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Innovation, Disruption and “Loving What You Do”

Prof. Bill Buchanan OBE


Innovation disruption and loving what you do

The last few weeks have been challenging for my time. I’ve done quite a few interviews with companies and where they probe our thinking on innovation. Often these are large companies who are struggling to make their innovations successful, and they ask us for our thoughts on how they can improve. One engagement last week really sticks out for me, in they went through each of our projects, and kept asking “What made you do that?”, and the answer was normally:

Well. It was new, and we hadn’t done that before, and it forced us into a new area, and we liked the people involved, and we kinda had the skills to do it. If we got it to work, it would be really disruptive!

…and they probed on the funding for our work and again it was the same answer:

Well. We had a track record of success and could point to a previous project where we could say we had actually created an impact which wouldn’t have been there without us.

And then they asked if I still did some teaching, as if the first thing that an active researcher would do is to stop teaching. I told them that the lifeblood of virtually everything that we do in academia is our students. It is through teaching that we find the most amazing individual, and prove them, with a route for them to achieve their full potential.

And finally they asked what advice I had and I had to quote Steve Jobs: “You love what you do“, and enjoy disrupting, and being David against Goliath.

Innovation is the lifeblood of our world

With innovation we have the art of the ‘er…’ where we make things faster, better, cheaper, clearer… and we create new processes and products that drive our economy and our society. Companies rise and fall on the basis of how they innovate, if not they become dependent on single products and become fixed in their ways. We see this with the continual re-organisation of some companies, such as HP at present, who are looking to refocus, break-up, and energise their innovation infrastructure.

Innovation is thus a basic human attribute of our society, and innovation is the thing that often sets counties, companies and groups apart. It sets Google apart from AT&T, and Skyscanner from IBM, and is the core of taking advantage of opportunities, and in finding new ways to doing things. Google, for example, is one company who know that a lack of innovation into the future will leave open to competition in the future.

Innovation is thus the gears that allow some companies to thrive and others to crash. It is the ability to change and spot new opportunities. It allows them to move fast and mobilise. It allows one team to be successful and gain resources.

So, basically if your company does not innovate, it may eventually crash (or it will take over other companies which do innovate). Many of our large companies struggle to innovate, even though they have large budgets for it, and have to take-over others in order to gain a commercial advantage.

There are many examples of a great innovative company being taken over by a large company, and then their innovation freezes (often due to the main leaders of the innovation leaving). Large companies thus think they are buying a brand or a company, but actually they are purchasing the team and the culture. Break the team or the culture, and you break the innovation. I’d love to outline the many examples that we have observed, but privacy must be respected.

For me, I love it when a small company, or a small team, manages to take on a large company, and win, and it’s only through innovation, and some smart people with an innovation culture, that this can happen. David v Goliath!

Creating social architects

Professor Linda Hill, I think, outlines innovation best in this article, where she analyses why some companies are so successful at it, and others barely seem to innovate.

One viewpoint she pushes forward is that leadership matters greatly, but that it is not the core in building an organisation that innovates on a regular basis. The argument basically follows the line that just because you have a well-funded R&D department, with a great leader, doesn’t mean you’ll have a pipeline of great innovations.

She analysed some of the best innovators and found they were dispersed across a wide range of organisation types, from those that are seen as hot-beds of innovation to less traditional ones, such as those in government departments. From our point-of-view, we see this, and have seen that some of the best innovators have come across are those in the public sector, such as in law enforcement and health care. They are people who can spot that the existing way is just not working, and that it can be improved in some way.

The individuals she studied showed that it was less about getting people to follow the leader, and more about getting people to co-create the idea, and the leaders involved were capable of providing vision, even though they did not see that as their main role.

Another interesting viewpoint is that these leaders are basically:

Social architects

…and who create groups – or communities – which were willing and able to innovate. As a technical person, I relate fully to this, and believe that getting others on-board with a vision is key, but the ability to execute the idea is also key. Thus having the correct partnerships and the technical skills to execute the vision is a fundamental factor in getting an innovation to succeed.

I think few people have really crystalised viewpoints of innovation as she has:

Innovation is a journey, a collaborative problem-solving process, where discoveries happen through a process of trial and error, false starts, and even mistakes. The process can be exhilarating. But as many of us know all too well, it can also be downright scary.

I have highlighted the collaborative and problem-solving bit as this can often be a challenge for many companies, as their innovation must often be shared with others, either in the organisation or externally.

She then pinpoints that innovation is crafted by the hands of many, and not from a single genius, and where the leader is able to unleash talent in order to enact collective genius. For the organisation she defined three cultural attributes to foster innovation: reactive abrasion; creative agility; and creative resolution.

Reactive abrasion is creating an environment which supports discourse and debate, and where people listen to ideas, and where breakthroughs cannot thrive where there is no diversity of thought, nor conflict. This is the type of environment that academia aims to create, where there are different viewpoints on topics, and where they are critically appraised.

In a university, the innovation environment should thrive on reactive abrasion, but often the environment becomes rather sanitized, where critical thoughts and conflict are suppressed, or where new ideas are not followed through. She thus, alongside diversity of thought and conflict, defines a culture of listening, inquiry and advocacy.

Her second attribute is creative agility, which involves rapidly developing, experimenting, and changing. This, she defines, involves both a scientific process and an artistic process. You then act – and not plan. This goes against many business models, where the first thing you are asked for is your Gantt Chart, and your business plan, along with your five year financial forecast. Often these documents are great works of fiction what George Orwell would be proud of.

In innovation, you often have to create small prototypes and run small-scale experiments in order to get you the results that can demonstrate the potential. We learnt early on that we often had to short-circuit the design phase for a quick proof-of-concept, and then demonstrate it. In this way, people can see what the innovation will look like, and outline, with the results, how it will improve things.

She defines that some deep thinking goes on at this phase. In some of the projects that we have been involved with we have often collaborated with organisations with large development teams, with fully defined processes for their builds, but, in the end we’ve ended up with something which really makes an impact, as, early on, we started to build something that we could experiment with, and get early results.

Finally, she defines creative resolution, which again allows debate to thrive, and where there is no one person that dominates, and where everyone in the team has the opportunity to influence the focus. It thus focuses on alternative approaches, and then appraising them as things develop. She outlines that it is important for the environment to be created where the individuals involved are open to contributing their ideas, and multiple approaches can be taken.

Getting everyone on-side

Linda defines that the leadership element is there to keep the innovation progressing, otherwise it is likely to run out of stream, and where some internal forces within a group will often push against the developments. A resistance of change is often common in some organisations, especially in the public sector, and can try to slow-down or block new innovations (often it is the change of roles that a new innovation will bring that will suppress change – “wouldn’t it replace someone’s job?” is a common statement).

She defines that the three things that leadership should thus focus on are:

  • common purpose
  • shared values
  • mutual rules of engagement

With a common purpose, everyone in the team knows what the end goal looks like, and are ready to cope with problems, conflict and tension that happens along the way. For the team the pain of the innovation is worth it in the end, in that they achieve the end goal. Few, only the way, will actually know what the end goal looks like, but everyone knows what a good end point will be.

For shared values, the team must share a vision and have four key values of: bold ambition; collaboration; learning; and responsibility. A team should then be able to articulate what these are, and what they stand for when they meet someone for the first time. They should also be able to give an elevator pitch and say something like … “We want to share information around the risks to patients, but preserve their rights to privacy”. Each person in the team should share this and know exactly what the aims of the vision are. Each part of the innovation then just takes them along part of the route.

Finally she defines mutual rules of engagement, which defines who the team will work together, and where there leader makes sure that everyone in the team are comfortable with their role, and where they:

contribute ideas, they cultivate mutual trust, respect and influence (words easier to say than practice)

Linda defines that leaders pay great attention to how people think and she believes that they get people to question everything. She defines that they should stimulate a culture which bases things on data and fact, and be holistic in their approaches. She thus defines that the team should have a focus on:

who we are
why we are together


Pweh! What an inspirational viewpoint from the Professor. She articulated basically everything that we have observed over the past years. I just love everything in this paper, and she has managed to crystalise all the cultures and team activities so well.

So, if you want to innovation… get yourself some visionaries… setup an environment for debate and discussion… get a team who have a shared vision… and throw out those project plans(!)

Basically the above defines academia, but for some reason… in places… it isn’t quite working in the UK, where we should have a whole hive of great ideas being generated, and for industry to be hovering around them. But industry seems to be getting much better at this than academia, especially for SMEs. So, it seems that academia is too focused on ideas that have little commercial or societal value, and this is not a good thing for our futures.

If I’ve learnt one thing, is that if you innovate, and it works, your team will gain, and be rewarded for their efforts. For a company it allows them to thrive against larger organisations. To me, to be a CEO of a large company is easy… to be the leader of a start-up company is extremely difficult!

Go David!

Professor Bill Buchanan OBE

Prof. Bill Buchanan OBE

Professor - Edinburgh Napier University

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