s “Quick Draw McGraw”:

The international team's diverse passions and drives

The international team’s diverse passions and drives

Our work in the build up to the event has involved extracting a number of topics that keep the company’s leaders awake at night, but which are amenable to radical or incremental creative options.  We need to develop a micro climate where creativity can flourish and convert that creativity into sustainable and profitable innovations to succeed.  We’ve produced a pack of cards to assist people in learning from the event AS WELL as reaching the deliverables.  Here’s one of the card deck which summarises our thinking on the principles for innovative thinking:

Human Dynamic's principles for innovative thinking summarised

Human Dynamic’s principles for innovative thinking summarised

Oh, and the client found out about our ‘evening work’ and has asked us to perform “Fiscal Cliff” on one of the evenings after the work is done.  No pressure then!

Obviously the nature of our work there is company confidential so I can say no more on this.  Other than to illustrate the principles of a successful innovation event via the medium of music:

I feel fine – to succeed at such an event requires the tolerance of the unknown.  Much of our preparation will focus on building this ‘corporate muscle’:

Walk on the wild side – We will take a number of excursions into the world of radical and incremental creativity at the event using a set of strategies and a suite of tools taken from our repertoire of over 100 approaches to divergent and convergent thinking.  This was one of the main reasons we won the business, based on a ‘best fit’ approach rather than a ‘plug and play’ approach.  We have built an approach to innovation based on Andy Warhol’s approach to making new things happen at “The Factory” – his ‘innovation hothouse’, which fits in nicely with our location.

Perspire – Creativity may be about inspiration, but innovation is all about perspiration, so our event will emphasise execution and implementation over pure divergence.  Check Prince’s song Black Sweat for some inspiration on perspiration!

Finally, and in synch with the title of this blog, here’s a remix of New York – Empire State of Mind by Alicia Keys.

Empire State of Mind - Click on the image to hear a remix of the Alicia Keys song

Empire State of Mind – Click on the image to hear a remix of the Alicia Keys song

Sex and Pay and Rock’n’Roll

Introducing Ian Davidson, a compensation and rewards specialist with a difference.  Ian worked on the MBA programme with me some years back and approached me recently for an interview for his own podcast.  This episode contains a number of fascinating insights on rewards and remuneration, which drive the UK’s economic position in the world:

  • Banking remuneration – Comments on the UK banking standards report
  • Executive Pay – discussion on the MM&K survey on Executive Pay
  • Strong Analytics – using and presenting reward data
  • Rewards in the Middle East
  • Oh, and a live interview with me ! :-)

Here’s Ian’s podcast.  Click on the picture to listen in.

Sex, Reward and Rock'n'Roll

Sex, Reward and Rock’n’Roll – Click to listen

Ian is a commercially astute, passionate, MBA qualified Compensation & Benefits specialist.  With a sustained record of success within financial services over 15 years, Ian is a nationally recognised expert in reward.  He is currently looking for a role in a commercially driven organisation in London and or the South East.  Contact him if you have such a position by e-mail at administrator@mauritius.demon.co.uk

And whilst we’re on finance and reward, here’s the video from Fiscal Cliff, a hard rock anthem about hard times and the hard rock to recovery.  Feel free to share the video, comment on it and download the single, available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play etc..  It will be the first time a hard rock economics anthem has reached the charts !

Engaging for success

Engagement unplugged

Engagement unplugged

As many of you know, I have been something of a skeptic of the so-called “engagement movement”.  Lets face it, the idea of being engaged at work is clearly a socially desirable outcome.  Engaged people are thought to work longer, harder and smarter, giving what HR people call “discretionary effort” or what I call the “extra 10%”.  The problem of disengagement at work is also a growing problem as evidenced by a Gallup survey:

  • A recent research study found 71% of employees were disengaged to some degree.
  • The lost productivity of actively disengaged employees costs the US economy $370 Billion annually.
  • Engaged employees advocate their company or organisation to others– 67% against only 3% of the disengaged.

My skepticism with the engagement movement is simply that they want to spend more time talking and researching the topic than doing anything about it.  Hard pressed leaders do not wish to wait 20 years for a white paper to explore the longitudinal correlations between factors.  They want to find good quality, pragmatic approaches that will give them advantages in the short term.

So, it was with some pleasure that I found an approach to engagement that actually seems to make a difference to actual engagement levels at work via a Linkedin contact in Sweden.  Arnaud Henneville runs a company called Challengera that focuses on meaningful employee participation and involvement at work.  I interviewed him to find out more.

Tell me about your company and what’s unique about it?

Challengera is an engagement company. We provide a cloud-based social platform for Enterprise 2.0. In other words, we support companies of all shape and size in engaging their employees to any initiative – from highly strategic to campaign based and tactical.  This could include the launch of a new company direction through to a short term campaign to achieve a specific result e.g. To get employees behind a cause.

What does it do for the hard pressed HR Director?  And the person who has to watch the engagement dashboard?  And, most importantly the staff?

Employee engagement is a hot topic and it’s no wonder when, as you say, 71% of employees globally are not fully engaged in their work. Running campaigns with Challengera secures high engagement as have shown our past roll-outs with companies like global Fortune 20 company General Electric. HR leaders and CEO’s can relax and witness the ESAT and CSAT (employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction indices) going up! And that’s precisely why it works so well; because employees get pulled-in into the experience (one that is interesting, inviting, that builds on human hard wired traits for achievement, self-actualization, fun and competition) as opposed to being pushed messages (emails or PowerPoint).  

For me, this is a simple truth, that participation and involvement breed commitment.  So tell me, how does it work?  Can you give me an example of a company who have used it?  What has come from their use of your approach?

It’s best for me to let a customer talk:

“Our project was clear in DGS, a Global BU of GE Healthcare: Engage our 1600+ employees on our culture, Put our values into practice… with concrete examples given by our employees across the world, Link our people together, Share best practices, Engage discussions around our values & Recognize best practices. We were looking for an Impactful, Powerful & Business-connected tool: Challengera answered our request; a customized social platform for us to engage people around our BU. This is a great success & our people love it: this is new, different and engaging. Thanks to the team for this great success

Catherine B., Engagement Leader at GE Healthcare DGS

Another example is from a world leading industrial group. Key to the group’s profits is its inventory turnover. The group recently announced its decision to use Challengera to engage its workforce on the importance of stock-management, not by talking about it but by inviting employees to actively contribute to reduce it. The Inventory challenge will launch in a few months.

Give me one reason why it’s better than running a focus group, doing a motivational Powerpoint talk or a conventional employee engagement campaign?

Life – business included – is about doing, about moving forward and inspiring others to move forward! Whilst this is obvious, to engage folks around a particular topic and having them do something (for real) is becoming in the 21st century organization, harder and harder. There are many reasons for that and just to name a few (not in order of importance); the economy and the delayering consequences it has had for organizations, change of demographics (GenYers), flatter-matrix-and virtual organizations, the knowledge worker, etc. What’s more, very few companies have managed to bring-inside the company the tools that are (successfully) used by people outside e.g. social/connectivity/effectiveness tools. That’s what we have done: built a social enterprise platform that builds on both macro-tends and what we know of human behaviors.

Now, in practice: the tool allows a leader to ‘challenge’ (the challenge is the vehicle for engagement) his/her organization to X or Y. At first, it is top-down but as it takes off the initiative gets momentum and grows organically as the viral effects kick-in.

Can it be fitted into conventional face to face strategies?  For example, if I were running an innovation event for a major company, how would your approach integrate?

Last May we ran a campaign for the Absolut Company. While 300 staff attended a yearly conference on the topic of CSR/sustainability, we used mobile devices to challenge people on different aspects of the topics covered during the conference. It was a great success – not only because attendees got intrigued, but also because the animal spirit kicked-in. People were willing to engage in this live challenge and consequently in the topics themselves…  We continue to bring value post event as the platform remains open thus allowing people to go back and review relevant content.

So, it extends the life of a conference by putting in a follow up aspect?

Very much so.  It therefore increases the return on investment for a company event or annual conference.

I dislike plug ins for the common ‘diseases’ that organisations face.  How does your approach stand up to the need to customise and internalise things so that they feel part of the company culture?

We offer the platform with two ‘levels’ of customizations.

The 1st one is ‘Branded’, namely we turn the whole solution into a client-product: the solution looks, feels and breathes X or Y company. Whilst the solution is in the cloud, we connect from any client website, intranet, or Learning Management System.

The 2nd level is ‘Customised‘ and builds on the 1st one .  A client wants special features and we develop and integrate them to the solution.

How do people begin with a challenge? 

We typically invite new clients to try with an initiative before we start integrating the tool in the client-ecosystem. We offer consultancy if a client wants help in identifying an internal challenge before turning it into a product. If the challenge is clear (which is often the case) it takes a few calls before our teams ‘box-it’. 3-4 weeks of customization/integration later, the challenge can launch!

You can get in touch with Arnaud at arnaud@challengera.com or +46 700 40 52 25.  He has offered a 10% reduction in the price to readers of this blog. Simply quote The Academy of Rock when contacting him.

It’s the end of the world as we know it … Part 2

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the world’s top-rated universities, has announced its first free course which can be studied and assessed completely online.  An electronics course, beginning in March, will be the first prototype of an online project, known as MITx.

This is the leader column from a recent BBC Report on online learning.  Undoubtedly this is a potentially disruptive innovation in the world of education with 77% of US Companies now reporting that they use online learning  In such a world, universities may turn into clubhouses, where social networking and pure socialisation take place, with learning taking place anytime, anyplace, anywhere in the world, accessing the world’s experts on particular subjects.  Professor Charles Handy foresaw this many years back when he wrote “The Empty Raincoat”.   Here’s a picture of us, when we last met.

Choose Life ... with Charles Handy

Choose Life … with Charles Handy

Handy also talks powerfully about youth as a driving force for change.  My own touchstone for the MIT report and Handy’s observation comes in the form of my 19 year old son Tom, who is studying Computer Sciences in his second year at University.  Tom claims that nearly all his lectures could be handled remotely, making going to University an irrelevance, were it not for the social experience and peer to peer learning.  Whilst he possibly exaggerates a tad, he has spotted a potential future which many universities have not yet embraced.

University - "It's all about the relationships" - with my son Tom

University – “It’s all about the relationships” – with my son Tom Cook

We took the initiative ourselves a few months back, when we partnered with online education specialist Udemy, in the provision of an MBA level online business leadership programme covering strategy, creativity, innovation and change.  Take a free five minute tour of the programme via this LINK.  This is not the only development in this field.  BBC Radio 4 recently featured Coursera, who are offering the same product, but using university lecturers instead of practitioners, with the product leading to qualifications.  Clearly people are moving faster than the average university here.  This is typified by a comment I received from a university lecturer recently when I was called in to develop some Business courses:

This is an exciting time in terms of developing the programme at the University and I think it would be great to have you involved in one way or the other. Your enthusiasm is much appreciated. However, as we do operate within a bureaucratic system these things take a long time to develop and any possible new courses will not start before at best, Sept 2014. I will keep in touch with any progress, good luck with everything.

By the time the University in question gets started, Darwin may well have swung his evolutionary axe!  You can listen to the BBC Radio programme at Zeitgeisters.  Take a look at our curriculum for a pragmatic approach to business leadership where you can drop in and drop out of the lectures at any time you please, as you keep the materials for a lifetime:

Will Universities turn into social clubhouses teaching kids lifeskills whilst they learn their chosen subject from subject experts on platforms like Udemy?  Will this be the end of the ‘duff lecturer’?  Share your thoughts here.  My title gives me yet another excuse to play REM:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock - Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics - Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk

Here Comes the Sun – Solar Power, Creativity and Innovation

The Solar System at Blackfriars Bridge, London

The Solar System at Blackfriars Bridge, London

Alan South leads Solar Century, a company dedicated to bring novel and sustainable solar energy products to the world.  He has a background working for IDEO, perhaps the foremost design innovation company in the World.  I wanted to know how he has created a climate of innovation at Solar Century and his thoughts on creativity, design and the role of leadership in building an innovative enterprise.

What did you take away from IDEO in terms of creativity and innovation?

I joined in the early days of IDEO in 1995 some three years after its creation.  During the time I was there, it evolved into a global leading light in innovation, taking design thinking way beyond product to services, infrastructure, national problems.  It continues to grow and thrive in that space.  Perhaps the most important thing I took away was not so much about the idea generation process itself.  The rate limiting step for innovation in so many cases is about how ideas get traction so that they turn into something useful.

I also see that IDEO ‘converge with care’, preserving what is novel and cool about an idea.  Can you say more about that?

The core of many ideation processes is about how one idea can build upon another.  An awful lot of idea evaluation processes are quite reductive.  What IDEO did extraordinarily well was to make the ideation process additive.

There are some that say that creativity techniques are for dummies.  What is your view on the value of techniques for divergence and convergence versus more intuitive approaches?

If you are the lone inventor then fine – your own intuition may be sufficient.  On the whole if you are trying to make big differences, you are usually talking about groups of people.  The absolute first thing they need is a common language.  Number two if you want significant numbers of people to work together is that they need to agree on a set of common processes.  The agreement on that process is much more important than the particular process itself.

So, say something about how you see innovation

Innovation is about going wide, turning the corner, going narrow.  That’s all there is although  there are a number of different ways of going about this.  The Design Council in the UK talk about doing that process twice – what they call the ‘Double Diamond’ model.  IDEO always started by observing people using a bunch of human practice techniques to uncover latent user needs.  A good IDEO project would be one where solving latent user needs would make a big difference.  They had about 6 high level ideas that were part of their process.

And yet, it would be insufficient to write down those 6 ideas to an inexperienced person?

Yes.  The real art is in interpreting those high level ideas to fit a particular problem at hand.  Each problem is sufficiently different combined with the fact that the world is moving and changing – so the idea of writing a guide book becomes problematical.

Solar roof on a house in Languedoc, France

Solar roof on a house in Languedoc, France

How does Solar Century innovate?

Solar Century is a solar photo-voltaic power company.  We are in the business of doing large solar projects and manufacturing solar building products.  We set out our stall as being a company that providing solar to be integrated into buildings.  We noticed that there was a lot of redundant space on buildings such as roofs, facades and so on which could be turned towards energy production, allowing power to be generated and used locally.  We raised some money and hired some people including me.  We had to turn an abstract idea into a business.  In 2003, solar building products did not exist – at that time solar was something you would see on satellites and not in builder’s yards. We struggled with compatibility issues – the idea existed, the market and the customer was not well understood.  The distribution channels were not really understood.  But it felt like an idea with real promise.  We were not alone in this – there were other pockets of this thinking around the world.  The job of the innovation team was to bring this very abstract idea to life.

The first thing we had to do was to get under the skin of two industries – The Photo-Voltaic industry and the construction industry.  We characterised the PV industry as lab coats and the construction industry as hard hats.  Our job was to innovate solutions that would join the lab coats to the hard hats, which was a bit like mixing oil and water.

We had to avoid innovating perfect solutions in a vacuum that would confound any part of the value chain.  For example, a solution that the PV industry would not be able to manufacture would or an elegant solution that the construction industry would not know what to do with.  So we set up some processes to get under the skin of the industries and this is an ongoing process that continues to this day.  We also needed to make some judgment calls on how far we thought we could innovate beyond the status quo in a way that would start to build adoption.  We kicked off by exploring a pretty wide range of ways of getting moving and to go through a relatively short (one year) cycle to come up with ideas of the kind of product we would take to market.  We pulled the industry by the nose and then relaxed back a bit when it started to hurt.

Although parts of the construction industry are quite conservative, one thing that delighted me was to find that roofers were very open to our ideas on reinvention.  We ran a campaign called ‘Don’t miss out on the roofing revolution’ and it was extremely well received.  Each year we have gradually started launching more and more offers.  The journey moved from a roof tile, then another roof tile through more sophisticated complete building systems for commercial roofs towards massive aerodynamic systems for factory roofs, based on the ideas on technology adoption in the book ‘Crossing the chasm’.  Editor’s note :  Reminds me of the classic adoption curve:

The classic adoption curve

Essentially we became very good at mass customization as the company began to export, for example in the big building roofing product that we have designed here but carefully fit to a customer need.  We ship a bespoke kit of parts.

Turning inward, does Solar Century have a set book of techniques for creating and innovating?

We do not have a book of techniques for the divergent and convergence.  We do have a process and we do use divergent and convergent techniques but these are tacit knowledge amongst the staff group, as we are only 120 people.  In essence, it’s rather like being in a rock band.  Nobody knows the notes, but everyone can play the tune.

What do you find the most valuable techniques for diverging and converging?

I find that the toughest bit in innovation is turning the corner between diverging and converging.  I struggle with it, teams do.  It takes real guts to stop diverging and say we have spent enough money and time.  It requires getting the whole team to stop the process and get consensus that it’s OK to turn the corner.  Otherwise one of the diseases of innovation is that you hover around at a certain level of abstraction or keep going wider and people lose interest.

Diverging is the easy bit.  I still am a big user of brainstorming, done properly.  The IDEO method of creativity is built on the principle that you get greater creativity when you put some boundaries and rules in place.  Rule Number one is stay focused on the topic.  The corollary of that is that if you don’t know what the topic is it’s hard to stay focused.  A good creativity facilitator can take a bunch of very conservative people and get some real results out of them.

For me the two big challenges are converging and execution.

It is clear to me that Solar Century have acted as what Rosabeth Moss Kanter would call ‘boundary crossers’ in joining two disparate industries together (PV and Building)?  What else do you consider to have been critical in getting the industries to join up?

A green housing estate in Northumberland

We are structured wholly as a virtual manufacturer, which means we have to be good at co-ordinating the whole value chain.  The only part of our operation that we retain is the innovation function.  The upside of being a virtual manufacturer is that we can be much more flexible.  It has allowed us to experiment without buying factories.  We have for example used a contract manufacturer in the UK to develop and test new products, then exported the manufacturing to China and start on the next product in the UK.  The flipside is that you cannot have it all ways.  You have to become quite expert in production planning as you cannot have loose commitments in terms of volumes and then be expected to turn the dial up.

Tell me something about leadership for innovation

If it’s not about turning ideas into results, then it’s not innovation.  There are plenty of non-monetary forms of results, such as effecting cultural change, but in many cases money is a good proxy for the results sought from an innovation intervention.

Hence I tend to use the equation: innovation = turning ideas into money. I know such an equation has its shortcomings, but it does have the benefit of simplicity.

My point of view is that attention needs to be given both to the management of ideas and to the creation of valuable results. I find there is a bias towards ideas and less towards execution.

Covering both successfully requires innovation leadership needs to cover a broad space within an organisation

On the one hand, an innovation leader has to be senior, well connected and influential. There will be uncertainty and chaos to be embraced. The leader will need to facilitate and give permissions and have the ability to deftly handle the stakeholders. To own the innovation vision and to have the credibility to make on occasion some big judgment calls. To have the time and freedom to do some broad thinking and be widely networked to pull in external influences.

On the other there’s a pervading need to pay attention to the details. Great innovation leaders so many times have a deep passion for the content. Innovation teams expect to be led from a position of content expertise, not from a position of hierarchical power. There will be times to make big demands of the innovation team and leadership needs to from a position of respect.

Big demands, and not business as usual within most firms. To deliver on this mix of seniority and depth means that T-shaped people even more critical than ever.

Can you develop T-Shaped people?

You cannot develop all people into T-Shaped people.  There are two things you can watch out for.  To be a good T-Shaped person you need to have the breadth in order to connect into and respect a multidisciplinary working life but you also need the vertical of the T.  One of the things you can do is to make sure that your vertical remains deep.  The flip side about T-Shaped people is that there are a bunch of people who are often brilliant and invaluable who are going to be nothing other than I-Shaped.  There can be a tendency in some organisations to reject them or undervalue them.  What’s important is to recognise them and value them.

Successful innovation – where ideas go all the way to results – is hard and requires innovation leadership that stands tall. When times are tough, like now, innovation is ever more important – but to succeed, innovation leadership has to stand even taller.

Final thoughts

Innovation is about getting results – if there’s no result, it’ ain’t innovation.

There’s an inbalance in reporting or teaching innovation towards idea generation and creativity rather than executing them.  A lot of frustration about innovation in companies arises from teams who throw their all into idea generation and then don’t see any results.  Whereas, it’s an execution problem.

In good times innovation tends to be judged as turning ideas into money. In tough times innovation needs to be accountable as turning ideas into money.

Five success factors for creating and managing ideas

  1. Maintain a true passion for the content
  2. Use qualitative customer research methods to complement qualitative methods
  3. Prototyping is the engine for innovation, fail early fail often
  4. Brainstorming: great innovation companies are fluent in brainstorming
  5. Recognise the importance of storytelling to communicate innovation vision.

Five success factors for turning those ideas into results

  1. Demand greater accountability for innovation outputs – not inputs
  2. Push the connection to the bottom line
  3. Increase innovation efficiency and get more done
  4. Expand innovation diversity to cover services, processes and supply chain
  5. Be firm about the vision, flexible about the present

Alan South can be contacted via Solar Century.

We finish with Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”.


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock - Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics - Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk