Exploring analogies: living abroad, maths and Sherlock Holmes

Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass

Recently, with much delight, I’ve been watching BBC’s Sherlock television series (2010) that brought us a contemporary view of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s universe. Having grown up with my eyes glued to the original books and Jeremy Brett portraying the famous detective (1984) – I was initially quite suspicious of the modern interpretation. Old trick, one would say, to re-wrap the family heirloom, cherished on the shelf for ages, into a shiny new paper – and call it innovation. In this case, it worked, at least for me. I was impressed and amused. All the well-known features, so dear to my heart, were translated and empowered in a parallel world of 21st-century London with taste, elegance and surprise vignettes. Mobile phones and Internet technologies instead of letters, nicotine patches instead of a pipe, blogging instead of writing for newspapers… just to illustrate.

Then I thought more about the smart use of analogy and my relationship with this creativity technique.

I realized that I was unknowingly exposed to it from a very early age. Namely, maths was always my favorite subject in school because I almost never needed to learn anything by heart (I guess that’s why I later went on to study it at university). For most of my childhood, I spent Saturdays in classes for gifted children, solving mathematical puzzles, and I loved it. All I had to do is to recognize categories of problems and apply a trick-of-the-trade I learned fighting similar quests. The battle was never the same, but I could win it if I recognized the enemy’s disguise, by reflecting on my previous fighting history.

Another factor that I believe contributed greatly to my love of analogy is the experience of living abroad. I come from Serbia, but have spent a certain amount of time living in Austria, Germany, Italy and now, England. My experience tells me that when one moves abroad, as an isolated entity, one has to intensely search for analogical items to fulfil this universe that is new and unknown. Trains: Zeleznice Srbije – OBB – DeutscheBahn – Trenitalia – National Railways. Television: RTS – ORF – ZDF – RAI – BBC. Sounds uneventful, but it is actually a challenge to simultaneously find equivalents of grocery items, favourite cafes, home, transport… and everything else that has been making the previous world. Now imagine doing that in a country whose language you don’t speak. That’s the advanced level of the game.

I would say that when one is once used to do mappings all the time, it is easier to switch domains and even go out and invent parallel worlds, in case of a creative need. I read somewhere, “logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere”.

The fun part is when all the equivalents are found, and you start to discover in that parallel world categories of things and interactions that are completely unknown to you, but yet relevant. The ones that lack a mapping, and bring the glitter in. “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards“, says Lewis Carroll in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’.

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Leading for innovation: the one thing you need to know

I have seen a lot of blog posts lately with titles such as ‘The 20 Top Leadership Traits’. It reminds me of magazines at Christmas emblazoned with ‘300 ideas for an easy Christmas’. So I thought it would be simpler to identify the one thing a leader for innovation cannot do without: it’s curiosity.

Curiosity is the key to all things innovative. We have known this for a long time. In Ecclesiastes it says ‘Be curious in unnecessary matters for more things will be revealed to thee than men understand’.  Let me explain why I think curiosity is so important.

Curiousity about yourself

A leader must also be a learner and that means being curious about yourself. To lead well you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses, adapt to new situations and learn all the time. I find active reflection a very valuable part of my day. I think about a situation, how I have behaved and what happened and reflect on how I might have behaved differently to get better outcomes. Reflection should not just be navel gazing, that is why I say active reflection: it should result in some learning about yourself and be a catalyst for improvement.

Curiosity about ideas

As a leader you have a big responsibility to support new ideas. New ideas are fragile and can be killed by a shrug or a negative comment, especially if it comes from a person with power. So instead of saying ‘We don’t do things like that’ or ‘We’ve tried that’ when a new idea comes along, a leader needs to be curious about it and show interest. Even if it turns out to be a bad idea, a great deal of damage can be done by crushing it: not only will you lose a possibly good idea, you will also send a message to staff that you are not interested in hearing new ideas. In the first weeks of my starting a new job there was an ideas competition. As a fresh new recruit, I could see lost of ways of doing things differently so I submitted an idea. At the whole organisation meeting about the future the CEO announced that there had been five ideas for the competition but that they were all ‘rubbish’ and that was that. I never gave him another of my ideas.

Curiosity about people

Of course whilst a new idea is necessary for innovation, it is not sufficient. It needs to be the right idea for the situation and you need to make it happen. You will not be able to make it happen without the right team. You will not know who that team needs to be or what skills they need if you are not curious about people. Being curious about people you meet, your own staff, beneficiaries and volunteers will introduce you to a wealth of skills and experiences. I met a social entrepreneur recently who knew he wanted a particular style of crafted website. He had no web skills or art skills but because he was very curious about people he happened to know an animator and a web design person. Connecting them together resulted in the look he wanted for his website. Being curious about people allows you to make the connections you need to innovate.
Curious enough to take a risk

Innovation by definition involves doing something you have not done before. That involves taking an informed risk. If you are curious you will want to know what will happen if you try something. It will give you the courage to take the risks that you need to innovate. Whilst I said I would stick to one quality, I’m going to sneak another (connected) one in here…

Courage

Innovation requires courage: the courage to take a risk with something new; the courage to hold on to a shared vision and not lose your nerve when those around your are doubting; the courage to trust a team to develop an idea with freedom to experiment and adapt the idea; the courage to admit when you have to give up and a new thing has failed; the courage to be honest and open with your team; and the courage to challenge orthodoxies, ask questions, break rules and live with uncertainty.

To quote from Ecclesiastes again

Just as there is no perfect moment, there is no perfect knowing, no certainty. To remain inactive until you are certain of the result is to do nothing at all. So accept uncertainty.’

Have courage: try something new!

This blog was contributed by Katherine William-Powlett. Katherine is an Innovation specialist, and blogs about innovation for the National Council for Voluntary Organisation Blog, and has written a series of posts on Leading for Innovation.

Further reading article: The Demand for Curiosity Creativity and Innovation

More on Innovation:  http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/innovation

Transforming local councils

Wordle of the Innovation FrameworkMost local authority chief executives are heavily engaged in transforming their councils, in response to the resourcing pressures. Could they be doing more to achieve radical innovations more quickly and more successfully?  From our recent interviews with 12 chief executives from larger authorities we believe many of them could.

We found that many chief executives were doing some of the things that encourage innovative working across an organisation, but that few had a comprehensive and systematic approach to fostering innovation.

How were chief executives encouraging innovation?

Most chief executives were optimistic and positive about the future.  They had all consulted local residents about future priorities and supported politicians in agreeing their councils’ ambitions.   Most had identified the major areas for radical innovations. Many had been striving to get the ‘right people’ in their top teams.   Many talked passionately about the importance of honest, two-way communication (with employees, service users, residents and partners). All were conscious of the importance of employee morale, and the challenge of maintaining it given jobs losses and other major changes. And most were encouraging managers and employees to think about how they might ‘do things differently’. All were engaged in a range of cross-organisational and cross-boundary initiatives. And most had systematic ways of driving and tracking progress, to deliver new initiatives–with many highlighting the importance of their programme and project management systems in turning ideas into reality.

So what more might they do?

Not all chief executives were:

  • Developing explicit politically supported policies on managing risk, including a no blame approach to intelligent failures.
  • Working on getting the pace of innovation right, including creating as many positive moments as possible.
  • Ensuring that their managers had a deep understanding of their services users’ aspirations and priorities.
  • Deliberately attracting, retaining and making the most of employees with the skills and attitudes required to implement innovations.
  • Working with unusual partners, such as people from the creative sector.
  • Ensuring that organisational practices encouraged innovation.
  • Safeguarding time for reflection and creative thinking.
  • Recognising, rewarding and celebrating innovations.

And very few were:

  • Ensuring that a major proportion of top team (politicians and senior managers) time and effort was focussed on achieving major innovations.
  • Putting innovation processes in place, appropriate to each service.
  • Ensuring that managers successfully operated these processes.
  • Protecting those working on radical innovations from day to day work and organisational pressures.
  • Involving ‘leading’ service users and front line staff in innovation processes.
  • Looking at new places for fresh ideas, e.g. the creative sector, the private sector, other countries.
  • Employing sufficient people with expertise in: a) innovation processes and b) the opportunities provided by latest new technology and social media.

Taking a comprehensive approach

To capture the key actions chief executives can take to support and accelerate innovation, we’ve created a ‘Local Council’s Innovation Framework’: http://creativity.city.ac.uk/accelerating_local_govt_innov.html.  The current Framework is a draft, so please let us know what you think of it by 28th February 2012.  Post your comments below or email them to: joan.munro.1@city.ac.uk

What next

In late March, having reviewed your comments, we will issue a revised version of the Framework.    Under each of the factors, we will be adding quotes from chief executives as well as examples of the actions they are taking.  We will also create an anonymous electronic benchmarking tool, so that chief executives can compare their scores against different aspects of the Framework.

We will be using the Framework as the basis for more detailed research with frontline staff in two or three councils.  If you would like more information about what this please email: joan.munro.1@city.ac.uk or ring: 0779 2952 498.

Taking the MICL – Lived experience

We here at the Centre for Creativity could tell you all about our Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership (MICL), but there is nothing quite like hearing about the experience directly from current students, so why not have a look at some of the things the current MICL students are saying about the course:

Alison Duffy, one of the students on the MICL has posted a very nice piece on her experience of the first year of taking the MICL on her company website, Per Diem Projects (www.perdiemprojects.com).

Marc Scheimann, last year’s scholarship competition winner writes about the MICL experience in his blog,  http://scheimann.tumblr.com/

Katherine William-Powlett, also a MICL student writes a blog about innovation, you can read it here: http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/networking-discussions/blogs/194

By the way, the 2011 scholarship competition is still open until the 5th July – don’t miss out!

Where do good ideas come from?

From the grand 1770s building to the smart minimalist modern interior, arriving for an event at the RSA always makes an impression. Even more so when entering the great room with the wonderful mural “The process of human knowledge and culture” by James Barry, depicting various images of music played in pagan times, the grandeur of ancient Greece, wars, collaboration, religion, worship and decadent royal courts. All in painstaking detail and still in amazing good condition. The room itself is a windowless rectangle with rows of seating sloping up from the stage. Modern technology blending sympathetically with elaborate 1770s details and serving as testament that the RSA is not one to be baffled by newfangled technology. As we’re told, the video feed, podcasts and possibly an illustrated version of the talk can soon be downloaded from their website, or through their iPhone app, if you’re that way inclined. ( See the RSA website).

The room is an ideal setting for the talk by bestselling author, Steven b. Johnson, on his new book: “Where do good ideas come from”, not the least because the RSA is a very keen supporter of creativity and innovation, and several of Mr. Johnson’s case studies for his book are past RSA fellows.

Mr. Johnson opens his talk with dispelling the myth about the eureka moment, the moment when suddenly a person is struck with a brilliant new idea. Even Darwin, who claims the idea of the Origin of Species came as an epiphany, was developing his theory, or hunch as Mr. Johnson calls it, for years before which is evident from Darwin’s own notebooks.

Introducing the notion of Cities as catalysts to new ideas, Mr. Johnson argues that cities enable people to bounce ideas off one another, share discoveries or build on the ideas of others. An example he gives is the London coffee houses, which among many other ideas gave birth to Lloyds of London. The mix, variety and sheer number of people in cities create exponentially more opportunities for ideas to collide and create new ideas.

A concern for today’s society, he warns, it a growing obsession for ring-fencing our ideas so we can reap financial benefits. This kind of behaviour comes at a cost. It makes it difficult for ideas to collide and create and build on ideas, limiting the potential benefit of an idea. While IP rights has its place, it should not be used too heavily.

Truly open environments, where people develop ideas because they are passionate about it, e.g. open source software or the internet, can generate amazing new ideas and create platforms on which commerce can flourish, giving opportunities that would not have been possible had people not been willing and able to build on the ideas of others.

The GPS system was an accidental innovation – an example of how one simple idea can collide with other ideas and create an innovation that today most of us use. Food for thought.

I bought the book, I’ll let you know what I make of it.

Author: Kristine Pitts

Everyday Innovation Networking Event

[tweetmeme]City University London and the Work Psychology Group recently completed a research project on ‘Everyday Innovation: How to enhance innovative working in employees and organisations’ This has been published by the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in collaboration with the Charted Management Institute.

Organisations across the private, public and third sectors are increasingly recognising that innovation is crucial to their productivity and effectiveness, particularly in these tough economic times. Yet many organisations struggle to make innovation a practical day-to-day reality. This report offers several practical examples to show how to promote everyday innovative working at the employee, group, leader and organisational levels.

The findings and recommendations of the report were launched in December 2009 receiving wide interest from a range of organisations. As part of the ongoing wider dissemination, we are hosting an early evening networking event to showcase our findings in an informal setting. If you attended the December launch event, this is an ideal opportunity to follow up on the report since then. If you are yet to see the report, please come to the event to find out more.

Event format: There will be some brief presentations followed by plenty of time for discussion and networking with light refreshments available. We hope you can join us for what we expect to be an exciting and thought-provoking evening.

If you are unable to attend but are interested in this area or discussing the report further, please contact one of the authors at the following addresses Fiona Pattersonand Maura Kerrin

Registration: Reserve your place today

Pressure to Innovate Getting to You?

innovation[tweetmeme]Everywhere you look/listen these days people are talking about Innovation. Business is talking about it, universities are talking about it, government is talking about it.  We need to innovate to solve climate change, and we need to innovate to stay ahead of the game… Then there is the call to innovate our way out of the economic downturn.  When don’t we need to innovate?

What is innovation anyway? Is everyone talking about the same thing? Maybe not. There are many definitions to choose from. Just google it, you’ll have more choices than you could ever want. As with everything deemed important, everyone has a take on it. It’s hard to know when you qualify as innovative. Has Open Innovation caught your attention yet? Perhaps it should? The mind boggles…

Add to it all the statistics that proclaim “90% of innovations fail!” (or somewhere in that region), it might just make most of us want to give up before we even try. What’s the point?

Feeling daunted by the pressure to innovate? Fear not, there is light at the end of the innovation tunnel, with blue skies thinking and implementable action plan to boot.

What if someone could give you the skills you needed to understand innovation, give you an understanding of what it takes to lead innovation, and the tools to make it happen? Would you want it? We’d like to think you would. Check out our new Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership http://creativity.city.ac.uk/master/overview.html