Friday, 31 August 2012

The delusions of innovation process

One of the core beliefs that inhabit organisations is that problems will be solved by the adoption of a whizzy new process. It’s simple, attractive… and almost always WRONG.

At one stage, a major multinational client adopted a “funnels and gates” approach to managing innovation projects. This was imported from flavour-of-the-month academics at Harvard Business School. The company was reorganised in line with the new process and training programmes were implemented at major expense worldwide.

I remember, shortly after the start of that voyage, having a meeting with the senior manager responsible for implementation of the programme, and endeavouring to surface with him some of the cultural issues that seemed to me to lie behind their difficulties with innovation.

“Don’t worry about all that,” he told me. “This new process will solve all those problems.” Of course, it didn’t. And the cultural issues remained as critical roadblocks. So innovation performance remained, at best, static.

At a general level, another Harvard Business School professor, psychoanalyst Abraham Zaleznik, addresses the problem head-on. He observes that management’s obsession with impersonal processes distorts reality, and that “depersonalised relationships” become the heart of “management mystique”, with the result that “you tend to lose sight of what you are doing”.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Tips for sitting through Wagner

I rather stumbled across the Kiwi blogger, From the Choirboy Motel. He’s full of things that I’m interested in, and he writes really well, but at a length that I sometimes find difficult to stay with.

Recently he’s been diving into the many hours of Wagner – not in the opera house, but at screenings of the New York Met’s Ring cycle. It’s an exciting journey for him, full of new insights, including the demolition of many received ideas about the work. It certainly brings back my own entry into Wagner’s wacky world some forty or more years ago.

Then, after several paragraphs of almost Proustian length, he shares with us “three handy hints on how to make it through”:

1. Sensible shoes
2. Chocolate raisins
3. Aisle seats

So succinct. So valuable. Wish I’d known this several decades ago.

Here’s the whole piece:

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Real King Lear

I notice that Tom Stoppard has spoken recently of the late John Wood as “truly my favourite actor”.

I first saw him in the debut production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic in the 1960s. Then, brilliantly, in Travesties, which was written by Stoppard for him.

But for me he was the indelible Lear.

I had first seen King Lear as a teenager at school, directed by the extraordinary Gordon Braddy and starring David Allister (then David MacDonald). But I was far too immature to get it then (as I do so personally now).

So when I became involved with Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare’s Globe, I made up for lost time, seeing a dozen or more different Lears in eighteen months, many of them our most celebrated actors. It was John Wood at the RSC in 1990 that seemed to me to be Lear.

He died aged 81 a year ago this month. A great actor, but no celeb.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The illusion of measurement and control

The notion that control of a business follows from measurement is a fallacy.

What’s the mantra? “If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it.”

It’s a comforting illusion.

My colleague, Bill Boggs, famously responded to a client in a workshop, who had just put out the usual line, with: “I’ve been measuring my d**k since I was fourteen and I still can’t control it.”

Did you know that in Britain there’s an Institute of Measurement and Control. Wonder how they are doing with the Boggs question?

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Florrie Forde’s lost Blue Plaque

In 2006 I proposed to English Heritage that they put up one of their Blue Plaques in London to the music hall legend, Florrie Forde. They were enthused and started the apparently long and arduous task of researching her life and work and homes.

Florrie was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1876 and ran away from home at sixteen to Sydney to go on the stage. There she was seen by a British star of the day who was touring Australia, GH Chirgwin and, encouraged by him, moved to London, where she made her debut at three separate halls on the same evening.

Her inexhaustible vocal power and engaging personality equipped her ideally to become queen of the music hall chorus-song – amongst them “Down at the Old Bull and Bush”, “Hold your hand out, naughty boy”, “She’s a lassie from Lancashire”, “Oh!Oh! Antonio”, “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag”, “Daisy Bell” (Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…), “I do like to be beside the seaside”, “Fair, Fat and Forty” and many more. She was also a famous Principal Boy in panto and starred in the first Royal Variety Performance in 1912.

Florrie Forde died in Aberdeen in April 1940 after entertaining wounded sailors. What a trouper. In his curmudgeonly poem, “Death of an Actress”, Louis MacNeice recalled her “elephantine shimmy” and “sugared wink”.

Here she is, very movingly, in the flesh:

Now, six years on from my original proposal, English Heritage has just dropped her from their shortlist, with the explanation that their budget has been cut and that anyway she lived mostly at Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex. While she was working? I don’t think so.

And what took them six years to discover this? No wonder their budget has been slashed.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Ten more things I like

The playing (and singing) of Chet Baker
South Indian cooking
The Leaves of Southwell
Being a groundling at Shakespeare’s Globe
Walking in Old Shanghai
The prose of Patrick Leigh Fermor
The brief life of peonies in flower
Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen
Test cricket at Adelaide Oval
Writing in my office at home

How about you?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Churchill, Froude and the English-Speaking Peoples

The recent book Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke is fundamentally about the writing of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples and the beliefs that surrounded it.

It made a great impact when it was published in four handsome volumes in the mid-1950s. Churchill came to believe that the shared language, culture and history of the English-speaking peoples provided a platform for the future beyond Empire. Of course, his mother was American.

This was an idea that had first gained wide currency with JA Froude’s Oceana of 1886. A celebrated English historian, now substantially forgotten, Froude travelled extensively through South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and America in 1884-85. The Australian historian, Geoffrey Blainey, has written: “I know of no travel book of the nineteenth century which paints our part of the world with such brilliant prose… his best sentences are music.”

At the heart of Oceana, Froude could see that a centralised imperial model would not do, the colonies “will never submit again to be ruled from England”, and that America would clearly have a greater and greater role in all things.

Neither Froude nor Churchill called for formal political union, but the cultural heritage (which now includes the Indian sub-continent, much of South-East Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere) has been, as they envisaged, immense.

Above: Oceana (1897) by the Australian sculptor Bertram Mackennal

Friday, 17 August 2012

Innovation and the Hundred Years War

Ahead of a short vacation in Normandy, I’ve been reading up on the Hundred Years War. England fought with France more or less continuously between 1337 and 1453.

I think I was last taught about it when I was ten and never really grasped anything other than the Great British Victories (attributed to the innovative use of the longbow) at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.

Here are two things I’ve now understood for the first time:

1. The first important conflict of the war was not on land, but at sea. The Battle of Sluys in 1340 was fought by the mouth of the River Eede. The vast French fleet, ready for invasion, was effectively destroyed. It was for this reason that the whole of the remainder of the war was fought on French soil. Extraordinarily, although the battle was entirely between ships, the use of onboard longbowmen by the English was new and possibly decisive.

2. In the end, the French won the war. Decisively. And England never again threatened to occupy France.

I understand why at school we were not taught Point 2. That’s how English history was communicated when I was young. We didn’t lose wars, it appeared.

But why were we not told about Point 1? Sluys is, it seems to me, as important, if not more so, than Trafalgar. And, as a result, just as much part of who (whom?) we are.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Saying it like it is

In an age of bland, less-than-frank book criticism, what fun to read Evgeny Morozov’s views on the recently-published TED book, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Parag and Ayesha Khanna.

Here are a few extracts from that review :

“The new pamphlet – it would be too strong… to call it a book”
“… the techno-babbling couple”
“… esoteric themes and irrelevant factoids”
“… this piece of digito-futuristic nonsense”
“… succinct and mind-numbing”
“… wannabe geopolitical theorist… only wired and cool”
“… writing pompous and alarmist books and articles”
“… linguistic constructions of such absurdity and superficiality”
“… gifted schmoozer”
“… intellectual impostor, emitting such lethal doses of banalities, inanities and generalizations”
“… manufacturer of abstract, meaningless slogans”
“… the most talented bullshit artist of his generation”
“At least TED Books… did not kill any trees in the publishing process”

George Orwell would have been proud of Mr Morozov. More! More!

Here’s the full review:

Monday, 13 August 2012

Brainstorming for breakthrough

One of the reasons that people feel that brainstorming doesn’t deliver is that, so often, when it comes to selecting which ideas to progress to the problem-solving stage, it’s the ones that seem most doable that get selected, rather than the ones that offer the potential to be breakthroughs.

It’s so natural to vote for ones you can see being implemented. But it’s the ones that have the tingle factor – if I knew how to do that, it would be amazing – these are the ones to go for.

So when I’m facilitating a brainstorming workshop, I spend a good deal of time and effort at the selection stage coaching the participants (and in particular their leader), so that they have the best possible chance of going for ideas that really intrigue them.

That’s how to get breakthroughs from brainstorms.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Southerly Sunday

One of my favourite poems and poets. Ursula Bethell’s “Southerly Sunday”.

Born in England in 1874, she grew up in New Zealand, but was educated in Oxford and Switzerland. She returned more permanently to live in New Zealand in the 1920s, where she created a garden and was a committed High Anglican. She lived in the Cashmere Hills outside Christchurch, where this poem is set, before moving back into the city.

The great south wind has covered with cloud the whole of the river-plain,
soft white ocean of foaming mist, blotting out, billowing
fast to the east, where Pacific main surges on vaster bed.

But here, on the hills, south wind unvapoured encounters the sunshine,
lacing and interlocking, the invisible effervescence
you almost hear, and the laughter of light and air at play overhead.

Seabirds fly free; see the sharp flash of their underwings!
and high lifted up to the north, the mountains, the mighty, the white ones
rising sheer from the cloudy sea, light-crowned, establishéd.

This sparkling day is the Lord’s day. Let us be glad and rejoice in it;
for he cometh, he cometh to judge and redeem his beautiful universe,
and holds in his hands all worlds, all men, the quick and the dead.

Echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins?

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Knowledge: does it really exist?

So many universities have vision or mission statements based around the notion that they are in the business of “knowledge transfer”.

It always seems to me a very doubtful proposition.

Ever since I encountered the work of Karl Popper, I’ve been less than entranced by the idea of “knowledge”. It seems like practically every day that some apparent certainty, some aspect of “knowledge” or other, is overturned and replaced by new thinking.

In truth, the best one can say for the new formulation is that it may represent our Best Current Thinking. Even the most significant – Newton, Darwin, Einstein – they all developed ideas that had the ring of final truth. Not so.

So much more open to creative new possibilities, Best Current Thinking. So restrictive, knowledge.

Is it possible for universities to let go of all that emphasis on certainty and embrace something more open-ended?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How Otis invented the skyscraper

So many important inventions depend on some other innovation. For example, one of the most important advances in architecture was the development of the skyscraper in the late nineteenth century.

But it could never have happened without the coincidental invention of the elevator, the “ascending room”. After all, people then, as now, were reluctant to climb more than a few flights of stairs.

What’s more, it was not just the elevator that was necessary. It had to be safe. And it was the American craftsman-engineer, Elisha Graves Otis, who in 1852 invented the first safety-brake for elevators. Together with changes in construction, it was this that enabled buildings to climb high up into the sky.

His breakthrough commercially came when he dramatically demonstrated his new product at the New York World Fair two years later, attracting widespread publicity.

There are now estimated to be 1.7 million Otis elevators in operation around the world. Plus all their competitors.

Do you ride in an Otis regularly?

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Creating that cauldron

I noticed, following the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, that most people were talking about just three moments – Mr Bean playing the “Chariots of Fire” music, the Queen and Mr Bond, and the lighting of the cauldron.

So, inspired by the latter, I went on Friday to the Heatherwick Studio exhibition currently running at the V&A. I wanted to know more about this extraordinary creation and the design team behind it.

In some ways the show itself was frustrating – lots of small and intricate scale models demonstrating the ways the creative team had approached each task. It left me rather desperate to get out and see the real things in their natural habitats, spread as they are around the world. Perhaps closest to home is their extraordinary new Routemaster bus in London.

But the cauldron itself: how did it work?

Of course the first question for those of us watching on television was: where is it? It was nowhere to be seen. Except that there were clues in the copper petals that each country brought with them like gifts into the stadium, each petal contributing, it turned out, to the final construction.

The petals each plugged, like lightbulbs into sockets, at the end of slender stems, through which the gas, natural gas of course, coursed. And at the base of each stem was a pivot mechanism, so that they could each rise hydraulically, a process aided presumably by the heat from the flames.

Altogether, it strikes me as a paradoxical miracle of simplicity and complexity. A work of art created by design engineers. In a way, it’s exactly the kind of brilliant solution that drove the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

In case you’d like to re-capture the moment, here it is:

Friday, 3 August 2012

Brainstorming: does it really work?

Brainstorming has had a bad press recently. It seems that many have had poor experience of it.

My own belief is that this is mainly because people dive in with very limited skills, not understanding that training and experience enhance the value and effectiveness of the process greatly. I would say that untrained groups led by poor quality creative facilitation are almost invariably doomed to fail.

The term was first popularised in the 1940s by an American advertising executive, Alex Osborn, in his book, Applied Imagination. The four core principles involved in Osborn’s method are as valid today as they were then:

Focus on quantity: get a wide range of possibilities as start-ideas.
Withhold criticism: instead of identifying flaws in ideas offered, switch to “What does that make me think of?” and offer a new idea.
Welcome unusual ideas: not just the obvious ones.
Combine and improve ideas: take the most interesting parts of several start-ideas to create new ones.

Osborn’s method was extended and enhanced by George Prince and WJJ Gordon, who each wrote seminal books and together started the innovation and creativity consultancy, Synectics, whose method I still use.

On reflection, it seems to me that unless you are prepared to get a proper skill-base on board, it’s probably best to leave it alone.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Taking one’s own advice

Lord Stevenson has been courageous in coming out so openly about his battle over two decades with depression.

In the early 1990s he took over from me as chairman of the chamber orchestra that I’d founded, Docklands Sinfonietta (later Sinfonia 21). At a handover lunch we had together, I asked his advice about taking on non-executive directorships.

He told me that the major issue, as he saw it, was that one was in a situation one would not fully understand (as the professional executive directors in the industry would), yet one carried exactly the same legal and financial risks as them.

Perhaps he forgot his own counsel when he took on the role of chairman of one of Britain’s largest financial institutions, HBOS. He certainly could not rely on depth of experience as a banker when the business floundered.