From September 21st – 22nd, I spent two days at Cambridge University attending a Technology Management symposium organised by the Institute for Manufacturing. The theme of the symposium was Creativity, Design and Innovation and the conference included an impressive line up of speakers. Here are the highlights

Keynote: Sir George Cox, Chairman of the UK Design Council – Getting greater creativity into UK business

Words such as creativity and innovation generate different visions to words such as compliance and governance

Growing economics such as China and India will create massive opportunities and wealth… somewhere else!

In conversation with James Dyson, mentioned a quote from a Chinese minister attending a European trade show:

I don’t want to see ‘Made in China’ on products, I want to see ‘Designed and made in China’

This is a telling comment for the UK, where design is a major industry in its own right following the decline of manufacturing.

Framing your product is absolutely crucial. The example given was a project to redesign hospital beds to reduce patient recovery time. All sorts of innovations were tested and proven but, when it came to dealing with hospitals, the team positioned the product as a ‘bed’. The purchasing manager for beds took one look at the cost of the new bed design and rejected it based on price. They were talking to the wrong person. They weren’t selling just a bed. This issue of designing the whole product (i.e. include the surrounding ecosystem) as opposed to individual function also came up in one of the conference workshops… it also fits with Geoffrey Moore’s observations in Crossing the Chasm.

Final, telling, comment from Sir George:

I could talk as much about poor service design as I could about poor product design.

Keynote: Professor John Bessant, Chair in Innovation Management, Imperial College – Dealing with discontinuity

The challenge with the innovation dilemma is that it (re)creates a fluid/fermenting state. The business requirements during disruption are poles apart to the business requirements during times of stability. It is like converting water into ice, your boat is no longer useful and you need a different form of transport. Hence disruptive innovation will always favour new entrants over incumbents. Unlearning is always the biggest challenge.

Disruption is not just about new technology. It can occur through: new markets; political regime change; running out of road; changes in social behaviour (organic food); regulation change (Enron); new business models; and unthinkable events (9/11)

After dinner speaker: Arnoud de Meyer, Director, Judge Business School – Globalising your innovation

Used mobile phones as an example of disruptive innovation initially appearing in diverse places that can spread and challenge established industries.

In Thailand, >80% of people do not own a bank account. They are beginning to use mobile phones as money, able to convert unused minutes into credits that can be exchanged for products and services. The mobile phone company is replacing the need for a bank…

Keynote: Clive Grinyear, Director of Design, France Telecom – Lipstick on a pig

After leaving university, set up a company with Jonathan ‘iPod’ Ives.

Why lipstick on a pig? No matter how much lipstick you apply, it is still a pig. Design only matters when the product function is also great. There are plenty of great designs that have failed to reach a market because the product simply isn’t good enough. Examples given included the Sinclair C5 and the Segway.

Clive went on to talk about the need for user studies, and delving beyond initial user wants. Someone might look at a Ferrari and say they love it, but the purchasing decision is more complex – the kids won’t fit inside and the bank says no.

When it comes to design, there is never an optimal solution. Lots of individual optimal solutions but no one optimal solution.

Keynote: Joe Ferry, Head of Design, Virgin Atlantic Airways – The value of design

Virgin Atlantic is still a very small company compared to other airlines, but size doesn’t have to matter – what matters is the ability to stand out from the crowd. When they launch a new product, they do a lot of PR and focus it on context (for example, launching in Cuba they dressed up a plane to look like a cigar). It helps that the top boss – Sir Richard Branson – personifies publicity. Picking on a very public competitor (i.e. British Airways) guarantees publicity – lots of news coverage, meaning everyone gets to hear about what you are doing.

Virgin Atlantic mission: To grow a profitable airline that people love to fly with and where people want to work.

I loved this mission statement – it is refreshingly honest compared to so many other companies I could name… (gimme an M… gimme an I… gimme a C… ) 🙂

Virgin has quite a flat hierarchy and people are actively involved in the decisions being made. Joe used a great quote “Anything is possible to the man who doesn’t have to achieve it himself.” That is the number one reason why so many business plans fail, they are written by one set of people to be executed by a different set of people.

Joe went on to step through how Virgin has used seat design as competitive advantage, how early designs were not sufficiently protected by patents leading to copying by competitors, how BA caught on and beat them by inventing the flat-bed seat for Business Class, and what Virgin have since done to rise to the top again (and this time have full patent protection – if people want to copy this time, they are going to have to pay).

And the mission statement flowed through the whole process – ideas were evaluated against their potential to generate profit. And whilst Virgin may be heading back to the top again, British Airways are releasing their new seat designs next year and so the cycle continues. You can not stand still if you want to maintain success, you have to keep changing and innovating.

Closing quote: The Virgin brand

“Some say why? Others say why not?”

Keynote: Gert Hildebrand, Mini Design Team, BMW – Buzzword innovation: myths, truth and pain

“Innovation can only be successful if you define the problem.”

And that quote pretty much separates the winners from the losers in any industry…

“You always have to have a story for your product – people connect through stories.” 80% of perception is visual and purchasing decisions are made based on what you see. In other words, design is important!

Gert went on to talk through the story of developing the new Mini being launched this year. This included encompassing profiling. Gert described the three human archetypes:

  • Baby – big head compared to body, needs protecting
  • Man – broad shoulders, muscles
  • Woman – sleek, beauty

Most cars design to target one, maybe two archetypes. The mini was designed to incorporate all three… and it always has been. Most long-lasting designs do.

Gert was very passionate in highlighting the importance and individuality of talent. “The individual creates, the team designs, the company innovates.” He also stressed the importance of observing history – “You always learn more from history than from the future.” This was an interesting comment as we had both just been in a session about ‘Scanning the future’ where Alexander Van de Putte of the World Economic Forum talked about the use of scenarios for predicting future requirements.

And his final quote was a corker: “If you choose a profession that you love, you will never have to go to work.” How true!

Keynote: Andrew Till, Director of Strategy and Portfolio, Motorola Inc

Interestingly, Andrew re-iterated Gert’s perspective – Motorola have learnt more by l
ooking back over history, especially what went wrong, than by looking forward…

In terms of looking forward, one of the most successful approaches has been to look forward by observing someone else’s history, i.e. learn from other industries. For example, Motorola looked at a Korean watch maker’s methods in order to determine what they could achieve to flatten the depth of the keyboard (leading to the successful Razor design).

Even more interestingly, Motorola don’t want their engineers using the product because they end up building what they want rather than focusing on market demands. This is pretty much opposite to the approach I experienced inside Microsoft, where the phrase ‘eating your own dog food’ is repeated regularly – Microsoft requires everyone use the next versions of products once they are in beta to fine tune development. But Andrew made a great comment – the importance of context is crucial or you risk building a technology that nobody uses… and Motorola learnt this lesson the hard way, losing 40 points of market share.

Motorola’s current focus is on disruptive innovation straight into mass markets as opposed to the traditional approach of targeting an initial elite niche.

Finally, Andrew reiterated the obvious that too often is forgotten – ideas must have a purpose to have value. They must result in making something easier to use, cheaper or solve a problem.

Closing thoughts

This is very much a brain dump of useful snippets from each presentation and I might flesh out some more detail in later posts. Some interesting patterns emerged during the conference:

  • Successful companies all share a common element – people have fun, including the CEO
  • Mediocre companies come up with reasons why you shouldn’t be having fun
  • Successful companies never stand still – quick to acknowledge their failures so that they can correct them and change
  • Mediocre companies seek stability – they excuse their failures and don’t change

And finally, without a doubt I have just seen some of the best uses of PowerPoint ever – the slides used in the keynotes were simply beautiful (as you would expect from various heads of design…) and barely a bullet point in sight.

Surprisingly, Apples didn’t outnumber Windows laptops (although very few laptops were visible, even my own didn’t come out of its case). Unsurprisingly, ‘that’ video of what Microsoft might do if they were in charge of packaging the iPod put in an appearance 🙂

It was a great conference and I have plenty of tips to incorporate in information systems design.


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