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Lessons in Innovation

23 March 2018

The other week, I decided to take some time out and attend the Chartered Association of Business School’s Executive Education symposium. Like most of us, I had lots to do, including arranging early morning and early evening childcare around my daughter’s nursery, but knew that I hadn’t touched base with what the community was doing for some time, so it was high time I did. Would I get the train, so I could work? The location of the session meant a car might be easier, so I got in my hire car, drove the two hours to the venue, relishing the opportunity to just listen to the radio and largely, zone out.

The first part of the event was a committee meeting, where we collectively discussed how we could raise the profile of our work in order to try and limit the amount of battles we had to engage in, and win. In that meeting, I shared a model I had developed as a mechanism to explain the importance of our work. This generated some enthusiasm and a passing comment about how it would make the basis of a good article on the organisation’s website.

The next part of the day involved a series of presentations, all affirming why our work was important and how it benefits society and the economy in many ways. Ideas began to pop into my head about how we could refocus some of our work at Cardiff. As I listened, I sent emails to colleagues, sharing some ideas and trying to elicit their support.

I left the event that day and began the journey back home. A strange mood had befallen me. What was it? I hadn’t felt anything like it for sometime. It was enthusiasm and ideas, optimism and hope. I got in that night, tried to sweep away the guilty ‘you haven’t seen your child today’ feelings and sat down at my laptop and typed. No, it wasn’t a Jerry Maguire mission statement, but I was so enthused I thought, “I’m going to take the initiative, write that article and send it off that evening”.

A week later and there it was, published on the website and included in the Chartered Association of Business School’s newsletter. Retweets, recognition from peers and the Dean followed, but most importantly a lovely feeling that maybe that little bit of extra effort does pay off.

Inspired by my ‘away day’ I went to a The Future of Services conference, organised by friend of Cardiff Business School and Director of OEE Consulting Mark Palmer. My journey (this time by train) was not so pleasant as I battled with emails and the turmoils of a Trump victory overseas. I admire Hillary Clinton and really hoped she could continue to pave a path for women all over the world to achieve.

But life goes on (hopefully). Another fantastic event followed, particularly the presentation by Rory Sutherland, Vice President of Ogilvy & Mather Group, amusingly titled: ‘The science of knowing what your finance director is wrong about’.

One of the innovation workshops at the conference gave me another important insight. We were asked to build a house and told there were packs of Lego on the table we could use. Inside the pack lay a sheet of instructions. Suddenly I was tense, yet I still tried to calmly think about how best to set out the pieces and work with my partner to build the house. We were methodical and organised. I beamed with pride at our achievement.

This feeling was, however, turned on its head when we were reminded that no one had specified we follow the instructions, or even that we use the Lego. Some other clever creative fellows had realised the point of the exercise and produced bigger, brighter houses. Our little offering, which obeyed the rules and sat anonymously in its uniformity, suddenly didn’t seem as wonderful an achievement. Worse still, in the second round, when we were asked to build an elephant, we still diligently clung to the rules and used the blocks, where again those (mildly irritating) creative souls used teacups and tablecloths to fashion their designs. Yet again, I was cross with myself.

So as I reflected on these experiences, I pulled out a couple ‘notes to self’ to try to remember how to BE more innovative and not just recognise that ‘innovation is important’:

  1. Time out is critical. It reinvigorates and gives you the space needed to be inspired and think of new ideas.
  2. Move fast and seize the moment. Don’t delay and explore every glimmer of an opportunity that presents itself.
  3. Break free from rules, instructions and preconceptions. Challenge yourself as to whether you are automatically limiting your creativity for no good reason.
  4. Apply some discipline (a paradox of innovation perhaps) to force yourself to follow 1, 2 and 3.
  5. Have confidence in your ideas. The worst that can happen is ridicule and loss. That’s still not as bad as someone else winning who’s wrong.