“The Dark Arts of Innovation” – Or Not?

After excellent sessions on play and improvisation, I suppose I was only setting myself up for disappointment with the third of the series of talks at the ScienceFestival that I accidentally curated for myself: “the Dark Arts of Innovation. The talk’s title hints at secret recipes or innovation-magick, but whilst interesting and engaging, on that count it didn’t deliver. There were no secret tricks or short cuts, no quick fixes – though a fair bit of common sense.

I think this in part reflects the nature of the institutions represented by the three speakers: a university, a research institute and a private sector (and privately owned) company.

Light Bulb
Image from Olga Reznik on flickr.
Used under Creative Commons licence.

As Alan Miller, deputy principal (and responsibile for knowledge transfer) at Heriot Watt, pointed out, universities are steeped in tradition and conservative in nature; not necessarily the most innovative of institutions. Still, the Watt in Heriot Watt refers to James Watt, who whilst he didn’t invent the steam engine (that was Thomas Savery, apparently – I thought it was Newcomen, which proves that one really can learn stuff from the internet!), came up with an innovative design made greatly improved its efficiency and reduced its size, and enabled others to deploy it in many new ways – the power behind the industrial revolution.

Of course, once more the question of semantics came up. What exactly is innovation? Miller reckoned it was seeing the practical benefits of research – taking original research and creating products from it: exploiting experimental research and commercialising novelty. (As far as I recall, during my MBA the working definition of innovation we used was along the lines of seeing the potential products of new research, methods or processes, and then actually getting the product to market. Others define innovation as the generation of wealth from ideas.)

Either way, researchers are not necessarily the best innovators, and nor are universities the best at exploiting and commercialising their research. It has long been said that Britain is great at research but poor at exploiting it. Miller reckoned that Scottish universities are actually on a par with the US counterparts (a view which is consistent with this research into UK manufacturing from Southampton University). The UK parliament investigated the translation of research into commercial products last year, and produced a second report just last month. Others reckon the UK has no coherent policy on innovation. Part of the problem, I think, is whether a government can actually promote innovation specifically – they can make the economy as attractive for entrepreneurs and innovators (fat lot of success they’ve had there – though I guess they might argue the recent cut of the top rate of income tax is an effort to improve the incentives for entrepreneurs) – but I can’t help feeling that there is little governments can do to stimulate the process of innovation itself.

Heriot Watt tries to do this in various ways, though mostly by spinning off possible commercial outcomes from research into independent companies. The university doesn’t expect to to profit (though it hopes it will in the long term), but removing the removing the ties of bureaucracy and adding the profit motive seem to be beneficial.

The missing gap for me seemed to be how to identify those who were good at innvoation – clearly, not necessarily the same as those undertaking the initial research. My guess would be that most academics are motivated to a great extent by profit, but if one removes the results of their research and passes to someone else – even another (spin off) body – to commercialise, how does one recognise and reward to original researchers? Do they also profit from it?

Working out which bits of research actually have the potential also seems problematic: are there university committees assessing which bits of research might yield commercial results? Miller pointed out that the fruits of research may come a long time after the research itself – the development of transistors after WW2 relied on esoteric research into quantum mechanics decades earlier, for instance.

Fundamentally, though, Miller saw innovation as being all about people: they need to be stimulated to innovate. Unfortunately, how to actually do that doesn’t seem clear.

Lee Innes from the Moredun Institute gave some excellent examples of the way they have innovated. Firstly, they are very close to their ultimate costumers – farmers: indeed, they were established by the agricultural industry and are managed, in part, by farmers; they are aware of the issues facing farmers, and work with them on technological solutions. The profits of their innovation are channelled back into further research projects.

The institute also sifts ideas using evaluation criteria before product development and implementation – a long, and, she reckoned, potentially cruel process: you need to be willing to dump good, workable ideas if they might not come to fruition or would drain resources. “Killing the babies”, she called it.

The critical steps – necessary, even – seemed to be working in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams, and for those teams to be small and flexible. She gave an example of a brainstorming session between the institute’s researchers and engineers from (I think) Heriot Watt where the engineers had picked up on a problem the researchers had thought of as insoluble – and a rapid diagnostic for toxoplasma is now in development. Being open to new ideas from unlikely sources seems to be beneficial – and I like the idea of innovation rising from random conversations! Spinning out potential products allows the innovators to work in flexible, dynamic, high performance teams to get the product to market – like any start up, perhaps. They are also open to unintended consequences – and exploit the novel application of them.

Promoting that sense of interdisciplinary collaboration in a high performing environment seems crucial to W L Gore. I have heard people from Gore speak before, and it has always seemed both an inspirational organisation – and completely down to earth. Gore’s Gerry Mulligan added to the passion for ideas I have seen from the firm before. It does sound like a truly innovative organisation, with a novel culture that has innovation at its core. (The first thing you see on their website is “A Commitment to Innovation Shapes Everything We Do” – quite a statement.) It eschews hierarchy and works with a minimum of bureacracy – no time sheets, for instance. Its teams are self-organising and wholly empowered; the only leaders are those who get followers (someone once said that Gore doesn’t do leadership training – they do followership training instead – though Mulligan did describe the leadership training those in senior positions get – clearly there is some recognition of hierarchy). Peers are involved in the annual review process – and are responsible for setting remuneration, too. Everyone gets 10% of time to work – or “dabble” – on their own projects.

This could also make it a harsh place to work, too – it may not be the best environment for introverts, perhaps. (I may be completely wrong, of course: if you are judged on your contribution to results by your peers, regardless of how loud you shout and how sociable you are, it could be that introverts may fly!)

It was, Mulligan said, all about the culture – and the people: without bureaucracy, hierarchy and “command and control”, innovation was able to flourish within small, flexible – and cross-disciplinary – teams based around relationships. Informal networks are key to sharing knowledge and enabling the teams to coalesce. All those conversations again…

There was long discussion about the nature of intellectual property, and who benefits from it. Gore uses patents a lot, and – in some jurisdictions – are bound to share the profits of IP with its developers (not in the UK). Mulligan described some bad experiences the firm had working with others and sharing IP, which had to be resolved in court, and felt it best to keep working relationships in house.

The speakers also felt that Scotland and the UK more generally had become risk averse: failure is a dirty word. Instead, they thought we ought to celebrate failure. At Gore, when a project closes because it fails, they have a party to celebrate. Of course, we can learn from failure – but to really learn, we need to share the knowledge of the failure. Researchers don’t publish details of experiments that fail, only those that succeed.

Condensing down what was said into that all elusive recipe for innovation, then…

  • small…
  • open…
  • collaborative…
  • flexible…
  • cross-disciplinary…
  • high performing…
  • empowered…
  • self managed teams
  • minimal bureaucracy
  • unafraid to fail
    And know when to stop!

But you still need to instill all that into your culture – and work with people who are creative innovators. Whoever they are.

Post Script. Whilst I have been writing this, my mind has kept returning to the Centre for Creative Collaboration, which I used to visit frequently when I was in London. C4CC acted (and, I presume, still acts!) a space promoting many of the themes of innovation that the speakers at this talk covered – particularly the open discussion and conversation. C4CC was set up in partnership with several of London’s higher education institutions, but is largely independent of them. Perhaps could be a model – only one many possible, mind – for incubation of innovation.

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