• John Bessant

Diversity matters…

Diversity matters in innovation.  Particularly because it allows us to access a wide range of different viewpoints which can contribute to the innovation task both in terms of improving the front-end design and also by accelerating diffusion downstream because ideas developed with user input have a better chance of being compatible 

But if we’re going to involve users we’re going to involve diversity we need to find methods to make sure we can deal with our aspiration towards inclusivity we need the tools and the methods to bring people in. This podcast explores the theme of diversity and inclusivity in innovation.

You can find a film version here

Diversity matters

Innovation is a little bit like ancient Greece. It’s a landscape full of myths and legends.  Most of them are harmless enough but there are one or two which can seriously get in the way of effective innovation management.  Let’s take a look at one or two now.

Myth number one concerns the ‘lightbulb moment’.  That moment in the cartoons when the light bulb flashes above someone’s head and there you have it – innovation.  Except, of course, you don’t.  Because, as we’ve seen, innovation involves a journey.  One that moves an idea through testing, refining and improving it to finally creating something that can hopefully deliver value to an end user.  

Which brings us to our second myth – that innovation is a solo act. It’s easy enough to believe in a world where innovation happens through men and women who have a great big ‘S’ marked on their chest.   They somehow have the superpower to create innovation.  The reality is of course that innovation isn’t like that – it’s always been a multiplayer game.  Even in those situations where we can identify a particular entrepreneur, someone who gives their name to a product or process innovation, it’s a fair bet that they will have had plenty of help. 

If innovation is a journey involving many different tasks on the road to creating value, then it’s extremely hard to do that all alone.  Quite apart from the physical challenge of doing so much there is a need for different kinds of knowledge to contribute to the process.  Innovation’s all about working with ‘knowledge spaghetti’, weaving together different strands of technical, market, legal, financial and other knowledge to create value.  It’s unlikely any one individual will have all of that.

And if we are looking for radical, breakthrough innovation then sometimes we might want to combine very different knowledge sets – bridging across different worlds.  Ewe know such ‘recombinant innovation’ has been the starting point for some key innovations – for example Henry Ford’s assembly line began as a moment of insight when William Klann, one of his engineers, was walking past a meat packing plant in Chicago and noticed how the butchers there were systematically disassembling carcasses on a moving line. 

Or, as we’ve seen, the key insight which underpinned the successful social innovation of the Aravind eye clinics was bringing fast food preparation and service techniques to bear on the problem of cataract surgery in rural India.

For Thomas Edison this was a very clear lesson.  His ‘Invention Factory’ in New Jersey was not simply a place where he sat and dreamed up all his wonderful inventions by himself but rather a meeting place for diverse ideas.  The ‘factory’ undoubtedly made a big contribution to the earlier 20th century but Edison did it by involving many other people.  What he did was to take engineers and scientists from a variety of different sectors and put them all together in the same space.   They worked alongside each other, they ate and drank together, even slept in the place sometimes when projects were running late.  It must have smelt terrible – but that hothouse became a crucible in which many innovations were born. 

Which brings us to myth #3. This is the one which sees the world as somehow split into two kinds of people – the ‘creators’, the ones responsible for coming up with innovation and the consumers, the ones who adopt those innovations.  That is, of course, a very artificial split and the reality is that the more we research it the more we realise that users are far from passive in innovation.  They have ideas and insights and they can make a big contribution to shaping innovation by bringing that to bear.  And their understanding of the context in which innovations have to work means that using their input can help ensure innovations diffuse widely and rapidly – because they are compatible with that context. 

It’s hard to forget that wonderful scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ film in which the small group representing the People’s Front of Judea huddle together plotting the downfall of the invading army.  Reg, their ringleader, asks the question ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ – and is met with an increasingly long list which includes sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health. 

In similar fashion we could ask the same kind of question – ‘what have users ever done for innovation?’  And it won’t take long before there’s a similarly long list of ‘exceptions’ which prove the rule that users are a pretty potent force. 

For example, (deep breath) around the house we’ve got the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher, bleach, the Miracle Mop…  If there are children involved then add to the list non-spill cups, foldable pushchairs, disposable nappies, Q-tips……. Out in the street you might use a foldable umbrella to help you run to your pickup truck, turning on your windscreen wipers as you drive to work. 

Where you’ll find your IT system storing things on Dropbox, perhaps running on Linux, browsing with Firefox, connecting via Apache servers.  (And if you are still producing physical printout and want to make a correction, brushing on Liquid Paper to correct the mistake).  If you’ve got the day off you might go windsurfing, skateboarding, mountain biking, perhaps capturing your adventures on a Go-Pro camera. 

And if you’re unlucky enough to have an accident while doing so your hospital will be full of hundreds of other user innovations developed by nurses, doctors, technicians and porters. 

All of them reminders of what user innovation has do for us.

And that’s not even the full answer to our question.  Because these are just the specific examples where we have a name and identity for our user innovator.  Behind them is a hidden army of hundreds of thousands of others – in workplaces, on farms, around the home, in offices and shops, in churches and scout groups, in fact everywhere.  What these ‘hidden’ user innovators share is the challenge of a problem for which they come up with and try out a workaround, a hack, a solution to help deal with it.

We’re only just beginning to get a measure of how much innovation begins with user ideas. Studies by NESTA in the UK, for example suggest that close to 10% of product innovations and 15% of process innovation begin in this fashion – and that’s almost certainly an underestimate.  Smart companies recognise the huge value which employees – as users of their processes – can contribute through suggesting improvements.  Companies as diverse as Toyota, Liberty Global and Fujitsu regularly receive thousands of ideas and these translate to savings running into millions.

Having knocked down some of the myths surrounding innovation we should pause and try and pick up some of the pieces.  If the myths don’t hold up, what lessons are left which can help us manage innovation more effectively?  Let’s summarise:

  1. innovation is a journey not a single event and therefore there are many different tasks involved in creating value from our ideas.

  1. it’s a multiplayer game and one in which diversity matters. People involved in our multiplayer innovation know different things and the more we can bring different viewpoints to bear for more chance we have to enrich our innovation.

  1. sometimes the knowledge they have to offer is not even formalised – its ‘fingertip’ tacit knowledge, stuff that we know but we can’t always express. That’s particularly the case when we think of many of those user innovations which emerge from a context where users are often frustrated and have a sense of what’s going to make things different even if they can’t always articulate it.

  1. we often talk about getting out of the box in innovation but by bringing in people who by definition have been inhabiting a different box we can often stimulate innovation in radically new directions.

But it’s not enough just to bring diversity into our innovation teams. We also need to think hard about how to ensure inclusivity. Who do we want to bring into our innovation process and whose voices are we not hearing? For example innovation studies repeatedly show that bringing in users is an extremely important part of ensuring acceptance.  Users understand their context and so by bringing in their perspectives we give ourselves a much better chance of creating something which is compatible and which will diffuse more widely and more quickly.

We’ve had this principle for a long time.  Back in the 1960s in the UK the Tavistock Institute carried out some famous work on what became known as ‘socio-technical systems’ design.  Put simply they were using approaches which could ‘hear’ the voices of people involved in working with new technology and mobilise their insights and ideas to shape the technologies to be more effective.  One example was the work with the National Coal Board looking at new coal-mining technology. 

A powerful new approach based on advanced technology was the ‘long wall method of coal getting’ – a long name for a simple idea.  It involved cutting two shafts in parallel and then creating a thin shaft between them. The coal behind this ‘long wall’ could be cut by automatic machinery and conveyed to the parallel shafts and thence to the surface.  The potential productivity gains were huge – but when it was first installed the results were disappointing.  The Tavistock team soon found why – the ways in which miners worked were essentially based around small cohesive teams who literally depended on each other for their lives.  The new system didn’t fit their team-based ways of working – but it could be adapted to include them, especially if the miners were involved in modifying the design.  The results were spectacular in terms of productivity improvement going well beyond the original design capacity of the machinery.

This kind of approach has become best practice in so many sectors – whether we’re trying to instal a new computer system, getting people to adopt a new logistics approach or take on new ways of shopping the same thing holds.  Involve the users, get them to help shape a piece of technology into the fashion that best fits their world and it will operate more effectively.

Underpinning this of course is the idea of inclusion and it applies very widely in fields as diverse as healthcare, high tech manufacturing and farming. But it raises a question -how do we make sure we can hear the voices of users who may have things to say but not necessarily the ability to say it clearly and provide a coherent input to our innovation process?

So to summarise when we think about innovation management we need to be clear about breaking up some of the myths and assumptions which can get in the way of effectively doing so.

In particular we need to recognise innovations a journey with many different tasks and therefore the need for many different people to help with those tasks

It’s not a solo act it’s a multiplayer game and in particular we need to bring in different knowledge sets tacit and explicit and weave them together

Diversity matters particularly because it allows us to access a wide range of different viewpoints which can contribute to the innovation task both in terms of improving the front-end design and also by accelerating diffusion downstream because ideas developed with user input have a better chance of being compatible

But if we’re going to involve users we’re going to involve diversity we need to find methods to make sure we can deal with our aspiration towards inclusivity we need the tools and the methods to bring people in.

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