Innovation is finally dead – At long, long last!

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Innovation is finally dead – At long, long last!

Author: Rob Reynolds, Editor of Elbe Valley

COVID-19 has caused us all to take a deep breath and look very closely at how we all conduct business. While these are trying times for sure, they are also a time for reflection as we realise the old values of the past will not sustain us in the future.

One value I would like to challenge is the whole concept of Innovation and its value. At Elbe Valley we are committed to driving transformational change in ourselves and in society. We are a private research organisation dedicated to creating tomorrow’s technologies and we have projects in areas from oncology, cybernetics, nuclear technology and next generation propulsion. At first glance we might seem like we are a very innovative company but the opposite is actually true. We have been very diligent about the way we have built our organisation to ensure that an innovative mindset never has the chance to take root and we can stamp it out if ever it begins.

Why do you do that you may ask? Isn’t innovation the way of the future? I suppose it is for many but the future it leads to is so incredibly boring. Innovation in the form it is currently promoted is actually quite harmful to both companies that practice it and employees that are forced to engage with it. While innovation is touted as a method of creating new and exciting products, the process it entails such as brainstorming, design thinking and perhaps worst of all “lean thinking” actively cuts out radical ideas and limit possibilities. There is a widely held belief that still shocks me even though I hear it all the time and it goes something like this “there is no such thing as an original idea” and “everything must be created by collaboration”.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am not anti-collaboration but collaborations should grow out of ideas and not the other way around. Also if there are no original ideas then where does all the new stuff come from?

Brainstorming is one process that I never could stand personally, it is a process whereby someone communicates an idea while someone else barrels in with something completely unrelated and then there is a coordinator who writes down all the ideas on a whiteboard. Then when everyone is worn out, the process for cutting down the number of ideas commences. Invariably this involves picking the ideas from the whiteboard based not on the quality of the ideas but rather on the social standing of the people who put forward the ideas (as it takes an immense amount of time and effort to evaluate each idea separately, it is only human to use a heuristic to quickly get through the list and at the end of the day, who is going to not pick the bosses ideas?).

Additionally from time to time it happens that senior people like the ideas of junior people as it matches with their own thought process and sadly they sometimes take the credit for that idea even though they did not originate the idea themselves. In most cases they don’t actually do this on purpose, they do believe it was their idea as they are human beings at the end of the day like the rest of us and they run on a human operating system like the rest of us.

Over the years I have found a quick heuristic for evaluating the value of patents and whether or not can provide value. In general the marketability of a patent or idea is inversely proportional to the number of listed inventors.

While not always true it is a good rule of thumb to go by however there are exceptions such as when the patent covers more than one discipline and it represents novelty in more than one discipline (basically it should be easy to identify who contributed what to the patent and everyone should have contributed something novel and creative).

Some years ago I watched 2001 A Space Odyssey which is a marvelous film by Stanley Kubrick. He was a driver of radical change, he was able to film the world from space long before there were pictures or video from space.

The movie left me feeling really sad and disappointed and it does so even today. Many of the technologies that were predicted for 2001 have either only come into being in the last few years or are still waiting to be completed. The rate of technological progress of society has been depressingly slow and the progress we have seen have been driven by an intrepid few against pretty rough odds. Where is the bright and shining future that we were promised? What on earth went wrong?

The answer in my opinion lies with the contemporary concept of innovation. We want to get to that future but we don’t want to look foolish along the way and we definitely don’t want to fail along the way so we aim low and think small. We take what we have today, add a few new features, call it innovation and hopefully sell it all again……..until some brave soul comes along with a new idea that looked so foolishly radical that it would never work…….except it did work and now your market has gone the way of the typewriter.

A good illustration of this can be found on YouTube when the then CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer was asked for his opinions about the iPhone before the iPhone went commercial. I would advise you to take a look at it but remember it is very easy to condemn Mr. Ballmer for being so wrong and missing the mark by a light year but I would remind you that he had all the market data in hand (Microsoft had asked the market what they wanted and one of the things the market wanted was a mechanical keyboard for business users). Based on all available data and all customer feedback available at the time, Microsoft were absolutely right. Add to that the fact that Steve Jobs didn’t do any market research at all and you can start to see what Steve Ballmer was right….the iPhone should have failed and it should have failed badly……in fact it should have been one of the most stupid undertakings Apple ever had and it should have led to a shareholder revolt.

Yet it didn’t, it went on to global domination against all expectations in a highly competitive market. Why? How was Steve Jobs able to do this? In my opinion Apple’s secret weapon was their ability to see human beings as they actually are (with warts and all) instead of how we would like humans to be. He created a device that took away a lot of the configurations and options of previous technologies. When he added something new it was to replace several older technologies. As a user, you still had choice which made you feel like you were in control, but you only had enough choice to give you the feeling of control but not so much as to risk you feeling overloaded.

Real creation is a negative process not a positive one. The future should be sculpted from the present, not built upon it. iPhone is an almost perfect example of this, it rolled several devices into one and it made you love it while charging a hefty premium in the process.

It amazes me how people believe that in the future we will have more “stuff” but the opposite is true. Nobody wants intrusive technologies and I encourage you to look at the present day compared to how we expected it to be. If someone time travelled from the 1990’s to now would they immediately know that they were in the future? I guess cars look a bit different now but that is really only styling (the changes such as advances in braking, tires and computer management are all hidden from view). Modern computers are more powerful of course but at first glance it is only a change in form. The big change would be seeing that tiny supercomputer that fits in your hand or pocket. Cloud computing is totally invisible as is wireless networking yet these two technologies dominate our lives and we seldom stop to realise it.

Technologies that change the world for the better all have one thing in common, they take away complexity instead of adding it and blend into our lives in a way that makes us forget that they are even there.

In order to be a driver of radical change the first step is to move beyond the worn out slogans like “making the world a better place”. As human beings we exist as mere specks of dust between an enormous expanse of light and darkness. That darkness we see in the world is a reflection of the darkness in ourselves and while this may be a rather depressing thought, it is also empowering if we have the courage to look at it and own it.

The invention of social media over a decade ago was supposed to bring us open platforms where people could share thoughts and ideas openly and freely. It was a clear attempt at creating a better world and I applaud those founders for their intentions, efforts and what they achieved. Unfortunately social media was never created with a thought for the darker side of our nature which exists just as much as the lighter side of our nature. The results of this reverberate around the world every day as social media is one of the leading reasons for relationship problems and indeed mental health problems as it turned out social media turned out to be extremely anti-social and in need of control and moderation (as well as limiting free speech in some cases). It has reflected back at us the parts of ourselves that we never wanted to see. I cannot criticise or blame those organisations for what they created, their intentions were good and noble (also the founders were young at the time) and while some would like to paint them as evil today, I would suggest that it is the evil we see in ourselves that we are trying to project onto them.

Nobody has been forced to use these products, all users do so by choice and can switch off anytime. Personally I have a Facebook and Twitter account but I use neither for the reasons mentioned above. I prefer my social interactions to be social.

Our method for creation in Elbe Valley seeks to offset at least some of these problems. We are building products that we expect will revolutionise healthcare, energy and perhaps aerospace in the coming years. We needed a model that allows us to look at both the darkness in the world and the darkness in ourselves. We must face that darkness ourselves so that our users and patients do not have to. We have replaced the conventional “design thinking” and “brainstorming” models with what we call Slaughtering Sessions.

Just as they sound, they are rather unpleasant for everyone involved but they allow us to see through those rose tinted glasses that we love to wear as human beings. The way it works is both simple and brutal yet what emerges from the process and from the participants is staggeringly beautiful!

Usually once or twice a week we have a session where someone puts forward a radical idea that they have been thinking about. (Generally speaking the idea is floated informally first in the group and positive feedback and encouragement is allowed and when the originator is ready, the idea goes for slaughtering in the group). During the Slaughtering Session, no positive feedback or encouragement is allowed at all. The promoter would have briefly shared the idea ahead of time with the rest of the participants and they need to prepare by getting ready to attack the idea in the group. Many times someone will sit there in the meeting shaking their head and rolling their eyes just to set the mood.

This sounds brutal……and it is brutal but bear with me here. Having been the proposer many times myself and having had my team tear strips off me with no positive encouragement upsets me. This is natural as I am a human being and I will act like a human being and I won’t apologise for being a human being and the same goes for the rest of our team. The point is not to try to act professional and hide that we are annoyed, the point is to get annoyed and to really dig yourself in. It’s purpose is to allow the promoter to hear back things we don’t want to hear so that we can fail very quickly among people that we trust. It is about engaging the emotional side of our nature instead of trying to stay detached and purely logical. It is about facing failure in a controlled way on a regular basis to stay grounded but most importantly of all it is to create beautiful technologies that can live and last and make a real difference!

During the process everyone is against you but at the end of the process everyone rallies around you. This process is an “act” to force us to look into the darker side of ourselves and safely express it. It enables us when we look inside ourselves to see and take responsibility for our own resentments (but never to apologise for it as nobody should have to apologise for being human).

Reality will not bend itself to our needs so we must bend ourselves to it.

The negativity in the session stops under one of two conditions. The first condition is when the session ends normally (but it is vital to recognise and encourage the efforts made by the person who has just been slaughtered). The other way the negativity stops is when the person being slaughtered tells everyone to F*** off. Actually this second path is the ideal way to end the meeting with passions running high (there is no seniority in a slaughtering session, everyone walks the walks and talks the talk and if anything it should be more brutal on management as we should lead from the front).

Another key rule is that everyone must be slaughtered at some point in order to qualify to participate, those who are “too busy” to be slaughtered should not be permitted to participate. This is not a spectator sport. Opinions from those who avoid being slaughtered should be treated with contempt and ignored as they have no moral authority. All opinions are not equal, only the opinions of those who have allowed themselves to be slaughtered carry any real value.

We have found enormous success with this method, at first glance you may think that it should tear teams apart but the opposite is true. Those who put themselves “in harm’s way” and test ideas this way earn our respect and we honour them. It is rather unexpected but people put in these situations do not take the easy way out as you might think. Time and again our people have “let slip” weaknesses in their ideas which help the other participants to turn more negative and attack them but it is clear that they act with honour and in the best interests of our patients and users and they earn respect and moral authority from the group for doing so.

Moral Authority cannot be delegated or awarded, it must be earned.

This is a process that does not feel good. It does not feel good to have your ideas slaughtered and it does not feel good to slaughter somebody else’s idea when you know that they are doing their very best. Personally speaking, doing so makes me feel like a really bad person and it is the same for every single member of our group. As a member of the Slaughtering Committee it is necessary before each session to take some time to turn inward and reach into the darker part of our nature in preparation for what is to come. Things like jealousy, bitterness, rivalry, resentment all need to be cultivated in ourselves prior to the meeting which sounds really terrible……and it is really terrible but in many ways this is a forum for these parts of our nature to be taken out and looked at and to be used to do some good while forcing us to see reality as it actually is and not how we would like it to be. If we continue to deny that we have a dark side it will arise and overtake us when we least expect it. We would ship poor quality products and we would ultimately fail if we were to rely on what “feels good”. We have a choice, we can feel good or we can do good. Sadly both together are not always possible.

COVID-19 has done a lot of harm to the world economy but one thing that I have noted is that the world seems to be much more open to radical change than it has been in my lifetime. Everything we took as a certainty just a few weeks ago is now in doubt and while we are living through dark times, I am very much encouraged by the change in attitude to the concepts of radical change. There are no solutions to COVID-19 right now (though we are actively working on a therapy in Elbe Valley right now). The world needs drivers of radical change (we actually needed them all along actually and if we had them perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess we are in right now).

There is one cure for the current fear we are all facing, put one foot in front of the other and focus on only the next step. You can amplify what already exists inside yourself, that inherent drive that you possess and that unrelenting yearning for change. Now is the time to be bold, the future belongs to you……what are you going to create?

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