A weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.
Tuesday, 28 September 2004
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your weekly newsletter on Creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.
As always, if you have news about creativity, idea innovation or invention please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.
One of the sexier concepts in management these days is disruptive innovation, a concept which is described in the well regarded book: The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997).
Grossly and possibly unfairly simplifying the issue: disruptive innovation is innovation which results in radical new products that create all new markets or that radically change an existing market.
Well known disruptive innovations include Apple's first personal computers – which arguably launched the market for personal computers; Sony's transistor radios which initially launched a market for hand-held radios for teenagers, but soon did away with the market for vacuum-tube radios; and digital cameras which are rapidly replacing traditional film cameras in most markets.
The theory behind disruptive innovation is that companies need either to be disruptively innovative themselves or run the risk of losing their market share and being left behind by a disruptive innovator.
There is much logic to this, but also a glaring problem. A large company, unlike an individual, cannot simply pick up a self-help book, read it and say: “that's a jolly sensible idea, I'll give it a go and see what happens.” In fact, this is a problem with much material regarding corporate innovation, such material expects organisations to behave like individuals.
It is, of course, the people within the company that must act to change the behaviour of the company. They must create or discover disruptive innovation. They must recognise the disruptive potential behind a radical idea. They must exploit the disruptive innovation in order to capture a new market.
Getting existing staff to seek, discover, test and exploit disruptive ideas can be a real challenge. You are essentially asking people to completely change their approach to work. Many people simply will not be comfortable doing this. They have learned over time how to behave within the organisation in order to rise up through the organisation. They have learned in which areas it is best to conform to corporate culture and where it is safe to deviate (if anywhere!). Telling people to throw that away and be disruptive is not likely to succeed.
Indeed, this is why disruptive innovations tend to come from start ups. They have no corporate-culture baggage. They have a radical idea and some capital and they give it a go. Many such start-ups do not succeed, of course, but those that do can rapidly become market leaders. The other key source of disruptive innovation occurs when an established company's CEO embraces innovation and leads the company's disruptive innovation movement herself.
If you are running an established company and want to be disruptively innovative, you need to do two things:
1) You need to embrace innovation across your organisation. You need to take risks yourself and demonstrate to your employees that it is okay to take calculated risks in order to try out innovative ideas.
2) You need to hire disruptors.
“Huh?” I can almost hear you saying. A disruptor is someone who disrupts your organisation. She helps you elimnate outdated assumptions (see article: Destroy Your Assumptions in Report 103, 13 July 2004 issue: www.jpb.com/report103/archive.php?issue_no=20040713), stretch your imagination, discover new ideas and have radical ideas about how to exploit new ideas. She will be a creative innovator who can take your company to the next level.
She must also be very different to your existing employee profile: a disruptor cannot be effective if she is just like everyone else! As a result, she will not easily fit into corporate culture. Worse, she is likely to be a rebel, will often disagree with you, is probably cleverer than you in many respects and will doubtless cause endless conflict. If you check her references, you will probably get mixed results, with some previous employers saying she is brilliant and others saying she is a trouble-maker.
Why this is the case should be obvious. A disruptive innovator must not only be innovative, but she must be very different to your typical employee. She must be used to going against the grain and convincing people that a radical new idea is better than their tried and tested ideas. In English, there is a saying: “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” The disruptor must say, “quite right. We need to dump it and embrace something new.” If she does not act as such, she will not succeed.
And there is worse, the disruptive innovator will sometimes fail and fail miserably. Not every disruptive innovation succeeds. Indeed, many do not. Sometimes ideas are ahead of their time, sometimes the market simply does not want to be disrupted. Sometimes, disruptors simply misunderstand the market.
Nevertheless, when they do succeed, they succeed in big ways. And that is why it is worth taking a calculated risk on a rebellious, disruptive innovator or two for your firm.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NOTEBOOKS
The other morning, I had a terrific idea for an article for Report 103. I dashed to my desk, fired up a computer, organised the stack of papers on my desk (okay, what I actually did was push them to the side of the desk) while Windows did it's start up thing. I then started OpenOffice (which I use for writing), opened the “Notes for future issues” file and.... forgot my idea!
The frustrating thing is, I had a notebook (a paper notebook, not a computer) in my pocket at the time – as I always do. Had I written down my idea, you would probably be reading it now. But I didn't. The idea is lost and you are slightly less informed than you might have been. Sorry about that!
This happens to me from time to time. Sometimes, I go out walking, have a great idea, pull out my notebook and then realise I lent my pen to someone or left it on my desk.
Once, years and years ago, I had a dream in which I discovered the secret to time travel. I woke up, thought about it and decided the theory in my dream made sense. But I was too tired to write the method down and went back to sleep. When I woke up, all I could remember is that the method involved large masses – such as mountains – but little else. I was devastated.
Okay, okay, I am the first to admit that I probably did not really discover the secret to time travel. But maybe, just maybe I missed out on making the most important discovery ever in physics! More importantly, we have a lot of wild ideas when we dream and many people are inspired when they wake up. Hence it is critical to have a notebook and a pen by the bedside so you can write down the thoughts you have at night and in the morning.
The most famous incident of spoiled sleep inspiration was doubtless suffered by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, while sleeping had a most vivid dream. When he awoke, the dream was still vivid and he began writing “the poem Kubla Kahn” like mad. Words literally flew from his pen, until he was called to the door on some other business.
When he returned to his manuscript some hours later, he had forgotten the remainder of the poem. And although he intended, for the rest of his life to finish Kubla Kahn, he was never able to do so.
If you are interested, you can read Kubla Kahn at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/stc/Coleridge/poems/Kubla_Khan.html – you'll also find a link to Cooleridge's note about writing the poem and the disruption.
In fact, so important is having a pen and paper to hand at all times, you should consider it the number one rule to creative thinking.
OPEN AND CLOSED CREATIVE EXERCISES
A lot of creative exercises I come across are what I call closed exercises. They have a single solution, but you must use creative thinking to find that solution. Two of my favourite such exercises are:
1) There has been a murder. Two dead bodies lie in a puddle of water in a room. They are surrounded by broken glass. Also in the room is an open window and a cat running off into the distance. All the evidence you need to solve the crime is here. What happened? This works best with a group. You tell the story to the group and they must ask yes/no questions (ie. Questions which can only be answered with a yes or a no) until they solve the problem (solution below)
2) On a piece of paper, draw three buildings. These represent the water, electricity and gas companies. Then draw three houses. Now, draw lines from every utility to every house. Importantly, the lines from the utilities must not intersect or run through other houses. You may arrange the utilities and houses and lines in any way you see fit. What is the solution?
1) The dead bodies are fish. They had been swimming in an aquarium when the cat knocked the aquarium to the floor in an attempt to kill the fish and eat them. However, the crashing aquarium and splashing water frightened the cat away. You can find a number of similar puzzles at http://chem.lapeer.org/chem1docs/BrainTeasers.html
2) The solution is: there is no solution (at least not in two dimensional space as represented on a piece of paper). This puzzle is often given to mathematics students to teach them that a valid solution to a problem is sometimes: there is no solution. There's more information on this classic problem at http://mathforum.org/dr.math/faq/faq.3utilities.html
I enjoy these kinds of puzzles. They can be good fun with groups and are useful time killers on long distance coach and train journeys, fun at quiet parties and can be used in the classroom to help students learn lateral thinking skills.
But, they are closed puzzles in that there is a single established solution which must be found. As a result, while they require creative thinking to solve, they are actually anti-creative. Creativity is about finding new solutions, experimenting and surprising people.
True creative exercises should not have fixed solutions, rather they should offer infinite possibilities and challenge you to come up with surprising ideas.
One practical creative exercise is Refrigerator Cooking. This is something I do often. At dinner time, I simply open the refrigerator, look at what is inside and devise a dinner from it. Running to the supermarket is cheating. Using prepared meals is also cheating (we do not have them in our house, anyway). Normally, I give myself a half hour time limit as well. Incidentally, I am a vegetarian, so frying a hamburger or pork chop is not an option!)
Variations on this exercise are refrigerator pasta (where the end result must be a pasta dish) and refrigerator curry (where the end result must, as you have doubtless guessed, be a curry).
Doodles is a fun game from my childhood as well as a great creative thinking exercise. Two or more people each draw a couple of lines, a squiggle or a strange shape on a piece of paper. They then exchange papers and each must draw a picture using the shape already on the piece of paper. For example, if one person draws a circle, the other person might add eyes, nose, mouth and a body and turn the circle into a person.
The great thing about doodles is that they make you take a visual approach to problem solving. Aside from artists, most people take a verbal approach to problem solving, that is they think of problems in terms of verbal descriptions of the problems. Thinking visually can help you think in new ways.
We have some doodle exercises as well as more information about doodles and a doodles e-book on our web site at http://www.creativejeffrey.com/doodles/.
Doodles, incidentally, are also a great way to keep older children busy and break the ice at creativity and innovation training events.