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innovation is NOT 99% perspiration

Thomas Edison gave creativity a bad name.

His famous dicta that innovation is 99% perspiration scares as much as it reassures.

It reassures the researchers because it means they can sleep at night when yet another experiment fails.

But it scares everyone else because all that perspiration costs MONEY and TIME.

Innovation costs lives as the old adage has it: your life ie. your job. If you try something new and it screws up you’re out. Better to do it the old way.

This is the conventional view of innovation, encouraged by maverick inventors, praised by the media in search of a good story and repeated endlessly in seminars on creativity.

But it’s only half true- at best.

Sure, trial and error works. But trial and error is never JUST trial and error. Otherwise we’d be like the monkeys on typewriters trying to come up with Shakespeare’s works. It just doesn’t happen.

Before any trial, and any error, comes anecdotal evidence, hunches, personal observations. Anecdotal evidence suggested that chewing willow bark cured headaches. Attempts to produce a more concentrated version of salicylic acid, the willow bark ingredient, produced aspirin. If trial and error was the whole story then we’d still be testing every single piece of tree bark out there.

Innovation is not just R&D. R&D is expensive, time consuming and often produces failures. The mantra of R&D is trial and error. Lots of trials and lots of errors.

This is how innovation got a bad name.

But there is another half to the story.

Personal Solution Innovation.

I call it that for the good reason that compared to trial and error PSI really is as seemingly magical as psi power.

The mantra of Personal Solution Innovation is that Innovation is 99% Perspication. Perspicacious people are observant. They look at things. They aim to be aware rather than in a doze. Perspicacity means the ability to zoom in and out- seeing the detail and then the whole picture. They then see solutions that others don’t. They don’t need lots of trials and lots of errors. They KNOW. Because it’s their world and they are highly familiar with it.

It’s personal because these solutions are in their own world. Their everyday world.

Take the example of a skilled diamond cutter. He may spend up to six weeks just staring at a big stone before he makes the first cut. He has no chance for trial and error- he has to be right or else the stone will shatter into a thousand shards. And he succeeds by making himself thoroughly aware of the whole of the diamond, every aspect of it.

PSI is micro-innovation in intent even though the results can be huge. Micro-innovation utilizes what you already know and what is already to hand- you just rearrange or use it in another way. PSI adds the personal element of a personal skill or interest that energises your innovative abilities.

Macro-innovation means going beyond your own area into places unknown or barely known. You can’t build a nuclear sub out of the bits for a diesel sub- you have to go out and go beyond what you already have and already know. Which is why the first nuclear sub was very expensive and took a long while to build.

Unlike the Liberty ships of WWII which were simplified versions of an already known ship design- and they built one every 42 days by the war’s end.

It’s often said that you need an outsider to see things from another perspective. That’s true. But an insider knows what will and won’t work. He can do the trials in his head, probably has many times. All you need is an insider who is looking for ways to improve things.

A perspicacious insider.

That’s all. It’s like a switch in your head. Either it’s on or it isn’t.

And the best way to switch on is to get PERSONAL- innovate in a way that suits your own style, that plays to your strengths, that energises you because it interests you.

In WWII, three of the most highly decorated soldiers were Charles Upham, Anders Lassen and Paddy Mayne. Two received the VC while Mayne received the DSO four times. All three were highly courageous, but more interestingly from our perspective they were all highly innovative- within their own sphere.

Few organisations are less innovative than the armed forces. They cannot afford to have people being ‘creative’ when they should be following orders. But that doesn’t mean that personal innovation isn’t possible.

Charles Upham was a farmer from New Zealand who joined the army in 1939. He was neither a great sportsman nor an outstanding student but he was known for his ability to look hard at any problem and find his own solution. He realized that the main opposition they fought were dug in machine gun posts which could not be taken out except by artillery and mortar fire- all time consuming to set up. Rifles and submachine guns are ineffective here- so he pioneered the use of mass amounts of hand grenades. A typical soldier might carry three grenades- he would attach two sacks containing fifteen in each. His deadly accurate aim and long throw meant they could maintain momentum while attacking machine gun posts- a seemingly impossible task before. So what looked like blind courage was really an innovation based of observation of the situation, the tools at hand and his own skills.

Anders Lassen was one of the few Danes in the British SAS. He was a keen user of knives, and bows and arrows as a schoolboy. When he went on commando raids he realized that the crossbow was a highly effective and silent weapon, though it was his exceptional skill at using a knife that meant he could dispatch sentries without a sound giving them away. Both crossbows and knives are part of the arsenal of current special forces.

Paddy Mayne, one of Britain’s most highly decorated officers, stationed here in Egypt in WW2 pioneered the use of the jeep with a mounted machine gun – now seen all over the world- as an effective way of attacking aircraft on a runway. A former international rugby player, Mayne, was used to the idea and advantages of attacking at speed. He saw that while driving down the length of a desert runway behind enemy lines he might just as well shoot the planes up as stop and plant bombs on each one. From this tactical insight he was able to massively increase the damage wrought during any single raid.

All these men were innovators- yet there was no trial and error involved. They were familiar with their world, they had personal abilities they felt were useful, and they put the two together, knowing already that it would work.

They were micro-innovators. They used what they had to hand and already knew- but in a different way. When you forget about macro-innovation and focus on what is to hand it’s surprising how creative you can become. When you stop looking for one big solution and start looking for lots of small improving solutions you are already in the right frame of mind.

Exploration is another area where innovation is not obvious. It is a place where the wrong kind of innovation can be hideously punished- by death. Take the example of Scott- he traveled to the pole by hauling his sledge using manpower. He had brought with him motor tractors and ponies- both innovations for polar travel- but not within his experience- and both were a disastrous failure. So he was forced back on the primitive man hauling- which eventually contributed to his death.

Amundsen, however, used what he knew- and made small innovations. He brought dogs- because he had used them in the Arctic. He used skis because he had used them since childhood. His innovations were small- the use of concentrated food, modern stoves and one rest day every seven- unlike Scott who followed the navy tradition of no-days off during a mission.

Later on we see the Norweigians innovating again by the use of kite powered skis to transit the South Pole. Ranulph Fiennes acknowledges that he failed to master the new kite drawn sledge techniques which meant the faster crossing went again to the Norwegians.

In my own area of desert traveling I innovated the use of a four wheel trolley or cart for the transport of large quantities of water. I realized that without cars or camels you could not walk in the desert as water was too heavy to carry. But much of the Sahara is flat and hard- either gravel or sand- and you can easily roll a trolley across it. This can be pushed or pulled and we made several desert trips carrying up to 72 litres of water this way.

How did I come up with the idea?

I had already towed a canoe up river in Canada. I knew about the desert hard surface from having been there. I thought about riding bikes on the sand and then I thought about putting bike wheels on a sledge- and ergo the trolley idea was born. It was all stuff I already knew but rearranged in a different way.

Later I found out that the desert special forces leader General Popski used to keep a similar trolley in his jeep in case he broke down and had to walk. The idea seemed to have died after the war though. However after my own experience I found out that a team had crossed the Australian Simpson desert towing water on a converted ice cream trolley!

Personal solution innovation is like that- people in similar situations all over the world coming up with their own solutions.

But what decides who has the ideas?

1.   You must be doing the job conventionally to the BEST of your ability. This causes you to focus clearly on the tasks at hand. It will also expose the areas where your personal superior skills can be used.

2.   You must be actively looking.

3.   You should be aware of other things you are good at or have knowledge of: sports, hobbies, interests, current affairs- all can feed in and provide microsolutions.

4.   You must be encouraged in general

5.   You must be rewarded in terms of success being acknowledged.

6.   The innovation should be in an area you control, or only just entering another area. It’s no good having ideas that require everyone else to drop their tools.

7.   You must be familiar with the area- intimately- the best person to innovate on the production line is the production line worker.

8.   Remember humans are natural problem solvers- the real task is defining the problem clearly enough. This is where personal experience comes in- you already have knowledge of the area.

9.   Focus on adding or improving a skill you are already good at and enjoy doing. Like the cricketer who throws grenades, adapt what you like to what you do at work.

10.                 Above all, it must seem obvious- not trial and error based- that’s the role of R&D.

Let me give you an interesting example. In western South America many tribes are masters of using curare to kill animals. There are over 40 types of curare made from over 70 different plants. And of course it was curare which gave to the developed world a drug which could be used to anaesthetize the breathing muscles in heart surgery. But curare isn’t simple to produce. In the most usual kind you need three plants that have to be boiled at different rates for 72 hours while you avoid the vapours which are deadly though smell nice. The final paste, though, can be swallowed safely. It only paralyses if injected under the skin as you do with a poison arrow. When you ask tribespeople how they know such a thing they do not say trial and error they always say ‘I dreamt it’. And if you think about it, if they had used trial and error, rather a lot would have had to have died during the R&D process– too many for one small tribe to sustain.

But these innovations occur in a world they are utterly familiar with. The ingredients are to hand and they have much knowledge. Dreaming is just one way at letting the subconscious solve the problem. And who hasn’t solved some knotty conundrum by saying “I’ll sleep on it.”

By dreaming the Amerindians include the day dreaming we also call lucid dreaming- which may occur when walking to work or riding on a bus. It’s a kind of mulling over of what you already know. This is the psi part of PSI if you like. You already know the answer somewhere inside you- it’s just a question of making it welcome.

This is where encouragement comes in. if improvements are encouraged then the inner mind will start churning them out. If improvements are not encouraged then the worker will shut down.

To motivate yourself think of Frank Sinatra’s song ‘MY WAY’. ‘Doing a Frank’ means looking at a task and saying what would I do here if I did it MY WAY, if I had total freedom to redesign the task as long as the OUTCOME was better than before. It’s a thought experiment that may result in new ideas about how to better do something that needs improving.

My grandfather worked on one of the early car production lines in the United Kingdom. But he was a canny lad and assembled a series of jigs to help him do his job faster. Because he was paid by the piece not the hour he earned more than the foreman. But he had to keep quiet about his innovation or else the wage for everyone would have been lowered.

PSI is rather like micro-innovation, usually it is small things that are improved- though the result can be huge. Coca Cola was bottled so that baseball fans could drink their favourite drink at the game- the result was far reaching indeed. But what are the qualities of a micro-innovator?

Basically- someone always looking to get the job done in a better way, not content with stasis, always looking to move forwards.

In my own interest of desert exploring you have to move forwards or die or not leave the oasis of stasis ever. Movement is what it’s about. I think that by adopting the idea that you are on a journey at work, and that improvements you make will get you there faster and in better condition, may open you up to being more innovative.

One very simple way is to sit down every week and simply write down ten ways you could do things better. Five micro-innovations that will increase productivity in any area you touch. And make it a habit. Some will be useless but some will be so obvious. And it may not be the first or second on the list that works, it could be the seventh of eighth idea.

Focus is key. Instead of looking at your entire job focus on ten ways to make just one task better, quicker, cheaper or faster. And then add in your own skill or interest or the thing you find fun- that is the catalyst that helps you innovate a new way of doing something.

And then there is defocalising- where you try to envisage the whole job in a general way and see what comes to mind. This is another way of micro-innovating- using what you already know and have to hand to make something sometimes infinitely better.

W.I.B. Beveridge writes in the “Art of scientific investigation”: “the most characteristic circumstances of an intuition [ie. an innovation] are a period of intense work on the problem accompanied by a desire for its solution, abandonment of the work perhaps with attention to something else, then the appearance of the idea with dramatic suddenness and often a sense of certainty. Often there is a feeling of exhilaration and perhaps surprise that the idea had not been thought of before.”

By focusing hard and then defocusing you can improve your ability to micro-innovate. Focusing- not experimenting- looking at and being aware- not trial and error- innovation is 99% perspication.


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