Category Archives: Innovation

The future’s not what it used to be

Homo_ErectusIt all started somewhere around 100,000 years ago.  For more than a million years, our early human ancestors had used tools like spears and hand axes.  They had begun to communicate through basic language or signs, build shelters, cook food and kill large animals.   But these early hominids didn’t really ‘progress’.    Despite having brains the same size as modern humans, their tools hadn’t evolved in thousands of years, there was no cultural advancement and no technological breakthrough.  And then it happened.

Human beings started to do something to and with each other than began to build ‘collective intelligence’.   Matt Ridley takes up the story in his wonderfully positive book The Rational Optimist:  “They had started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals – to share, swap, barter and trade.  The effect of this was to cause specialisation, which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation, which led to more exchange … and progress was born.”   Having seen no tool innovation for hundreds of thousands of years, suddenly new technologies gathered pace, thanks to specialisation.   Our ancestors realised that they didn’t have to do everything themselves.   I could specialise in making cutting edge bone heads for spears, while you in the neighbouring community make needles.   I could catch antelope and you could catch fish.  Then we’ll swap.   Ridley again:  “Collaboration between unrelated strangers seems to be a uniquely human achievement. In no other species can two individuals who have never met exchange goods and services to the benefit of each other.”   When researchers tried to get monkeys to barter over the years, the experiments always ended in violence.

So humans developed through increased specialisation, leading to faster innovation.   It was, as philosopher Adam Smith described in the 18th century, the division of labour in all its glory.  But what made our ancestors take those steps in the first place?   To deal with a stranger you need to be polite, to co-operate and show trust.  How did that come about?   Did the answer lie in our unique ability to smile – a small but powerful gesture of trust?   Who knows.   Whatever it was, it worked.   And we have those African hominids to thank for a world in which we can trade all over the world (from kidney beans to kidneys) and share our movements, our thoughts, our photos, our knowledge, our donations, our recommendations and our ancestry with fellow human beings across the planet.   And this willingness – and ability – to share and collaborate is getting stronger with every generation, leading to who-knows-what innovation is lying round the corner.

At the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, when experts were asked to state which invention was most likely to have the biggest impact on the 20th century, nobody mentioned the motor car or the telephone.   Even our generation cannot comprehend what innovation lies ahead and what technologies will be commonplace in the next century.   Increasing specialisation will see to it that work – and the workplace – will continue to evolve and adapt and innovate, but one thing we can be sure of is that the future will be collaborative and organic.   And that’s where we communicators need to pay heed, in my opinion.   We can’t keep trying to manage top-down.    History shows that when organisations get too big, innovation and engagement suffers, in the same way that economic progress suffers when governments try to control too much.   We have to allow the next generation workforce to co-create the communication and innovation – to apply their own specialism.    It means pulling back, empowering, encouraging and empathising.    It means smiling more.   We should concentrate on the meat and let someone else do the fish.   As Matt Ridley says:  “The world is turning bottom-up.  The top-down years are at an end.”

Ten creative ways to energize a project team

charge2What’s the best project team you’ve ever worked in?  Not the best project, but the best project team?  Why was it so good?  What made it special?   Most of us get to work on project teams at some point, very often with people we’ve never met or worked with before.  In fact, some of us only ever work in this way.  But what makes some project teams soar with creativity, energy and shared commitment while others never really ‘click’?   Why do some teams just ‘feel’ right from day one?    No doubt the leader plays a big part, but come on, we can’t put everything at the door of the project lead.   We all want to be part of something good and projects give us the opportunity to do just that – to work with others towards a common goal, to bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.    It helps to get off to a good start – to set the tone at the beginning – but even a mis-firing team can be re-energized.   So here are ten creative ways to put that little bit of ‘oomph’ into your project.

1.  Make your team’s mission visible.   The team is more likely to be focused and motivated if they can see tangible representations of the project objectives around them.  A great way to do this is to create an inspiration board.    Put aside space in the project office as an area where team members can share ideas, inspirations and artefacts that will get them and the rest of the team fired up.   This doesn’t (necessarily) mean Gantt charts and project documents.  Try to be much more creative than that.    Go for cuttings, photographs, newspaper headlines, postcards, drawings, anything that has a meaning related to what the project is about.   For instance, if the project is about ‘delivering service excellence’, ask the team to bring something in that they feel represents ‘excellence’.  It could be a picture of Roger Federer or a Ferrari.    Think laterally.  Try to encourage the team to be expressive, colourful and have some fun with it.   These things really do have a positive psychological impact on performance and behaviour,

2.  Write a press release.   Get the team or each workstream to write a press release about their part of the project, but ask them to date the release two or three years in the future, when the project has finished.    This forces them to forward wind and imagine looking back at the project.    Encourage them to imagine it’s been a great success and everyone delivered everything they set out to do.  What would the press release read like then?   When complete, look at the words the team has used and how they have captured what success means.   Pin the press releases up on the inspiration board.

3.  Turn the project into an adventure.   This brings the art of storytelling into an office project.   Step back from the nitty gritty of the project, strip out all of the detail and think of a metaphor for the change/project.    What, when all is said and done, is this project all about – making something better, introducing something new, fixing a problem, finding a new world, learning new skills?   Boil it down and then ask the team to turn it into a story, with a title, characters, heroes, villains, obstacles, romance (?), locations etc.   Keep the metaphor running through the project, just within the team only, so everyone involved feels part of it.  Use the inspiration board to bring it to life.

4.  Give workstreams decent names.   I always find workstream names to be so dull and uninspiring.   Get the team to think of titles for the workstreams that generate some excitement, maybe linked to the story idea above.    Use imagery, colour and icons to give some character to the team names, a bit like you get in sports and call centres.   Use it to build a competitive element into the project and help colleagues in other teams to understand more about what each workstream does.  Build identity and get people wanting to belong.

5. Do something together.   Even the best and most productive project teams can run out of fizz, so keep injecting some freshness into proceedings by bringing the team together.  It may be work-related or maybe not, it doesn’t  really matter but whatever it is, make it engaging and creative.   Step away from the office every now and again.   Take a problem up a hill, meet over a picnic or chill out down the pub and have a game of darts (in workstream teams of course!).  Use this time to get to know the people behind the job titles, those people who are helping you make this project a success.

6.  Make project meetings fun.   When you ask people about the best team they ever worked in, they will often talk about the characters in the team, fun activities or how the individuals “just clicked” with each other.   Projects can be tough, especially if they’re not going well, so try to keep the team relaxed and motivated with some light-hearted team building.   I know of a project manager who likened every team member to a character from the Muppets.  When they came in for a meeting he had each person’s character stuck to the back of their chair.   I worked on a project last year in which the PM opened team meetings by playing clips of old Peter Sellers films from You Tube to lighten the mood before a heavy discussion.   These little things work.  They make work fun.   Instead of spending your next team meeting going round the room for individual workstream updates, ask the leaders to present their update in the form of an infographic or photo montage.  Try it. charge

7.  Plan in 3D.   Most project plans are on Gantt charts, MS Project, PowerPoint right?   Fair enough, but try planning in 3D.   Think of how they use models in architecture and construction to visualise the ‘end state’.  Think how the military plans its engagements, with those huge table top maps and model representations of forces moved like chess pieces.  Think how the local church roof fundraising committee uses giant thermometers to show money raised so far.    Be creative and turn your plan, milestone, dependencies, risks, workstreams, progress etc into practical three dimensional models to bring your journey alive.   In fact, create it as a journey, like a model railway, with stopping points, obstacles and journey times.  Again, be creative.  Bring in ideas from other worlds.  Make it fun and engaging.

8.  Spring some surprises   It’s easy to get very introspective when working on a big project.   Everyone’s looking inwards and the topic of conversation at project meetings is invariably about things that aren’t going to plan.   It can become negative and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.   What’s more, morale can drop quickly.   People get tired, irritable and unproductive.    So that’s when someone in the team (not always the PM) needs to break the pattern and do something out of the blue.   It may be as simple as cakes all-round in the office or as drastic as whisking the team away for an impromptu morale boosting activity.   I know a PM who uses any old excuse to celebrate an event or theme her communications to the team – chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Shakespearian style memos on midsummer’s day, fluffy rabbits at Easter, surprise gifts at Christmas, a film quiz in Oscars week, sporting metaphors in the Olympics etc.   Great creativity which really energises teams.

9.  Celebrate the heroes.   Forget formal recognition schemes (well, put them to one side for a minute) and think about more creative ways to celebrate achievements in your project.   Make a big play of good work done well.   Call out the ‘heroes’ and the hardworking back-office grunters who very rarely get the credit they deserve.   Have a Heroes’ Wall in the project office and stick photos up of the good performers in the last week.   Make a point of recognising contributions at team meetings and highlighting individual achievements that have helped the project inch nearer a successful conclusion.  But do it in a creative way.

10.  Encourage creativity.    We all know the old cliché that most projects fail.  It’s well documented that the vast majority of business change projects fail to deliver on at least one of their objectives, and the reasons why projects fail are too many and varied to go into here.   But often they just run out of steam.  They lack momentum and drive.   Projects rarely go to plan, we know that, but they can be rescued under the right conditions – good leadership, realistic objectives, a fired-up team etc.    The best projects have a good ‘culture’ – a can-do ethos and a great sense of common purpose.   They also encourage creativity.    So if you want to energize your project, open the doors to new ideas and diversity.   Create a culture of innovation.   Put up whiteboards for colleagues to share ideas, create and use collaborative spaces, follow principles that encourage creativity and challenge.   Give team members time and space for quiet reflection.   Run creative workshops and create an inspiring environment for the team to work in.   Creativity is key.   Keep trying new things, challenge the status quo and generally just give it some welly.   But always stay focused on the business outcome, of course.


Five animals that will unleash your creativity

HawkA few days ago I ran a short workshop for the Institute of Internal Communications in Leeds called ‘unleash your creativity in two hours.’   It turned out to be a really enjoyable session, with a great group of people and some fabulous ideas.  In the opening few minutes of my workshop I asserted that everyone has it in them to be creative at work – creativity is not the exclusive domain of those of us who ‘create’ a tangible output like a piece of writing or design.   The accounts clerk tapping numbers into a PC all day is just as creative if he/she comes up with an idea to alter a business process to improve efficiency.  We then talked a little about how the human brain works – with its 86 billion cells and one quadrillion nerve connections – and how it both enables and stifles creativity.    These connections are the key to creativity.   A newborn baby’s brain will form a million new connections every second.   Every experience, memory, activity, thought and movement creates connections which are stored in the ‘database’ for future reference.    For the most part, these connections keep us alive and make us who we are, but they can also make us (or our brain) lazy.   The brain loves a short cut and likes to jump to conclusions.   Daniel Kahneman explains all this in his bestseller ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.   If it’s faced with a new stimulus, it looks into the database, pulls out a pre-programmed response and offers it up, almost without ‘thinking’.   It’s why we do what we’ve always done.    So the challenge – if you want new ideas – is to create new connections and deliberately break the patterns of existing thinking and behaviour.

In the workshop, I suggest a five-step process to having great ideas – each one characterised by an animal.

We start with the hawk – which is all about focusing on the problem or challenge you’re trying to solve.   It may sound tempting to ask people if they have any ideas on any subject, but you won’t get much back because the frame was too wide.   Narrow it down and define the challenge clearly before looking for ideas.   They call it ‘squeezing the problem’.   Einstein once said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.”   Ooh, you curly haired Germanic genius.

What you do next depends on how much of a kitten you are.   Now that we’ve focused on the problem, we need to start finding ideas – and that means being curious.   Here’s where we seek new connections, new stimuli, new perspectives, new angles.   Creative people always try to look at things in different ways.  They step outside their own world into other industries, places, experiences and styles.   They seek learning and freshness.   In the workshop, we tried out a technique called ‘other worlds’ to see what we, as communicators, can ‘borrow’ from other industries.  It’s an enlightening exercise and you’ll be amazed at how many influences you can find…. if you look.

Taking things further, we then look at team creativity by becoming puppies and being playful.   Play stimulates creativity.  It creates a safe environment in which people can take risks and try out new things.   We looked at a technique called ‘conceptual blending’ in which we take two random objects and force them together to create a new idea.   A toothbrush and a fishing rod, a boat and a tent, a spider and a bottle etc.    It’s a fun group exercise which forces new connections and lateral thinking.   The trick then is to ‘conceptually blend’ a random object with your work challenge.  For instance, blending a cake with a challenge to get a complex message across may make you think of the way cake recipes are communicated and whether you can use the concept of recipe cards, or the way individual ingredients come together to form a big picture (or a big cake in this case!).

Step four is the owl.  Up to now, the whole creative process should be an entirely open and positive one, with all participants suspending their judgement.  There’s no room for negativity in the ideation phase.   But at some point we have to start applying a bit of discipline.  It’s a business after all, and we do have budgets, pressures, logistical barriers, resource issues and practical limitations.   So now that we have all these ideas, we need to start sifting them.   Being an owl is about being wise – filtering what you have, nurturing (or greenhousing) the ideas, applying some business rationale.    Only now do we start to apply some judgement, so we need criteria and process and all those left-brained qualities we’ve ignored up to now. Shark

Finally, it’ll all be for nothing unless we actually make it happen.   A good idea that doesn’t get implemented is just a good idea.  So here we introduce the shark.  Here’s where you need a whole new set of behaviours –  determination, risk-taking, collaboration, COMMUNICATION, negotiation, boldness.  The great innovators of our time had these qualities in spades.  They didn’t take no for an answer and they weren’t deterred by adversity.  They were sharks.

The next part of my workshop was meant to go on to talk about how we communicators can apply these five-animal-techniques to our role – becoming creative communicators.   But I ran out of time.   If anyone’s interested, I’m doing a full-day creativity workshop for the IoIC on 13th June in London – details here.   Or contact me if you’d like an ideas workshop for your team.

The Seven C’s of innovation

I once had a meeting with a very senior manager in a fairly large organisation on the subject of innovation.   This company had recently trumpeted innovation as one of its core values and there were posters and desk mats in all the offices to prove it.   My first question was “so, what’s your definition of innovation?” … and he was stuck for an answer.   My second question was “what are you doing to demonstrate that value throughout the business?” … and this time he just said “Ah well, we’re still thinking about that”.    I recently blogged about another experience (not the same company) where innovation had become toxic.    So what is it about organisations who fanfare innovation but don’t act to embed the culture, processes and tools to make it happen?   Do they think that simply talking about innovation will procure groundbreaking new ideas and solutions by some form of osmosis?   The truth is of course that for an organisation to become truly innovative it needs to put in place the right building blocks to allow innovation to flourish.   So what are those building blocks, and what part can communicators play in helping to promote, nurture and embed innovation?   Well, here’s my take on it … these are what I call the Seven C’s of innovation.    Why not rate how your organisation is doing against each discipline?

CONTEXT – Many leaders talk about innovation but they don’t always know why – there’s no compelling sense of purpose.   This was why the senior manager I spoke to couldn’t articulate the meaning.   It wasn’t crystal clear to him what innovation was and why it was critical to his business.    There has to be a business context which puts innovation on the agenda.  Is it because of the need for new products and services, is it about increased competition or regulation, is it new technology, is it about efficiency and productivity?    The communicator’s job here is to spell out the ‘reason why’ and to make the word mean something.

COMMITMENT – Innovative companies have leaders who are genuinely committed to innovation and who understand what it takes.   It can’t be one man’s pet passion, it has to be a vision that’s shared at the top, otherwise it won’t reach to the bottom.    A recent survey of CEOs by IBM suggested that business leaders see creativity as the number one skill organisations need to adopt to face the challenges of the future.  It’s easy to talk about innovation and creativity, but are leaders prepared to truly encourage innovation and invest in ideas?   If they are, they need to communicate that commitment in an engaging way.   And they need to continually demonstrate and role model the commitment throughout the line.  Many people don’t feel they have ‘permission’ to suggest new ideas or to challenge existing ways of working.   Often that’s because of the vibe given off by their manager.    Innovative organisations have a leadership culture that makes creativity OK.

CAPABILITY – Innovative organisations are ‘geared up’ to manage innovation as a systematic process.   It’s all very well having an organisation full of ideas if you don’t know how to manage or implement them.   I’ve spoken with many companies who have launched an innovation scheme, gathered hundreds of ideas and then done nothing with them.  Result = disengagement.    Communication is key here – how you ask for ideas, what you do when you get them, how you keep the process transparent, how you say ‘no’ to an idea, how you maintain momentum, how you make investment decisions, how you demonstrate value.    We also need to tell the stories of innovation in action, let people know what happens to ideas that ‘make it’.

COLLABORATION – In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson brilliantly illustrates the spikes in innovation that coincide with collaborative conditions.  When human networks come together, great things happen – like the birth of the first cities 4,000 years ago, the artistic flowering of the Renaissance, the coffee shop culture of the 18th century or the Merseybeat music scene in the early sixties.  Great ideas happen when random thoughts collide or when one person builds on another’s hunch, so the key is to get those thoughts and ideas out on the table.   Innovative organisations build human and virtual networks, systems and cultures to enable people to collaborate.   They enable people to come together to share ideas, develop concepts, build prototypes, work in teams and collaborate for a common good.

CREATIVITY – Many people use the words innovation and creativity to mean the same thing.   Actually, though, innovation is the end result of a creative process.   If you want innovation, you need to encourage, develop and harness the creativity inside the organisation.   It’s definitely there – you just need to unleash it.    Most people do not see themselves as creative, or they don’t have the confidence to demonstrate their creativity at work.  They need encouragement and a little bit of support to help them break through.  Creativity can be taught and the first lesson is to believe in yourself.  If you think you’re creative, you will be.   Investing in creative skills on the ground is not a soft and fluffy ‘nice to have’.   It’s a ‘must do’ if you want innovation.

CULTURE – This is the really tough one.  Most organisations are killers of creativity.   Structures, rule-books, dyed-in-the-wool ways of working, risk-averse cultures, poor management and the general pressures of modern day business mean creative ‘free thinking’ is not encouraged or facilitated (or even tolerated sometimes!).   Often it’s not ‘culturally acceptable’ to ask questions and it’s not considered to be a good career move to challenge the ways things are done.  And if ideas are put forward, they can be frowned upon, shot down or lost in the ether.    The key is to create and sustain a culture where innovation comes naturally – an environment of trust and openness, where ideas are valued.  In many ways, this is what makes the truly great innovative organisations stand out – the innovation sticks.   We communicators already know how important communication is in building culture and this is where our engagement skills are so important.

COMMUNICATION – the seventh of our Seven Cs is the one that runs like a golden thread through the other six.   If the communication isn’t right from the start, the innovation won’t flow.   Innovation is all about ideas, hunches, connections, momentum, attitude, empowerment, confidence, encouragement, boldness, forward-thinking, leadership, trust, investment, risk taking, problem solving, collaboration, listening, sharing, fun, playfulness, curiosity – and if we can’t make some compelling stories out of that lot, we’re in the wrong business!

QR codes on gravestones… why not?

I read in a magazine yesterday that an enterprising funeral parlour in Dorset is offering to place quick response (QR) codes on headstones which, when scanned on a smartphone, open up an online biography of the deceased.   At first this sounds a little morbid, but then why shouldn’t gravestones go digital?   The password-protected codes enable mourners to see photos, videos, tributes and obituaries from the graveside, although they can also be placed (for £300) on trees, benches or plaques.  There’s something quite heart-warming about that if you ask me.  What a romantic way to preserve someone’s memory.  QR codes have been around since the mid-nineties but only recently have they crossed over (swarmed over more like) from industry to the world of advertising.   The codes are now a familiar sight on print adverts, offering quick and effortless access to websites as a way to coax potential consumers to engage with the product or service.   Clearly QR codes have huge potential for internal comms too and I wonder how many organisations are exploiting this technology.   As we continually strive for new and creative ways to ‘sell’ our wares to ever-demanding audiences, QR codes clearly offer an option to support campaigns, layer messages and exploit curiosity.    It seems a reasonable next step when you consider how smartphones are taking over our lives.   I read in the same magazine* that a third of smartphone users in the UK check their devices for social network and email updates in bed before saying good morning to their partners.  According to the new survey from Three, it seems 26% of 18-24 years olds sleep with their phones.  Oh dear.

* The Week, 15th September 

If your company uses QR codes for internal comms purposes, please let me know.  I’d love to find out more.

Why your next team meeting should be up a hill

I have a t-shirt on which is printed the slogan “Better a rainy day on a hill than a sunny day in the office”.    OK, it’s not going to win awards for originality but the sentiment appeals to my love of the outdoors and of hill-walking in particular (I’m working my way through the 214 fells in the Lake District – part of my rather obsessive blokey love of lists.  I reached 63 at the weekend).   Anyway, I blogged a few months ago about the healing powers of the outdoors – a scientific phenomenon called biophilia – and how we humans are predisposed to be attracted to wild places as a cure for stress and anxiety.   But it seems there is some evidence in neuroscience that a good walk can make you more creative.    The thing is, thoughts and ideas pop into our heads all the time – hundreds, thousands of them come and go, some stay around for a while others pop in and out in seconds.   We can’t possibly evaluate and connect up the infinite number of thoughts, memories and hunches that fire away in our brain at any one time.   Great ideas and insights come when neurons, or thoughts, collide and a connection is made.   One way to increase the chances of that happening is to ‘free your mind’ (stay with me, I’m not going all hippy) by removing yourself from the day-to-day tasks of normal living, changing your environment and avoiding the physical stimuli that would normally drive your thinking – the office, TV, bills, the in-tray, email, newspapers, internet.      Some of the greatest innovations in history have come from ideas that have appeared when the thinker is not actively ‘on the job’, like in the shower, in the bath (in Archimedes case), on a walk or when reading a book on a totally unrelated subject.    In his best-seller ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, Steven Johnson recounts the story of French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare, who suffered a distinct lack of ideas while sitting at his desk one day, so he went for a stroll and found that “ideas rose in crowds”.   In his autobiography, Poincare tries to explain the sensation using an analogy of atoms hooked to a wall, stuck in some form of logical configuration when the mind is consciously addressing the subject (or problem) at hand.   But when the environment changes, and the brain is ‘resting’, the physical action of walking literally loosens the atoms and shakes them from the wall, flashing them in every direction, where they collide and lead to connections (and possibly new ideas) that would otherwise never have occurred.   We sometimes call this serendipity – the apparent random connection of thoughts and ideas when we’re least expecting them.    Many organisations already offer ‘creative spaces’ where teams and individuals can go to brainstorm ideas and ‘be creative’.   These will often have brightly coloured walls, bean bags, some toys and the odd rubber chicken.  Nothing wrong with that (although some ‘innovation rooms’ I’ve seen leave a lot to be desired) but in my view they don’t go far enough.   To go further, you need to go further.    Go for a team walk.    Arrange a hike up a hill or alongside a river, talking and debating as you walk.   I’m always amazed at the ideas I come up with while I’m struggling up a thigh-burning incline or walking along a ridge at 3,000 feet.    I’m thinking of starting up a company offering facilitated idea workshops ‘on the move’.   Mmmm, I like that idea –  take a team up a hill to solve a problem.   Not only would they probably come up with some great ideas, but they’d bond like never before and feel better as a result.   This needs some more thought … where are my walking boots?

What happens when values turn bad

Last year I was running a comms workshop with a client.   At one point we started discussing messages and the importance of aligning comms to key strategic themes, values etc (like you do).   Remembering that this particular organisation had ‘innovation’ as one of its global values I put forward the suggestion that they might like to consider ways to bring this value alive through their comms.    Oh dear, it was like I’d killed a kitten.   All went silent.  Eyes looked down.   Feet shuffled nervously.   “Have I said something wrong?” I ventured.   “You just said a dirty word” someone replied.  “We’re tired of hearing about innovation.  It’s all we’ve had drilled into us for the last year.  We’re all sick of it.”   “But it’s one of your corporate values” I said, digging the hole even deeper.   “Yes, but it’s all talk.   All we hear about is how important innovation is but there’s nothing to back it up.   We just aren’t innovative.”   You see, the value had become meaningless.   Worse, it had become a negative rather than a positive influencer.  In this organisation, ‘innovation’ was now a word to be avoided (banned, even) instead of exploited and celebrated.    It was really sad hearing people be so dismissive and cynical about a word that should (in theory) be a core part of their working ethos.   That’s the point of values, right?   But what this tale reinforces is that values can bite back if you don’t look after them, nurture them and personify them.   Having values that you don’t live by – in a tangible way – is like breaking trade descriptions.    I don’t have a stated set of values in my business, but if I did, innovation would be one of them.  I believe in innovation – I seek it out, I strive to apply it in what I do and I like to celebrate it in others.   I’d like to think that I ‘live the value’ in that sense.   Unfortunately, so many organisations pick values that they think look good on their website and on posters, but which they don’t really understand.   They don’t understand that a ‘value without action’ is like a chocolate teapot.   Pointless.   Innovation is a very popular value, but when you speak to people whose organisation preaches the importance of innovation and ask what  happens on the ground to make it real, they are often stuck for an answer.   It sounds great for a company to say it’s innovative, but does it invest in creative capability?  Does it have the structure and processes to manage innovation?  Does it have a culture that encourages and nurtures ideas?  Does it have the collaborative networks to allow innovation to flourish?  Does it have leaders who understand what innovation is and what it requires?   Does it have good communicators?   Does it even know what it’s innovating for?   If you can’t answer these questions, don’t have it as a value.   My experience last year was a profound and insightful lesson in what happens when you preach one thing and do another.  Or do nothing.   Having values that your people don’t believe in is far worse that not having values at all.    Value statements may be all the rage … but if you don’t make them meaningful, rage is what you’ll get.

Hey lazy brain, get some perspective

The human brain.   Three pounds of magical complexity.  100 billion cells.   One quadrillion (that’s 15 noughts!) connections.   But it’s a lazy beast.   It’s wired for repetition and will always try to take the path of least resistance.   When faced with an event, a sense or a stimulus, it’ll look in its hard drive and pull out the ‘programmed’ response it gave last time.   Don’t knock it, it’s what keeps us alive.   When we do things often enough, they become ingrained into our sub-conscious, it’s what’s known as a zombie system.    That’s why we can drive to work sometimes and then realise we have no recollection of the journey we’ve just made.  It’s why we can’t recall locking the front door when we leave.  It’s why tennis players talk about being ‘in the zone’ – relying on their instincts and experience of hitting thousands of shots so that they can play without even thinking.   But it makes us lazy too, because we are programmed to do the things we’ve always done.    If you’re over 30, there’s a good chance you wear a watch.  Why?  Because you always have (some of us wouldn’t feel properly dressed without it!).   But take a look at teenagers leaving a college and see how few of them wear a watch.   Why would they?  The time is all around them, on their phone, their iPod, their computer.   It’s hard for us to break habits.   But creativity often comes from breaking these habits, from seeking new perspectives and leaving our comfort zone.   New experiences, new stimuli, new viewpoints, new insight  – these are where ideas come from.   Yesterday I ran the first Creative Communicator workshop for the Institute of Internal Communications in London.   For an exercise in seeking new perspectives, I sent the delegates out to the shops to explore what ideas about communication they can pick up from the retail world that could be applied in their own workplace.   Even in just 15 minutes, they came back with some great ideas.   One delegate hit on an idea from the M&S sweet counter about the concept of ‘pick and mix’ – possibly allowing people to choose the communication message they want to engage with from a pick and mix display.   Another participant was inspired by the way Hotel Chocolat packaged its products within picture frames.    This is the stuff of innovation.   New perspectives = ideas = creativity = innovation = business value.

Man the innovator, man the artist

I’ve become a bit fascinated by this handaxe, one of the oldest man-made objects in the British Museum (about 1.2 million years old).   In fact, handaxes were pretty much the first man-made objects, crafted originally by ‘cavemen’ in Africa about 1.5 million years ago.  They were still being used as a key tool of life a million years later, by which time their manufacture and use had spread throughout Africa, south Asia, the Middle East and Europe.   No other cultural artefact is known to have been made for such a long time across such a huge geographical range.   The reason I mention all this, and the reason I keep being drawn to this one in the British Museum is because the handaxe represents man’s first foray into art and innovation.   In this example, the maker has carefully struck flakes alternately from both faces around the entire edge, making it thinner at the tip and thicker and heavier at the bottom with a regular edge all round.    But this one would have been too big to hold comfortably in the hand and therefore difficult to use, so why make it so big and inpractical?   The answer, according to experts, is that here we can see the first signs of man’s inherent tendency towards art, beauty and innovation.   Any old handaxe wouldn’t do – it had to be bigger, more ornate, better crafted.  It had to ‘say something’.   As language began to develop along with tool making, was this handaxe made to communicate an idea or a message?   Does the care and craftsmanship with which it was made indicate the beginnings of the artistic sense unique to humans?   If yes, then every single idea and invention in human history started with the caveman and his handaxe.