Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Low cost Innovation

In the era of Apple it is very easy for people to get hooked on the artefact and fail to appreciate the kind of thinking that gave rise to it.

To achieve effective innovation what is frequently needed is the ability to ask some basic questions and think afresh about what we are doing. (Which of course is exactly what Jobs and co. did consistently).

What does this really mean in practice?  Here are two case histories I often use when considering what would innovative thinking look like if there’s no extra budget but things need to change?

In the first few years of the Second World War Hitler’s U-boats were taking a terrible toll sinking a huge tonnage of Atlantic shipping. Ensuring Atlantic convoys would continue to get supplies through to the UK was the single most important determinant of ensuring continued resistance to Hitler. If the Atlantic convoys were all sunk then so was the possibility of resistance to Hitler. However the British kill rate for destroying U boats was abysmal – about 1% of those sighted were sunk.

Enter Patrick Blackett, physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Blackett developed what we now call organisational research. With a very small team he started to ask some questions. The Navy knew that the U-boats could only move at a certain rate. Something like 45 seconds elapsed between sighting and dropping depth charges. They knew that the U-boat would probably dive to about 150ft so you set the charge to go off at 150ft. Well that’s fine, the depth charge explodes but it’s is in the wrong place because what they hadn’t taken into account was that the U-boat might change in direction not just depth.

So what did Blackett suggest? That the parameters be changed. You would only go for attacking U-boats if they had been out of sight for no more than 25 seconds and that you would set the depth charge to 25ft because they could not have gone any deeper than that in 25 seconds.

The net result of this was that it improved the kill rate from 1% to 10%. That is the equivalent of having a new secret weapon which is ten times more powerful than its predecessor. But actually there was no new secret weapon - just a different way of thinking.

Much of the time U-boats travelled on the surface so they should’ve been pretty visible. Given an estimated number and the distances they travelled it was possible to calculate how often they should have been sighted,

In fact only thirty percent of the sightings that should have been achieved were being achieved. Why was this? All sorts of fancy ideas were suggested. Again some basic questioning yielded vital information. The planes used were converted night bombers. Because they were used at night they had been painted black. However they were now being used as spotter planes in broad daylight and black is the most visible colour against a daytime sky! Repainting the underside of the wings white led to a doubling in the number of sightings. That is like suddenly doubling the number of planes you have available.

When I share these cases with business leaders they immediately grasp that the innovation lies in rethinking the challenge and asking new questions. 

So  you might want to consider what is the equivalent for you in what you are trying to do? How might you do more effectively what you already do now?

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Monday, 18 March 2013

Neuroplasticity – New Tricks for Old Dogs

The other day I was in the pub and I heard one guy saying to the other ‘well you know me, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ as if this was an explanation for why he was going to stay the same.  Of course, actually it is no explanation at all because the fact of the matter is we now know you can teach an old dog new tricks, not only that but every person can learn new things regardless of their age. Why? Because the brain isn’t just some sort of static soft round mass of tissue it is actually a living system and your brain is always changing. That change shows up in lots of different ways. It exists at every level, at the level of the cells, at the level of your behaviour and indeed there is an expression in the neurosciences which I think is a very apt one which covers a lot of the what fires together, as in neurons wires together. If it starts happening  on a regular basis it becomes part of the structure of how you do what you do and maybe even how you think of who you are.

What might this mean for us? Well it means that actually old dogs can learn new tricks whenever they wish but they do have to want to do it and they need to know how to do it. This is not just dogs but everybody. For me this is particularly exciting because of the work I’m doing with Professor Patricia Riddell and bringing the world of Applied Neuroscience into our everyday learning and understanding using the tools of NLP to make it possible to apply this new understanding. All of that becomes so much easier with the work that’s being done now which makes it very clear that the best way to understand your brain is to think of it as a system. For me that made life much easier because I spent a lot of time focusing on systems and systems thinking. Indeed I wrote a book about it and one of the things that happens when  you start thinking systemically is you understand the power of feedback; arguably no feedback, no system. Feedback is what tells us whether we are on track or off track, are we doing too much of something, do we need to do more of something, are we doing enough? It is there in every aspect of our lives it is just that often people do not recognise it as such. 

If I’m driving my car, the engine only works because of all sorts of very clever feedback that has been sort of built into it. I can take all the parts of that engine apart, I can pile them up in a heap beside the chassis and I still have all the bits of the engine but I do not have a functioning engine any longer and that’s because the bits are only part of the story. The engine is more than the sum of its parts, the engine is the feedback loops that make things happen to a greater or lesser degree so that the car can move forward and be under my control in the same way our brains have feedback loops and we can begin to engage with those and that changes the way we can be, it changes what’s possible for us and that makes it possible for us to have a new understanding, not just of what we can do but who we might become. 

It creates all sorts of extraordinary opportunities which up until very very recently were not thought to be possible by science itself so there is a real revolution taking place over the past few years within the field so that neuroplasticity has come to be seen as the norm. It used to be the case that we had these myths of location where almost like what Trish calls advanced phonology, you know like there are bits of the brain that do particular things and the classic example of that is the left right brain split that many people still assume is the case, whereas actually what is going on in the neuroscience makes that very old hat and not even true any longer. What therefore becomes possible is that we can start to work with our brains and we can literally create new pathways, have new abilities and we know what is really needed to make that really stick and guess what, so much of what NLP has been doing is giving us the tools to turn this understanding into a practical reality. 

That’s why Applied Neuroscience is so valuable right now. That’s why we’re going to be having a high old time doing a half day Sunday morning exploration of neuroplasticity for you and for me.

I can’t wait. Until the next time.

Also listen to Ian's blog here:

Excellence – Walking the Talk

You know one of the most common words I hear banded about when I’m talking with consultants and when I’m consulting myself in organisations is the word ‘excellence’. And invariably people say that they want it or that they would like to see more of it. But what I don’t hear so often is people talking about how they would ensure that within their own organisation and within their own practice they would make certain that their excellence was consistently being achieved. That I think is rather more challenging and in a way excellence is a bit like charity, you know, it begins at home. 

So it is all very well talking about achieving an excellent product or an excellent service but who’s to say it is excellent and would you be willing to submit yourself to the scrutiny of assessors who would determine on a comparative basis how excellent is your excellence? This was a process that many years ago set us thinking about how we might ensure that we really did walk our talk. I am mindful of this today especially because a little why ago I had a call from the ITS office telling us that for the 9th consecutive year we have just been awarded our IS0 9001 badge because of outstanding organisational excellence. What that means is that the ISO inspector has been on the premises for much of the day looking at the way we do things and determining do these work to the benefit of our clients and customers and do we have practices in place that ensure that pretty much whatever happens we have a consistent way of working which delivers. 

While we might like to think we do, the real test is when somebody from outside, who is passionate about this kind of excellence subjects us to scrutiny and tells us yay or nay. And actually here we are as I say for the ninth consecutive year, ITS has just been given a big thumbs up with compliments to the team regarding the quality of those processes and how they have improved over time and every year rather than us being told well you’re nearly there instead we pass with flying colours. There might be some little tweak that can be offered which is actually very valuable where we learn other processes which we can add to what we do.

So this set me thinking, much talk about excellence but I don’t know how many organisations are willing to subject themselves to this kind of scrutiny, to really do what it takes to say ‘Yes, we want to know’ and ‘Yes, we want the feedback’. It is only when you are willing to do that can you get an external view on ‘where are we?’ and ‘what might we do to enhance performance?’. So this is just by way of course congratulations to the team doing an absolutely outstanding job and frankly for doing it whilst carrying on with business as usual. It is now at the point where the structures are so robust that it is not some frantic last minute preparation before an examiner comes in, it is just a way of doing business. I think that there is a lesson here in terms of creating structures that allow excellence to just bubble forth and to be the norm.

So, another year and I have no doubt that we will be enjoying our tenth year, a year from now because we will be putting our minds to it and making sure that we don’t just talk about excellence we really do it. Congratulations to the team and all this in the hope that we can better serve those who are our clients and whose lives we seek to benefit by offering the kind of experiences that are part of the parcel of what makes us who we are.

Until the next time. 

Also listen to Ian's blog here:

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

New Learning and New Techniques

Well at the beginning of this week I had a communication from one of my publishers telling me that the very first book I ever co-authored, ‘Principles of NLP’ is virtually ready in its second edition to be launched onto a new world indeed in a new millennium even. It was very striking for me because it is as if what was the beginning is still incredibly relevant. They were very excited at being able to get the rights to be able to publish it again. And so the principles that are at the heart of NLP remain the very same principles from when I first  started writing. But of course the difference now is that we have the potential of demonstrating from the neuroscience just why those principles really matter and what it is that makes them so incredibly effective when you have ‘how-to’ techniques and the technology that goes with those ideas. Really simple things like the classic example, ‘the meaning of the communication is the response it elicits’. Now what does that even mean? Most people think the meaning of what they say is what they decided it means. Well yes, except that if you really want to know what you think you said, you want to find out what other people think it is that you have just said because whatever they think it is you have just said is actually what the meaning is as far as they’re concerned. So you have this really curious paradox which is the true meaning of what a communication really is is what the receivers  of that communication make of it.

This has got unbelievable  implications. I can remember some years ago being involved in some earnest discussions with Civil Defence Authorities about emergency communications and how very frequently they just didn’t seem to get it when a communication was issued in a test for for instance in a fire, earthquake or what have you and this was in the context of Italian Civil Defence and people just didn’t pay attention. The curious thing was that the authorities in question, decided that that just meant they weren’t paying attention as opposed to saying ‘No, the meaning of our communication is a response it elicits’. If it doesn’t produce a response we want, namely ‘leave now to stay alive!’ then we need to change the way we’re communicating.

Now that is true at a general level for a large population for potentially a life and death matter but it is equally true in our own lives, in businesses where we  change what we want to say so that other people can get it so that we say it in a way that makes sense to them. What we now have is an understanding at the level of Neuroscience about why does this matter? What is going on in the brain?  And so for me there is enormous excitement about the fact that we’ve got this technology, we’ve tested it over many years and now we can actually demonstrate increasingly why it works and have a cognitive understanding of what is going on in the brain which of course is why I get excited about the next practitioner starting in a couple of days. 

This new programme that we’ve created, whereby people both learn the tools and techniques of NLP but then have the Neuroscience input which gives them an understanding of what is going on in the brain and allows them to speak with authority I think about their new learning. This is proving to be a very successful synergy and the new synthesis is incredibly stimulating certainly for both myself and my colleague, Professor Patricia Riddell with whom I co-train this material. So we have in a sense what has been developed over many years and which is there in that very first book I wrote, ‘Principles of NLP’ has now been revised, developed further, new generation of techniques and tools have been added to it and now we have the neuroscience to make sense of it in a way we really couldn’t when we began. 

So for me it is just a fabulous opportunity to build on our learning and see this coming together across disciplines really, promoting a new understanding of practical tools that we can use in our daily lives that change what we can do professionally and enhance our lives personally. I can’t wait and I know Trish is looking forward to it as well. So, until the next time.

Also listen to Ian's blog here: