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How to increase the flow of new ideas – and eat a lot of hotdogs!

Hot DogInnovation is critical in a knowledge economy, leading to new products, new methods and hopefully happy customers and organisational growth. According to PwC’s 2015 study on Global Innovation, U.S. companies spend $145 billion dollars on R&D each year. Yet, despite its importance, innovation is a difficult quality to cultivate both in individuals and in organizations. Here are three ideas to get you on the right track: curiosity, connection and the hot dog thing.

Curiosity

We share a number of basic drives and attributes with our primate cousins, but only humans (as far as we are aware) have looked up at the stars, wondered what they are and tried to find out. Curiosity sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and, with recent concern about robots taking our jobs, it should console us to learn that curiosity also sets us apart from computers. Computers are smart, but none can yet be said to be curious. In addition, recent research suggests that curiosity is also good for your health. People who make a lifelong habit of reading and writing a lot slowed their rate of mental decline by a third compared to those who only do an average amount.

So how do we encourage curiosity in organisations?

In the first place give people permission to be curious. The most important thing to do when you want more creativity is to let people know they can. You have to expect some failures and you need to embrace these, so build a culture with no fear of failure. Second, implement a formal structure that allows ‘intrapreneurship’ to take place: 3M allow employees 15% of their working week to devote to personal projects. Finally, provide incentives. Design a career path for your ‘intrapreneurs’ and show how their ideas can boost their responsibilities and rewards within the company.

Connection

Future Work Skills 2020, a report compiled by the University of Phoenix Research Institute, argues that in the face of more complex, multifaceted problems ever-greater specialisation will be replaced by the need for individuals with blended skills. The ideal worker of the future will be ‘T-shaped’, with a deep understanding of one field, but able to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines. This will require a sense of curiosity, a willingness to go on learning, and exposure to varied experiences and people.

In Frugal Innovation, Navi Radjou & Jaideep Prabhu propose that organisations should make external connections to generate new ideas and ways of doing things. In the first place they should engage more with their customers to identify innovative opportunities and encourage co-creation in the design, building and sale of products. They should also make innovative friends, an eclectic group of partners to challenge senior management thinking and encourage a continuous process of unlearning and relearning.

Internally, organisations could ask employees for their ideas and encourage them to contribute to the innovation dialogue with customers. A key activity will be to assemble a diverse workforce. Plenty of research shows that diverse teams devise the most innovative ideas. But above all, they must keep boundaries flexible and fluid, people need to be mixed together: rotate staff, create places and programmes where people from different teams collide and collude, use collaborative pay and incentives, and ensure that information flows and is interpreted correctly. This can be helped by those ‘T’ shaped workers, who are able to move between functions and explain what is happening in different departments.

Challenge

Finally, the hotdogs. Every 4th of July 40,000 people go to Coney Island in the United States, and more than 1m tune in on ESPN, the sports cable channel, to watch men and women defy human digestive limits in a hot dog eating competition. Prior to 2001 the record was 25 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, but in that year Takeru Kobayashi, a young man from Japan, smashed the record consuming a staggering 53 dogs and buns. Mr Kobayashi’s winning insight was not to eat the hot dog and bun as you or I would, but to break the hot dogs in two and stuff them in his mouth with one hand, while his other hand dunked the bun in water to make it easier to swallow. This, coupled with shaking and gyrating, helped a 112lb man consume nearly 8lb of bread and sausage. The record, by the way, now stands at 70 dogs and buns.

Apart from making us feel slightly squeamish, it should also remind us to critically examine our assumptions and challenge our fundamental beliefs about a situation. The key here is to ask “Why?” not “What?” And with that in mind, I will leave you with the words of General Stanley McChrystal, who summarized the difficult process of adaptation and innovation the US military went through in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

When we first started, the question was, ‘Where is the enemy?’ That was the intelligence question. As we got smarter, we started to ask, ‘Who is the enemy?’ And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn’t the right question, and we asked, ‘What’s the enemy doing or trying to do?’ And it wasn’t until we got further along that we said, ‘Why are they the enemy?’

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Leadership Lessons of Lord Nelson

nelsonNext month sees the 211th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (21st October 1805), when twenty-seven British ships of the line, led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory, defeated a combined fleet of thirty-three French and Spanish ships off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) and put an end to French plans to invade England.

The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the eighteenth century and was achieved in part through Nelson’s departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy. Instead of engaging the enemy fleet in a single line, maximising fields of fire and target areas, Nelson divided his smaller force into two columns directed perpendicularly against the enemy fleet, with decisive results.

Nelson was shot by a French musketeer during the battle and died shortly after, becoming one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. He was also one of Britain’s greatest leaders and over 200 years since his death he still has much to teach us about the art of leadership. In this blog I am going to focus on three aspects of his leadership: creating a personal brand; participative leadership; and inspiring his subordinates.

Personal Brand

Nelson virtually invented the personal brand. People told stories about him: his courage during the amputation of his arm, the way he turned a blind eye at Copenhagen, and more salaciously his affair with Lady Hamilton. Yet he was also very diligent in carrying out his duties, he worked hard, in now widely used naval parlance, ‘to learn the ropes’, seeking out opportunities to improve his experience and get himself noticed. He also read widely in politics, history and literature, and spent time at home in reflection, learning, thinking and preparing for his next assignment. Furthermore, he quickly recognised that it’s not what you know and it’s not who you know that counts. It’s who knows what you know, which really matters. His uncle was already a senior officer in the Royal Navy when Nelson joined and he used his advocacy to good effect, but Nelson also took the opportunity to learn from other skilled mentors, such as Captain William Locker. Nelson served under him as a newly promoted lieutenant for only fifteen months, but his advice, wisdom and backing had a lasting effect.

Participative Leadership

Nelson was a very skilled participative leader. He knew instinctively how to build a team culture (his band of brothers) and this was an important part of his leadership style, which he based upon loyalty and trust. Nelson provided the framework, the overarching aims and objectives, but then gave away leadership when battle was joined. This style of leadership came to the fore at his victory at the Nile. As Captain Berry of HMS Vanguard observed:

“It had been his practice during the cruise, whenever the weather and circumstances would permit, to have his captains on board the Vanguard, where he would fully develop to them his own ideas of the different and best modes of attack, and such plans as he proposed to execute upon falling in with the enemy, whatever their position or situation might be, by day or by night. With the masterly ideas of their Admiral, therefore, on the subject of naval tactics, every one of the captains of his squadron was most thoroughly acquainted. Upon surveying the situation of the enemy, they could ascertain with precision what were the ideas and intentions of their commander, without aid of further instructions; by which means signals became almost unnecessary, much time was saved, and the attention of every captain could almost undistractedly be paid to the conduct of the ship.”

In short, Nelson delegated duties to competent men and let them get on with it. He explained goals and tasks clearly, and then did not interfere. He always supported his officers when they showed initiative and if things went wrong he defended them. He admired bold and decisive action in others as much as he followed this policy himself. He would rather mistakes were made occasionally than his men succumb to indecision and inactivity.

Inspiration

Inspiration is the action or power of stimulating the intellect or emotions in others through affection and communication. You may be effective through manipulative and unscrupulous means, but you will only be respected as a great leader if you aspire to great ideals, and practise them personally in the way you direct your organisation or team. Nelson was an advocate for the ‘we will’ rather than the ‘you will’ school of leadership, he presented himself as a role model.

Like all naval officers he employed formal sources of power: legitimate, reward based and coercive. But from this formal power Nelson also developed informal influence through his knowledge of the Navy, the workings of a ship and the demands of war. His reward power was limited in terms of cash and material benefits, but he never rationed praise and recognition. Nelson believed in public and profuse praise, openly acknowledging achievements. He assumed honour and recognition was as important to his crew as it was to him. Crucially, he was intrinsically motivated and this was infectious. It is difficult to inspire others if you’re not inspired yourself, so perhaps the key message to be a good leader is doing something that inspires you. Do you know what that is yet?

A lot more could be written about Nelson’s leadership style and I would be delighted to read your own thoughts and observations.

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