Blocking Innovation – The Falafel Syndrome

December 30, 2009

I miss listening to ABC Radio in Australia; either some of the interesting conversations with Jon Faine or some of the Radio National programs but fortunately I can get RN on podcast, particularly All in the Mind.  But there is one somewhat similar program here on the Dubai Eye network called Business Breakfast which tends to focus on business news but does have some good interviews from time to time.

One that I caught recently was with the CEO of Innovation 360, Kamal Hassan.  He was talking about innovation in the Dubai and Arab region which was most interesting following the recent publication of the Arab Knowledge Report.  This report discussed the lack of regional innovation and entrepreneurship.  The CEO mentioned three factors which blocked the effective implementation of innovation;

  • Apathy – people are generally apathetic to trying out new ideas.  There are few local “heroes” that model innovation and new business development.
  • Search for Best Practice – there is a tendency to import best practices from outside the region.  In fact, he mentioned that the result is the opposite to “Not Invented Here”.  People actively look to replicate the successes from elsewhere which raises all the problems of context, culture and local environment.  Rather than trying new things out and seeing what works, people take the easier option of bringing in expertise from outside.  Classic complicated vs complex issues (Cynefin).  The apathy towards innovation means that “Not Invented Here” does not even register.
  • Falafel Syndrome – a great little metaphor for not being innovative.  He described someone setting up a falafel shop on a busy street and doing really well.  What tends to happen next is that someone else sees this success and sets up a similar falafel shop and does moderately well.  Others look to how these guys are faring and set up their own falafel shops on the same street which is all too much for the market and so they all become unprofitable.  There is insufficient thought towards establishing complementary shops like juice bars.  This metaphor furthers the cycle towards apathy as why bother being innovative when others will simply copy your business model.  The lack of effective intellectual property rights and copyright also means that many new initiatives lack good means of protection.

Alternatives to Executive Decision-Making

August 19, 2009

A number of articles from the latest What’s Emerging  newsletter from Paul at Emergent Futures piqued my interest in the combined topics of decision-making, Powerpoint and creativity.

The first article describes the views of a retired Marine Corps officer who laments the rise in the use of Powerpoint for decision-making by corporate and government leaders.  He claims that the use of powerpoint dumbs down complex topics into simple bullet points, forcing the decision-makers into perusing lots of information of dubious quality to make quick decisions.  Organisations that favour powerpoint breed a culture of having their leaders make more and more and faster decisions which often would be better made at a lower hierarchical level and  which could end up being wrong.  In the past, complex issues would be distilled into briefs that would analyse the topic and provide the decision-maker with time to consider their decision, and offer them the chance to “sleep on it”.

And sleeping on it increases the chance of successfully solving problems as research in this second article finds. Not just any problem but particularly those problems that are new and require creative problem-solving. And not just  sleep but REM sleep is required with the researchers believing that this allows the brain to form new nerve connections without the interference of other thought pathways that occur when we are awake or in non-dream-state sleep.

And so finally, the issue of creativity leads to the last article which explores creative people who Gordon Torr highlights have different biology (they think differently in a less inhibited, more dreamlike and weird manner), different motivation (ideas and expression are more important than money) and different personalities (impulsive, sensitive and ambitious). This is often a totally different character set to that of many senior managers who are often more controlling and target-oriented.

So if we are seeking creative solutions to problems by our decision-makers, many of us are using the wrong instrument.  Managers need to be more receptive to creative solutions and encourage an environment that requires them to make less decisions and focus their attention on the more important decisions.  Can you see your senior manager doing that?

So next time you are asked to prepare a Powerpoint for a decision-making meeting, suggest an alternative tack and prepare a considered two page brief, proffer creative solutions, and let the manager consider the paper well before the meeting. The major problem you are likely to face is if they can make the time to read it before the meeting!

US Defence Strategies

December 22, 2008

Good article by Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, in the Foreign Review on the balanced approach of the US National Defence Strategy.  This balance lies in three areas

  • prevailing in current conflicts while preparing for other contingencies
  • maintaining the existing conventional and strategic technological edge while institutionalising capabilities in counterinsurgency and foreign military assistance, and
  • retaining successful cultural traits while shedding those that hamper doing what needs to be done

Part of the biggest difficulty in defence is the long lead times in procurement, not just for large items like the next fighter aircraft but also for armaments (the things that go bang) so that they go bang when they are meant to go bang.  This requires testing under the various climatic conditions – what might work in an Iraqi summer may act very differently in an Afghani winter.

Gates states quite eloquently:

The Department of Defence’s conventional modernisation programs seek a 99% solution over a period of years.  Stability and counterinsurgency missions require 75% solutions over a period of months.  The challenge is whether these two different paradigms can be made to coexist in the US military’s mindset and bureaucracy…  The issue then becomes how to build … innovative thinking and flexibility into the rigid procurement processes at home.  The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drive the procurement, rather than the other way around.

This challenge is not confined to the US military but applies across the public sector.  How do you balance long-term infrastructure development with the need for action and funding that will have impact in the short-term and on-the-ground.  The short-term actions are often cheaper, more sustainable and context-sensitive.  They provide options for undertaking safe-fail experiments to see what works.

Finally, some other quotes:

I have learned many things in my 42 years of service in the national security arena.  Two of the most important are an appreciation of limits and a sense of humility… But not every outrage, every act of aggression or every crisis can or should elicit a US military response.

As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

Killing Innovation – A Manager’s Guide

February 13, 2008

I wrote a short article the other day about innovation and someone took umbrage at one of my lines that the public sector (as the traditional hierarchical bureaucracy) has 1001 ways to kill a good idea and that we need to move towards a model that has 1001 ways to advance a good idea.  Innovation can often be really difficult for managers who are under time and budget constraints to get the job done rather than look to do things differently. 

I came across this blog post which describes 5 questions that can be raised by a manager to kill innovation.  The beauty of responding with a question is that it makes the innovator have to justify their innovation to you through logical reasoning based on your own assumptions – a phantasmagorically circular way of killing innovation slowly but surely. 

I think we are now up to counting 1035 ways to kill innovation (although we cheated because we started at 1001)!!