Monday, 29 November 2010

The wheel - the first breakthrough technology?

When asked to name an early invention of the greatest importance, people in my workshops seem most often to come up with the wheel. It seems to represent the mother and father of innovation in folk’s minds. Asked what they know about its development, there’s usually a longish silence.

Archaeologists tell us that the earliest evidence of the wheel is in Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is roughly modern-day Iraq), some 5,500 years ago.

The problem that was solved by its invention was the need to move heavy loads without high levels of friction between the earth and the vehicle. (Sledges are only good for this purpose on ice or snow.)

The idea of using tree trunks as rollers had been in use since much earlier times. It seems likely that the use of two cross-sections of a tree, joined together by a pole (a primitive axle) would have been a first step, but it would have been discovered quite quickly that, with any substantial weight, the wheels would have split. So a long period of incremental innovation followed.

The spoked-wheel chariot used in warfare seems to have emerged in Syria early in the second millennium BC, arriving in China some 500 years later. In Egypt, the river Nile had always provided an important means of transport for the materials of the pyramids, and wheeled transport emerged there around 1,700BC.

Of course, we can only speculate on the process by which the wheel was invented. Was it one person's Eureka? Or several people in parallel? Was there a long period of trial and error? Did tribal elders support or oppose its development? Was it primarily driven by military needs?

At home, we recently discovered the frame of a nineteenth-century farm cart in the barn we are converting – unfortunately without its wheels. In many ways our cart is not so very different from wheeled vehicles that existed five millennia ago. It had been stored in the roof of the barn, I guess in the 1930s, when motorised vehicles arrived on the farm. Perhaps it was prudently saved against the day when it might be needed once again. We will be keeping it!

The first breakthrough technology. Unless you know otherwise, of course…

Friday, 26 November 2010

Maestros all?

Why are all orchestral conductors called “Maestro” these days? It seems to me that the word now comes with the territory, having previously been common practice in America.

How passé Wikipedia’s current definition reads: “A title of extreme respect given to a master musician.”

Nowadays that might more truthfully read: “Stands in front of an orchestra, usually able to read a score, waving a stick.”

I don’t mean to disrespect the really outstanding practitioners around – among them Vladimir Jurowski (above), Simon Rattle, Mark Elder and Ivan Fischer. These are the Real Thing.

But how do they feel when every Tom, Dick and Harry is apparently a Maestro?

I’d love it if we could park the word on an indefinite basis and find another. Conductor maybe?

(BTW there’s a separate issue here for the few female conductors around. Maestra in Italian means schoolmistress.)

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Skoda now No 1 best car-maker – no joke!

I’ve written a couple of times this year about the extraordinary re-invention and re-staging of Skoda since its acquisition by VW in 1991 (“Renovate or die” 01/01/2010 and “Renovating Skoda” 16/09/2010). And Skoda was a central case study in the recent Brand Renovation masterclass – “From death-trap to top of class. From joke to cult".

Well, now 30,000 readers of What Car magazine have voted them “Best Manufacturer 2010”, outshining both the mother company and Audi - and every other car-maker.

It’s an extraordinary turn-around – achieved by a whole cocktail of initiatives and changes, several of which were described in the earlier of the two blogposts.

Is there any more amazing brand renovation story, anywhere?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Imagining the Jump-Jet

The recent death of Gordon Lewis, the engineer who pioneered jump-jet technology, prompted me to think about the important role that the Harrier has played in both the British and American military operations over the past four decades.

A view often expressed is that the Falklands war could not have been won without it, and the revolutionary aircraft has been essential to operations in many spheres ever since. Yet the recent British review of military requirements means that it will be retired without any obvious replacement for its unique capabilities.

In the 1950s, the Cold War at its peak, the military needed an aircraft that could take off and land with little or no runway. A French engineer, Michel Wibault, had come up with a proposal which had been rejected in France, so he approached the Bristol Aeroplane Company in Britain, where Gordon Lewis was working. Lewis built on Wibault’s concept, sketching jet engines with a rotating nozzle. This was the great breakthrough, completely outperforming the rival system being developed by Rolls-Royce, which had eight lift engines and one for forward thrust. Of course, when the thing was airborne, the Bristol concept would have far less dead weight to carry.

Yet still the British government of the day was reluctant to support the project, so financial support had to be found in America.

The test flights using this new technology were, to say the least, hazardous. The inherent instability of this new kind of bird meant that emerging problems had to be solved bit by bit. One of the prototypes did indeed crash.

Like his engineering predecessor, Thomas Edison, Gordon Lewis was a multi-talented innovator. Not only did he have big ideas, he also managed and inspired his project teams to solve emerging problems, dealing at the same time with complex commercial issues, often involving international partners.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Facilitating Britain’s Got Talent

I ran a day’s facilitation skills class on Monday with a group of seriously talented young people from the innovation agency, Happen.

Early in the session, they made nominations for best and worst from the public arena – and Simon Cowell came top of both polls.

Surprising? I guess not. In many ways Cowell is a superb facilitator. He can relate closely to the other judges, to the artists and to the audiences, responding immediately to enthusiasm and the lack of it, and particularly to changes of mood.

On the other hand, he can be judgemental before giving contestants a chance to show what they can do, and cruel in his dealings with vulnerable people.

One only has to think of his chain of responses to the Scottish singer, Susan Boyle, First there was the dismissive, even contemptuous roll of the eyes as she walked on, then the amazement that she could actually sing, then the recognition that the audience loved her. Later he was to eat humble pie.

But has he really learned anything from the experience in terms of facilitating situations more equitably?

Perhaps he doesn’t want to. After all, those graphic emotions from him pull in the viewers. It’s just that Susan couldn’t handle it, retreating afterwards to The Priory (at Cowell’s suggestion, I believe), which she hated even more.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Metaphor and creative fertility

At Thursday’s masterclass, Turning Ideas into Action, I introduced the use of metaphor in creative thinking. “Give us an example,” I was challenged.

So I talked about Alastair Pilkington doing the washing up, observing the grease floating on top of the water, and imagining a new way of producing plate glass. “No good” was the response from a feisty (and knowledgeable) group. That’s just an extension of scientific knowledge, not a real metaphor, and anyway, apparently it wasn’t really Pilkington who made that breakthrough.


Well, how about the invention of Pringles?

The founders of Synectics, Bill Gordon and George Prince, made the use of metaphoric “excursions” a central part of their methodology. A special favourite for them was to explore metaphors from nature.

In the 1960s Gordon worked with Procter and Gamble to find a new way to make potato chips. The problem for consumers was that existing products would fracture far too easily, resulting in piles of broken bits at the bottom of the bag. And the problem for manufacturers was that bags of chips are full of air – making the shipping of product unnecessarily expensive.

One fall, Gordon was sweeping leaves in his back yard. On sunny days he noticed that the leaves were crisp, just like potato chips. And when he put them in a bag they fractured and crumbled. But on rainy days he noticed that the leaves moulded easily one to another with no breakages. Thus the idea for Pringles was born, solving both consumer and manufacturer problems at one and the same time.

The British theatre and opera director (and astounding polymath), Dr Jonathan Miller, has written: “Since finding out what something is is largely a matter of discovering what it is like, the most impressive contribution to the growth of intelligibility has been made by the application of suggestive metaphors.”

More succinctly (though less politically correctly), the Spanish philosopher-poet Ortega y Gassett wrote: “The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by men.”

Do you have good examples of the use of suggestive metaphor in creativity – either your own or others?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Legend in his own lunchtime

Working on innovation skills with a young team in Sydney, I was asked “What’s the secret of your success?”

Possibilities scrambled through my brain. Was I any kind of real success? What is success anyway? And so on. However, my sense was that they were after a snappy, to-the-point headline.

“Lunch,” I responded. “I attribute any success I’ve had to it. I really built my career around lunch.”

They were aghast. What can he be saying? Nobody does lunch any more. In fact, it’s become symbolic of a bygone, unprofessional, decadent age.

Well, it took me a while, long ago, to discover the potency of the shared midday meal. Up to then, clients (often Procter and Gamble or Rowntree) were endlessly wrecking perfectly good ideas.

Why? Because they were presented (and I mean presented) in the formalised atmosphere of a proper meeting. The consequence was inevitably to push the clients into judge and jury mode. There they would take pride in finding the jugular, the weakest point, with unerring accuracy, sending us back to the start.

What I discovered was that lunch (often, I admit, in an unnecessarily expensive restaurant) provided an environment where challenging new ideas could be tabled and discussed, quite informally, on the basis of mutual interest and exploration. By the time we went into the meeting with client, they had already grasped the new concept, sometimes even promoting it to colleagues.

“It is a midday meal taken at leisure by, ideally, two people,” as the Fleet Street legend, Keith Waterhouse, put it. “Three’s a crowd, four always split like a double amoeba into two pairs, six is a meeting, eight is a conference.”

Sadly, of course, in these more straightened times, lunch may consist of a sandwich and a Coke. But the principle remains the same. Get them into the boat, rowing with you.

Do you lunch?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Leading by backing off

The conductor Sir Simon Rattle was rehearsing Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a Promenade concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in the summer.

The cellos were playing a particularly prominent passage, but couldn’t quite get it together. Rattle tried several times over, intently focused in their direction, never completely achieving the unanimity he was seeking.

“It’s me,” he said. “I’ll stop conducting.”

So he beat them in, put down his baton, and folded his arms while they played.

“That’s perfect,” he said. “You’ll be fine from now on.”

And they were.

Now that’s leadership.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Blurting the truth

Reports in the Sunday Times of Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson’s new Chelsea home brings to mind the disastrous interview I did with another advertising legend, Frank Lowe, also in Chelsea.

He was looking for someone to head up his then burgeoning international agency business and I’d been recommended.

I arrived at his elegant terraced house and was shown into the “front room”. I marvelled at the extraordinary glass dome three stories above and the enormous fireplace. It reminded me of something, but what was it? Ah, yes - Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane”.

After a wait of thirty minutes or so, Frank finally appeared. “What do you think of the house?” he enquired.

“Seems to have been designed by a megalomaniac,” I blurted.

“Yes,” he said. “I designed it.”

I wasn’t offered the job.

It was one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” moments for both of us: he knew instantly that I was not right for him. But, before he showed, I already knew that it was not for me.

Have you had instantaneous “Blink” moments - ones where you have blurted the truth?