Monday 13 November 2017

A Principled Approach to Innovation

One of the greatest unspoken benefits of networking and attending conferences is the sharing of book recommendations. The books that have had the greatest impact on my professional development or direction are often recommendations from peers that have been made during conversations at conferences. In fact I've literally today bought a book that was recommended to me over a pint at the EuroStar conference last week.

It was just such a situation earlier this year when I had the pleasure of John Stevenson's company for some time at the Romanian Testing Conference. He recommended a very easy reading book on innovation and creativity called 'The Myths of Creativity ' by David Burkus. It turned out to be a very useful recommendation indeed, as not only was it a great read, but soon after I found myself taking on the responsibility of running a group promoting innovation across my company.

Progress with Caution

During the summer a lot of the discussion on my work internal social network was around the need to involve more people (specifically across the development teams) in innovation activities. As can often happen when we are foolish enough to take holidays, in my absence the CEO volunteered me to run a group to drive innovation across the company. Whilst it was something of a surprise to come back to, I was very happy to take on this challenge.

At the same time I was wary of creating such a group. In my post on 'The Innovation Silo' I explain many of the challenges that I've seen companies face if innovation is owned by one individual or group at the expense of getting others in the company involved. If not approached carefully then setting up an innovation group in the company would result in just such a silo risking consequences of de-motivation for those not involved. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I scheduled the first session of the River Innovation Group (aka "the RIG") and asked for volunteers.

'I'm not a creative type'

During the week before I ran the first session, I was involved in an internal workshop and one of the participants mentioned how she was nervous of volunteering for the innovation group as she wasn't a 'creative type'. This was someone with a wealth of customer experience and a positive approach that I felt would make a great contribution to the invitation group, so this reluctance worried me.

As luck would have it I'd not long before finished reading Burkus's 'Myths of Creativity' based on John's recommendation. I asked if the individual would consider still joining, and recommended the book as one that might give her some reassurance that her contribution would be really valuable. I explained that, in the book, Burkus attacks some of our preconceived ideas around innovation and creativity such as 'creative types' and 'lone innovators' that were the basis of her fears. I was pleased when she agreed to come along.

The conversation got me thinking about the need to establish an understanding, both within the Innovation Group and the wider organisation, about the purpose and nature of the group to avoid misunderstandings around why the group was set up. I decided to use the book as the basis to structure the first session. 'Debunking' some of the myths around innovation would be the perfect way to set the scene for our group and give confidence amongst all the attendees in their ability to make a difference.

The Myths of Creativity

In his book Burkus identifies and challenges ten myths that people often believe when attributing the factors of success in innovations. I suggest reading the book to get a detailed perspective on the 10 myths, however I will try to summarise them here :

  1. Eureka myth. Genuine flashes of inspiration rarely happen. Research has shown that what appear to be 'flashes of insight' are actually the culmination of periods of research followed by stepping back from the problem allowing 'incubation' of the problem and the subconscious mind to make connections.

  2. Breed myth: There is no such thing as a genetically creative person, both personality traits and genetic links have shown no correlation with creativity. The creative label often comes with a role, however we are all able to think creatively around problems.

  3. Originality myth: Innovations are rarely entirely new ideas - more often they are the novel application of existing ideas to new contexts, or the combination of ideas in new ways.

  4. Expert myth: It is not just the experienced experts in a domain that drive innovation. New perspectives and ideas can come as easily from a novel viewpoint.

  5. Incentive myth: Incentives to innovate are extrinsic motivators, whereas it is an intrinsic motivation to solve a problem that yields better results when it comes to innovation.

  6. Lone Creator myth: Edison didn't work alone on the light bulb, he had an entire research company to back him. We often associate the most famous individual with inventions that actually are the result of brilliant team efforts.

  7. Brainstorming myth: Throwing people in a room with post-its and white boards does not provide a good source of creativity. Brainstorming can be effective if it involves the bringing togther of people who have had a chance to think about a subject beforehand, such that the brainstorming brings together their ideas.

  8. Cohesive myth: We can't all get along. Sometimes a healthy level of conflict and disagreement is needed to promote genuine progress on solving problems.

  9. Constraints myth: Constraints don't stifle innovation , actually as long as they are not too restrictive they can promote it as we look to innovate to solve problems within the constraints that we have. Would Tesla's cars be as efficiently designed if Musk had a full production line at his disposal?

  10. Mousetrap myth: Just creating a good product does not guarantee success. The world will not 'beat a path to your door' - you still need to put a huge amount of work into making that idea successful.

In the kickoff session for the RIG I stepped through each myth in turn, and went on to explain what Burkus presents as the true foundations for organisational innovation * An engaged team with a desire to innovate * A culture that is accepting of change * Strong expertise and domain knowledge * A defined creativity methodology or set of work practices

I explained how I felt that River had the first three of these in abundance. We are an incredibly engaged organisation with expertise in both business and technology domains, that promotes agility and acceptance of change across the business. Where I suggested the group could focus was on the methodology aspect - promoting processes and practices to support innovation that would allow us to harness the engagement, expertise and desire to change that we already possessed.

10 Types of Innovation

To examine the areas that we can consider as a target for innovation I referenced a second book - the "10 types of innovation" (confusingly - why is it that these things always come in tens?). In this book the authors present a model of innovation that goes beyond just product innovation to cover other areas where companies can be innovative and disruptive

  • Profit Model
  • Network
  • Structure
  • Process
  • Product Performance
  • Product System
  • Service
  • Channel
  • Brand
  • Customer Engagement

This model was very useful to set the scene that we weren't just looking at software innovations but any areas of the business where we could add value through adopting new mindsets and approaches.

Establishing the Principles of Innovation

When setting up any new team or group I find it a very useful exercise to establish a set of principles for the group. Working together as a team to identify the principles helps to break barriers and bond the team. Creating principles also helps to flush out any differences of opinion about the purpose and activity of the group and gets us all on the same page. As new people join the group the principles then provide an excellent basis for introducing them to the way that the team operates, and we can refer back to them in situations where we feel that we might be straying off our original purpose.

The first task that I set for us as a group was therefore to establish a set of principles for the RIG. Given my experiences with innovation silos though, I'll admit that I did provide the first principle to start things off:

  • The RIG does not own innovation at River, we are here to promote innovation across the organisation

Everyone input something and we pulled the results together into the following:


  1. The RIG does not own all of the innovation, we aim to foster a culture of innovation across the whole of River

  2. The RIG is an open community and encourages participation from people across the business

  3. We encourage cross-functional knowledge and thinking and look for opportunities to innovate in all areas, not just products

  4. We aim to continuously improve and question and innovate on our existing ideas as much as new ones

  5. We don't dismiss any ideas and celebrate any failures as opportunities to learn

  6. We aim to empower and encourage people to be confident in owning their ideas seeing them through

I was very pleased with the result. The group were keen to keep the membership fresh and encourage new members to come regularly so that we avoided becoming a silo. We established an approach of having different people run the session each time and to suggest and vote on topics to avoid making the group to just one person's agenda.

We've since already had session two and identified some great new approaches to adopt to identify the challenges we face (which furnish great opportunities for innovation), to constantly question what we're doing, and to focus ourselves so as not to spread our opportunities too thinly.

Accepting Change

One of Burkus's key foundations for innovation is an acceptance of change. I've rarely seen a company change as rapidly as I've seen here in the last 18 months, and empowering people across the business to be part of innovation is going to be key to people having a positive perception of that change. As I hand over the reins of running our next RIG session to another member it is my hope and belief that we have something that is genuinely going to make a difference, not just in the group but across the business, and not just now but for a long time to come. Oh, and if you are wondering about the individual who was reluctant to join - it almost doesn't need saying that she has made a fantastic contribution to the group and it's a much better group for having her there.


Anonymous said...

Two things:

1) The myth about Edison and the light bulb is worse than you think. In fact, Edison was not the only person to invent a light bulb. Joseph Swan also produced a light bulb almost simultaneously - and independently - in the UK. Edison was the better at self-promotion. A lesson there for innovators, perhaps?
2) Innovation and creativity is something that lurks i9nside all of us, but sometimes it can be a matter of finding some way to allow it to surface. About twenty years ago, I was taking a long course of prescription medication that over time was curtailing my ability to do serious cognitive work (mental number-crunching and mental agility in thinking about systems and data relationships). I had quite severe problems in coming to terms with this. But at the same time, I found my creative side was coming out more, and expressing itself in my approach to artistic photography. The interesting thing was that after I came off that medication, although my cognitive powers returned, my creative side remained active. It felt as though it had merely needed the chance to emerge. I actually dropped software testing for a couple of years and went and did different stuff, like freelance photography, journalism and writing a book. It never made much in the way of money, but I did it and that was the important thing. I now feel that my creative and analytical sides work well together; I only had to find some way of accessing the ability which I had all along.

John Stevenson said...

Hi Adam
Thank you for the mention. A great article and easy read. I am glad you found the recommendation so useful. The next step is to understand motivation.. What drives us.. Intrinsic/Extrinsic motivation - highly recommend reading about Kellers ARCS model-

Even more reading for you ;o)

Adam Knight said...

Thanks Robert for taking the time to comment.

Yes there are a lot of details about Edison and the light bulb that have been lost in the mists of time to leave a fundamentally flawed myth prevailing.

Thanks for sharing your story on 'finding your creativity'. I too am finding that, as my role changes in my current organisation I'm once again enjoying a level of creativity that I haven't had for some years. I'm finding I almost have to give myself permission to be creative, to take the time to think of new ideas or to explore things outside of the immediate solution. This is the sad result of our not encouraging creativity in our knowledge work - something that I am striving to address in my current role.


Adam Knight said...

Thank you for the recommendation, and for taking the time to respond here. River are in the business of engagement and motivation and so I'm building on my knowledge in that area at the moment - as I'm sure you can tell this was already a subject of interest to me. I'll definitely read up on the ARCs model, thanks. Adam

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