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Sunday, 29 March 2015

Creativity, Invention, Innovation? We Are All in it Together!

There is nothing new under the sun

From time to time politicians decide that they need to be up there and trendy so they decide to latch on to the need for innovation.

Innovation, creativity, development all imply change but considered change and preferably for the better.

I came across a very interesting book recently that now resides on my Kindle and which explodes the myth that creativity and innovation are the province of geniuses.

It's called How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton (from Amazon) and every leader in business should read it.

Ashton left school at 15 with one useless O-level and through his determination to be successful has achieved great things in business.

Additionally he is working with academics at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) - a late developer perhaps and one with a massage to give.

The very word creativity which was coined only in 1926 is derived from the word create and it generally implies something emerging ex nihilo meaning out of nothing.

Science has shown that the universe is expanding so if we calculate backwards at the same but reversed rate then we should arrive at the starting point of the Universe and the Big Bang theory.

All well and good but what was there before the Big Bang?  Professor Stephen Hawking says, somewhat dismissively, that asking that question is like asking what is north of the North Pole.

An interesting philosophical concept maybe but doesn't get us anywhere.

The facts seem to be that the Universe was created ex nihilo and crucially, is the only example as such in all the 13.4 billion years of its existence.

On that premise then the word creativity cannot apply to what we do. Everything that we achieve is based on or derived from something already in existence.

Kevin Ashton makes the point that Homo Sapiens Sapiens 150,000 years ago developed simple tools from easily found materials in order to feed themselves and stay alive.

Oddly there was apparently no development of these tools until around 50,000 years ago when noticeable changes started to appear.


One of our ancestors thought that these tools could be made more efficiently and to greater purpose.  Perhaps this was the birth of innovation.

Please note: this change was not derived from nothing. It was developed from existing knowledge and skill with the input, this time, of conscious thought.

Fast forward to today. Can you think of any invention, innovation that has been derived ex nihilo without any input from existing knowledge?

In truth, every innovative idea, any new and even revolutionary idea is born out of existing knowledge and skill.

In fact, great innovation is the offspring of a need; the innate need to improve, change and develop and is usually derived from a problem that has to be solved.

If we look at some of the inventions that have changed our lives such as the automobile, the railways, modern shipping and manned flight, they all stem from these inventors wanting to improve and develop existing forms of transport.

Few of the great inventors would class themselves as geniuses; indeed most of them were working people with a thirst to change and improve the way they lived.

In short, everyone has inbuilt innovative skills and abilities. There is no need to wait for the next passing genius in order to accomplish positive change.

Leaders in business and industry know this instinctively. The question is, do they exploit effectively this inborn ability to be innovative?

It is often said of this country that we have great innovative ideas that are taken up and developed in other countries.

I am not sure whether this is still the case or is it just out normal self-effacing view of life.

As an example look at the invention and now the development of Graphene, the one atom thick sheets of graphite that is begging to revolutionise many manufactured items and which was invented and now is being developed here in Manchester.

Leaders need to understand the vast pool of existing talent in their workforce and to set up initiatives to develop and exploit the resulting opportunities.

We don't need to be a genius; Thomas Edison said that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

He also said:

         "There is a better way to do it.  Find it!" 


Innovation results from hard and dedicated work but to a greater or lesser extent the talent is inbuilt in all of us.

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Sunday, 22 March 2015

Quality Control or Quality Assurance? Better to Call it The Pursuit of Excellence!

In the days when I used to carry out major multi-client European market research studies, we would usually try to uncover the most important factors in making a purchasing decision.

In the straitened times that we have experienced over the past five years one would imagine that price would be far and away the most significant.

Certainly where companies normally gain their business through a tendering process it is difficult to get away from pricing even though many tenders will include a clause saying that they do not automatically accept the lowest or any price quoted.

The framework system has made it slightly less onerous to obtain business but tenders looking for the lowest price certainly aren't going away.

However there is still a vast amount if business being done without going through tendering process and in these cases the important buying considerations become relevant.

It may sound obvious but the first and most important consideration is that you can supply the product or service required.

Next can you supply to the specification required, then to their time scale, then to their quality standard and eventually at what price.

It is the "quality" standard which can cause the major problems especially where desired specifications are too loosely defined.

In the end it should be mandatory in any supplying business that quality level of the product and of the service surrounding it should be rated 100%.

I heard a great story of a UK company that purchased some highly technical components from a supplier in Japan. They specified that there should be no more than 1% outside the required specification.

When the first shipment arrived the buyer was mystified by a small bag of components that were included in the batch.

When they enquired from the supplier what they were they were told that these were the1% faulty components they had asked for and which had been made specially as normally they only made and supplied products to 100% quality standard.

Please note: it is not only the quality of the product or service that we are talking about.

It is also the quality of the service surrounding the whole deal, the way in which customers are dealt, the level of communication of both good a less good news, the standard of paperwork and so on.

I heard of a project only yesterday that had gone extremely successfully to the entire satisfaction of the client with one exception. The closing paperwork was late and not to the client's requirements.

The result was that in the future this became the criterion by which the supplier was measured and was a constant source of irritation.

Logical? Sensible?  No, of course not but sadly human beings are involved which can send common sense or logic out if the window.

In my early days as an aeronautical engineering apprentice I was sent for experience into most departments in the factory one of which was Final Inspection.

This was the old way of doing things. Components came out of the machine shop or from the fitters and were rigorously inspected against a drawing and either passed or rejected.

For large quantities there was batch inspection based on statistical probabilities and which, by definition, could (and often did) allow sub-standard components through.

That was quality control. The world has changed for the better and now we have quality assurance, which implies that the product has been checked at all stages of manufacture to ensure that it complies with specification.

Whatever we purchase we have a right to expect that it be fit for purpose and without flaws.  We are paying good money for it and it should be exactly what we want and expect.

Quality of product and service is not just a measurable mathematical function; quality is an attitude of mind that should be the most important feature of the company culture.

In fact, it is better defined as the Pursuit of Excellence in every phase of the company’s operations giving the assurance that the customer will be supplied to specification every time and in every way.

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Sunday, 15 March 2015

Finding Difficulty in Recruiting Great People? Don’t Waste the More Mature Talent You Already Have!

I am slightly reluctant to return to the subject of ageism as it may be thought that I have a hidden agenda (which I have).

At this stage I have no intention of retiring, certainly while I still have my marbles, or at least some of them.

I had a wonderful colleague in the USA, Pat Hyndman, who died last year at the great age of 95, and was still chairing two Vistage CEO groups.

Pat's approach to retirement was that he intended to go on until "they had to carry me out on the flip chart" and if only metaphorically that is what he achieved.

However in conversation with several of my Vistage CEO members of late I have been looking at the subject on a less personal and emotive basis.

My friends in the recruitment industry tell me that in this period of GDP growth certain sectors have become candidate-led simply because of increased demand for talent and a shortage of the right people.

Indeed in one case the member told me that they had offered positions to three potential candidates all of whom had gone elsewhere.

The salaries being offered were above the current market range and the member's company has an enviable reputation as an exceptional employer.  Because of the shortage, people are becoming more choosy.

The whole market is going through a cyclical change right now and I suspect that it will get even harder rather than easier to find and recruit great people.

What, then, can be done about this problem?

There is a whole range of variables that impact on the situation that I would suggest is one of the most serious facing business leaders at this moment.

For example, the change in legislation stopping companies imposing mandatory retirement to employees is leading to the occasional blockage in available career paths.

Medical advances are also leading to longer life (about which I am not complaining) that implies that the bank of knowledge and skills is growing and still in employment.

In addition there was a five-year gap in training skills leading to the current shortage of good candidates.

This means that there is a further issue stemming from the dramatic changes in business technology.

The younger people take these changes for granted and embrace them automatically while those at the more elderly end of the workforce find absorption of these changes more difficult.

There is no doubt that many people who are passing or have already passed the notional retirement age can expect two or three decades more and I have always said that much of that skill bank is neither realised or exploited.

There is a natural reluctance on the part of employers to bring older people into the workforce but here and there it may be at least a part solution to the problem.

While I am a great believer in the more mature citizens keeping working and contributing (should they so desire) I would accept that there will be many whose skills can easily be supplied by someone younger.

Manual workers for example will find that the natural ageing process inhibits continued work with the consequent reduction in strength and mobility.

However with the growth in the apprenticeship scheme why not employ these older people to pass on their skills to the young generation?  I suggest that this should be on a formal basis and not just ad hoc.

For the more mature who have come through a professional career path, there is no reason why they should not keep available to help out on a part-time or interim basis.

Alternatively a portfolio of activities can bring intellectual rigour with a measure of freedom of the diary.

There is an opportunity for some farsighted entrepreneur to set up an agency to market these skills and prevent their being lost by just draining away.

Finally remember that as we age, it's the knees that go first closely followed by parallel parking.

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Sunday, 8 March 2015

Working On the Business or In the Business? Remember That Less is More!

One of the more consistent complaints that I hear is that "I never have time to do useful stuff because I am always too busy".

In the early days of Vistage at a workshop for potential members we always asked the same question:

"Are you working on the business or are you working IN the business?"

and then watched for the heads nodding. In fact many of the CEOs there were not hands on or worse, hands in, they were fingers in and knew it.

There is no doubt that many leaders, especially those who founded the business and has overseen its growth, still find difficulty in accepting that other people can do the job as well as they can.

It isn't conceit or arrogance; it is simply a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that "if I do it, then I know that it will be right"..

Of course that is not always the case but if leaders screw up then there is usually nobody to hold them accountable.  It is yet another case where the isolation of the leader can militate against success in the business.

The higher we go through an organisation, the fewer people there are to give us the reassurance that we are doing a good job and that demeans emotional stamina.

Not in every case, of course, but if the leader has the self- confidence, indeed self-belief, then perhaps we can understand a modicum of arrogance.

Most leaders have to accept the feeling of isolation. Virtually everyone within the purview of the leader has a hidden agenda and those that don't are seldom a good sounding board anyway.

Take all this into account so what on earth persuades talented people to go into business rather than be in thrall to others?

Most of the members of my Vistage CEO peer groups would claim, with some pride (and accuracy), that they are virtually unemployable.

Very few of them would be able to work for someone else and that often shows up when the leader sells the business and is expected to stay on for an earn-out over a period of time.

Again, the question must be asked, what is it that drives a talented individual to go it alone?

My favourite psychologist, Frederick Herzberg has the answer. He suggested that motivational facets of working life are either positive or negative; the positive factors include, for example, achievement, growth, the work itself, advancement and recognition.

The fact is that irrespective of our position in the organisation those are the factors that motivate us and in the case of the leader are not always appropriate.

Typically advancement and recognition are more in the gift of the leader rather than the likelihood of their applying to him/her. Indeed these are factors that the leader has to give rather than receive to help the team grow.

The leader has to learn to live with the isolation of the position and without some of the major motivational factors.

The two biggest motivators for the leader are, unquestionably, growth and achievement that taken together can be described as the drive to succeed.

Most great leaders are avid learners if not always readers and they are most certainly motivated by achievement. At the same time they can help their people motivate themselves by ensuring that the positive motivators are well to the forefront of the business culture.

For the leader in the main the motivators are primarily self-imposed if there is nobody to help him/her to a little introspection.

An excellent way to escape or at least ease the isolation is to hire a personal mentor. We have personal trainers to help us care for our bodies so why not the same for our minds?

Even better join a peer group like Vistage, cut down on the isolation and gain both a mentor and accountability to the group.

Commercial break over.


The real reason that entrepreneurs work 80 hours a week is to escape the tyranny of having to work 40 hours a week for someone else.

Download my book "Leading to Success" from Amazon Kindle
Visit the Vistage UK website
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