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innovation
  • Doing one thing well - New York’s pencil store

    I’m fascinated by owner-run small businesses, especially in retail. I love to see what people’s passions are, what shops are viable, what niche makes commercial sense.

    I like stationery so I’m always drawn - excuse the pun - to stores selling pens and paper. When I was in New York last week, I headed to CW Pencils on the city’s Lower East Side. As the name suggests, this is a pencil shop. It doesn’t sell a range of notepads or pens. It sells pencils. Pencils from as far afield as India, pencils from as near as Jersey City.

    Founder Caroline Weaver - an amateur pencil collector but lifelong pencil lover -  told me whilst she always had a passion for pencils she admitted she wasn’t sure how popular her store would be, would it turn out to just be her sitting in the shop alone?

    But a year after launching, the shop is busy and she even has a team working for her selling online. It’s a great success!

    As I sat drinking coffee down the road in Café Henrie, I took out my new pencil and scribbled down a question, “What is it about CW Pencils that makes it a success?”

    I concluded there are a number of ingredients that make Caroline’s business idea work. First, the business is a mix of online and offline. That’s an obvious point, but with limited opening hours and an off-the-grid location, it’s important to reach a wider audience. Second, the founder is passionate about what she sells. She told me she’d always loved pencils, and what better foundation for a business than that. Third, she’s confident that selling just one thing - pencils - will be enough. Business advisors may have suggested she stocks books or other stationery items to make her shop more commercially viable. But that would have diluted her proposition; instead - by sticking to one thing - Caroline has a niche idea that stands out. She’s doing one thing well.

    As Caroline says on her site,  “as simple as it may be, the pencil is something which despite advances in technology will never become obsolete.”  Here’s to the power of pencils! 

     

     

  • The ties that bind us together. Why values matter.

    In yesterday’s Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway railed against businesses that publish their values. Her rant was based on the fact that out of 24 well known businesses, only five of their managers could recognise their own values from a list. Kellaway says that whilst values may be important, they are also “slippery.”

    The minute anyone tries to write them down they become trite and unhelpful,” she says.

    I agree they can be slippery but that’s exactly why you should write them down! If you haven’t nailed and captured your values, then how can you expect your organisation to align with them?

    What are values anyway? In his post The Difference Between Culture and Values, Matt Blumberg says values “guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right." Values, identified well, should underpin a brand or organisation.

    Kellaway reported a recent piece of research of FTSE 100 businesses that found three words - integrity, respect and innovation - cropped up in values over and over again. If you set your values by ticking off a list of business buzzwords, then of course they will be meaningless. But just because some businesses fall into a cookie-cutter approach to value-making doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother at all.

    If you set your values based on what’s true for your organisation, then they can be a powerful touchstone for employees and customers alike. The design and consulting firm IDEO created The Little Book of IDEO. This is a handbook that aims to capture “the ties that bind us together as coworkers," including such values as “Talk less, do more” and “Take ownership.” In its introduction CEO Tim Brown explains that for many years he’d shied away from capturing the organisation’s values:

    For 20 years, I did a lot of hand-waving and gave vague answers. Then, about a year ago, we decided we really should put our values in writing.

    The Little Book of IDEO is not just written by the CEO. It features contributions from employees which reflects the different voices and attitudes that make up the organisation (you can see a slideshare of some it here).

    So perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your values. Do they mean anything or are they just jargon? Do they reflect how you behave as an organisation, as a brand, as an employer? Do you put them into practice?

    Keep your values hidden, and you can get away with ignoring them. Put them on your wall, wave them about online where all can see, then if you don’t actually live them, people like Lucy Kellaway have the right to call you out.

    Need help capturing more meaningful values within your organisation? I can help, get in touch: hello@iansanders.com

     

  • Put some white space in your work life. Finding a fourth space to think.

    Last week I met a business acquaintance for coffee.

    His working life is typical: split between a central London office (a first space), working at home (a second space) and working/ having meetings in the same bunch of coffee shops (a third space). Like many of us, he has a demanding role which relies upon his ability to think creatively, to come up with ideas, to solve problems. And he confessed, like many of us, he also struggles to find the ‘me’ time to do the serious thinking. Whilst it’s great to get out of the office, he finds coffee shops too buzzy and home working too distracting for the ideas to flow.

    I said to him he needs to find ‘a fourth space’. A space where he can think more clearly.

    And at that, he pricked up his ears.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love working out of coffee shops (I’m writing this in one right now) however they’ve become the de-facto office for so many of us, we need to find another space, one that allows us to think.

    In my fifteen years working for myself, I couldn’t have achieved the same results without going to a fourth space, whether spending the afternoon at Tate Modern or taking a train journey somewhere new. Last year, when my work life felt stale, and I needed to reframe it, I went to Amsterdam to get back on track (watch the short video below).

    It’s not however always the fancy destination that’s important, as long as you know it will fuel you creatively. Or even if you don’t know, just try it and see what happens.

    I wonder if our lives have become so jam-packed — a seamless segue from home-to-office-via-coffee-shop — that we’ve left no space to do the Big Thinking, whether ideas for our organisation or just giving our own work lives a check-up. Imagine how much more fulfilled we might be, how productive and creative we could become if only we gave ourselves permission to get some distance from our day-to-day routine, to find new spaces to work from.

    Here are four ways to put some white space into your working life:

    1. Shift your relationship with the office: we all know being productive is not about the number of hours you spend at your desk, it’s about knowing where you work best and going there more often.
    2. Identify your own fourth space: consider the places where you could get some of your best work done. Where will fire you up — is it an art gallery, a train journey, a walk in the country?
    3. Make going there a regular fixture: if you work for yourself, regularly schedule fourth space time; if you work for an organisation, demonstrate to your boss the kind of value a fourth space would bring. And then get a commitment to let you go there.
    4. Set yourself some goals for when you’re there: when you go to your fourth space, set some goals about what you need to achieve while you’re there. Give it some structure.

    Put some white space in your work life.*

    *Try it. Let me know how you got on, where got you fired up, how did it work? You can keep me posted on Twitter @iansanders

  • Finding Onlyness... in Paris

    It’s the first week in March, the sun is out and Parisiens are taking up position outside Les Deux Magots café. A cluster of small dogs huddle around the feet of an elegant lady in sunglasses as church bells from Saint-Germain des Prés mingle with the rumble of car tyres over cobbles.

    Les Deux Magots has a tradition of great ideas and creativity, being a magnet for such creative luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. So whilst this early Spring sunshine is a tame imitator of the Californian heat, these charismatic streets a world away from Silicon Valley, it is fitting that it is here in the 6th arrondissement, that US management thinker and innovator Nilofer Merchant has made her home (well, for a year or so).

    Nilofer has personally launched more than 100 products and worked for major companies like Apple. More recently she's become well known for her 2013 TED talk ‘Got a meeting? Take a Walk which has been viewed over 1.7 million times. So it’s no surprise that when she arrives to meet me at the café, she doesn’t sit down - we’re off on a walk towards the Seine. And although we’ve only just met, a walk n'talk seems a natural way to get to know someone.

    In her TED talk Nilofer argues that fresh air drives fresh thinking, and prompts a different way of looking at the world. Instead of going to coffee meetings or fluorescent-lit conference room meetings, I ask people to go on a walking meeting, to the tune of 20 to 30 miles a week. It's changed my life,” she says.

    As we walk, we share our career stories and I hear about her experiences moving from the US to France. When we reach the Eiffel Tower we take a side street away from the Seine heading past The American Library where Nilofer says she often goes to read The New York Times.

    Our brains are full of ideas and our feet tired, so we rest on a bench outside Malabar. Over a glass of wine Nilofer tells me more about her other great belief, that of ‘Onlyness’ - the unique qualities that each of us can bring to a situation (watch the short video below).

    “Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Some of those experiences are not as ‘perfect’ as we might want, but even those experiences are a source for what you create.”

    A couple of hours later I’m back on the Eurostar to London, reflecting that days like these - traveling to another city to meet an interesting person - are part of my ‘Onlyness’, bringing my curiosity to explore and capture new ideas.

     

  • ‘spaghetti lines’ are okay - why straight lines are overrated in delivering innovation

    It was an apt location for a discussion about innovation: last Tuesday evening I was at Wayra London for the latest in a series of events organised by the innovation consultancy The Foundation. The venue they’d chosen - Wayra - is the business incubator run by Telefonica that provides financial, managerial and technological support to digital startups. But we weren’t there to talk about startup innovation; innovation within larger organisations was on the agenda.

    I touched on this subject last year in an article I wrote in the Financial Times (‘The Product as Market Research’), where I spoke to the director of innovation at Nordstrom, the big US fashion retailer. I heard how Nordstrom is borrowing approaches from the startup community to rapidly prototype new product ideas.

    Of course we know it’s easier for innovation to thrive in smaller companies who are more agile and better at taking risks than large organisations. It’s that much-cited speedboat VS supertanker juxtaposition. Last Tuesday The Foundation assembled a panel at Wayra to discuss the challenge for those ‘supertankers’ [The panel line-up was: Natalie Ceeney, responsible for improving HSBC’s customer service and complaint handling; Dan Salmons managing director of PayPoint Mobile, previously director of global innovation at Barclaycard; and Mark Stansfeld, chairman of Giffgaff, a consumer led mobile operator, previously sales director at O2].          

    The panel agreed it’s hard for big organisations to balance short term health of the business with innovating whatever’s coming next. They recalled their experiences where innovation often gets stifled by boards, by business plans, by road maps that don’t allow for random left turns.

    From the discussion I’ve cherry-picked three factors to consider when encouraging innovation in larger organisations:

    1. Avoid the tyranny of finance. Mark argued that in order to thrive, innovation needs to be liberated from a finance-led culture of forecasts and KPIs. His advice was to grant autonomy to teams tasked with innovating new products and services, to free them from a business-planning culture.

    2. Think about innovation when you’re failing. The best time to look at innovation may not be when a business is succeeding, but when it’s failing. Natalie reminded us that First Direct - which has been a huge success in disrupting consumer banking - was launched by Midland Bank when the bank was failing.

    3. Don't ask the customer what they want. In the Q&A it was asked whether validation by focus groups and customer research is important before taking a new product to market. The consensus said not to rely on customer research. Natalie told the story of AT&T conducting customer research before the introduction of mobile telephony. They asked customers if they were interested in owning a mobile phone. Since the customers didn’t understood the benefits of having one (after all, they’d never seen or heard of one) they said no. Those results meant AT&T didn’t move forward in what proved to be a lucrative sector.

     

    In my own work as a writer/thinker, I’ve encouraged grassroots entrepreneurs to ‘unplan’ their business ideas to make them happen, rather than get paralysed by long-term planning. You might think large organisations aren’t brave enough to embrace such radical thinking. So I was pleasantly surprised by the views of a panel who’ve spent their careers in big business, I was encouraged by their advice to ditch the business plan when it comes to developing new products and services.

    Towards the end of the discussion someone voiced the view, straight lines and order are overrated; i.e. it doesn’t matter if you don’t take a linear path to making innovation happen, it doesn’t matter if you took a circuitous and unconventional route. If you have ‘spaghetti lines’ behind you, that’s okay. All that matters is that you took your innovation to market and that you made it happen.

    Amen to spaghetti lines.

  • A business that actually makes stuff: behind the scenes at sugru.

    Over the last twenty years I must have visited a few hundred ‘places of work’: co-working spaces, big corporation HQs, small business offices, artist studios, factories, and other workplaces of all shapes and sizes.

    But inevitably, most of the places I visit don’t actually make anything on site anymore, having outsourced production overseas; and whilst I’ve been impressed by the number of tech and digital businesses I’ve seen - if they make anything at all - they make things at a screen. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing to touch and feel.

    So no wonder  I got such a buzz visiting sugru’s HQ last week. Here - in an unassuming building in a mixed street of houses and workshops in south Hackney - they actually make stuff!

    Over 500,000 people in 155 countries use sugru - a brightly-coloured self-setting rubber for fixing, modifying and making ‘stuff’. The invention of Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, sugru was born out of an idea she had whilst a student at The Royal College Of Art.

    I noticed a tangible buzz as Jane showed me around the office/factory. There’s noise. Machinery. Hums and buzzes. There's a loading bay. Boxes being secured with packing tape. A room where they mix the ingredients. A lab staffed by a woman in white coat and goggles, a (miniscule) production line. With its small scale and bright colours, it looked like a toy factory scene, like something made by Playmobil.

    And behind all this buzz and industry is an entrepreneur with her feet firmly on the ground, and a dog under her desk. Jane says that growing up on a farm in rural Ireland helped shape her idea, one that encourages a new generation of consumers to embrace repairing items instead of throwing them away.  She told me: “Like a lot of people from rural areas and farms in particular, I grew up in a family where home-made was the preferred option for a lot of things. One of my Granny’s favourite things to do was to mend our clothes on a Sunday, and I loved watching her work”.

    Why should you be interested in sugru’s story? Because it's doing things differently and they’re a great success. On the bus-ride from sugru back to Soho, I scribbled down five things that make the business distinctive:

     

    1. It’s a unique product. Try and describe sugru and it’s hard to do so; that’s the business’s marketing challenge - and opportunity.  It’s a brand new invention.
    2. Its customers are its sales force. We often hear how a business’s customers can ‘help do the heavy lifting’, by helping selling the product. So how do you sell the benefits of a product that has infinite applications? You get your customers to share examples, via video and photos, of how they’ve used the product.  Thereby inspiring new customers to buy the stuff!
    3. sugru stands for something. I’m a great advocate for businesses competing on their values and thinking as much as their products. sugru is smart because Jane has built a business based on a philosophy that it's better to fix things rather than throw them away. That purpose unites all the customers and makes them proud to use sugru, and to become advocates for the brand. People that use it are passionate about it.
    4. They have their own factory. As I’ve already noted, here is a business in London that makes stuff and sends it to customers around the world. That’s not just a novelty, it has advantages, I love how the factory is next to the office.  They could have split the operation across two sites or even outsourced production. But no, there’s just one door between them. The proximity of the founder of the business to functions like production and research is impressive. That gives them an operational and management advantage, being so close to where it’s made.
    5. They’re good at mixing offline with online. They built the business online, but they’re now reaching out to customers and markets offline. For instance, you can now buy sugru in the UK retailer B&Q, and they're expanding into other retailers worldwide.


    When we hear about start-up success stories, tech and digital businesses tend to dominate the attention, with the emphasis on shiny apps and digital tools. So it’s refreshing to see a business that makes something you can not only touch and feel, but also mould into infinite applications.

  • Personalised newspapers: taking digital content offline.

    If you still prefer reading newspapers over digital editions or you're the kind of person who prints out online articles to read them off the screen, you may be interested in PaperLater, a new product from Newspaper Club.

    With PaperLater you can save web pages to print, it’s a bit like the ‘read it later’ service Instapaper but delivered to your doormat in a newspaper. I just had my first issue delivered: a mix of ‘long-read’ blog posts and articles I decided I’d rather read off screen.

    I’m finding it interesting how the articles I selected for PaperLater change impact by going off screen. I still would have read them on a digital device, but probably would not have lingered over them for so long, just one of tens of articles I consume on screen every day. But when you get an article printed in a newspaper format, it gives it a higher sense of importance. I’m valuing that content more.

    It's a smart service (one that starts at £4.99 a copy), but of course it does beg the question about copyright and the intellectual property of the original writer/ publisher. All PaperLater needs to make it better is a mechanism where the publisher, writer or content creator can benefit financially from having their work printed out. Perhaps we’ll see the PaperLater team white-label their service to online publishers and sites who will offer these service to readers, and share in the revenue?

    Let's see how this grows...

  • Towards a more human-centered approach to business: why every organisation needs its yin as well as its yang.

    A while ago I was hired by a new client. The guy that hired me recognised I was different, that I wasn’t a traditional consultant. He liked the fact that I lived in other worlds, that I wore other hats. He’d followed me on Twitter and found me interesting. He admitted he couldn’t precisely describe what I did, but he also recognised that my sense of being a ‘misfit’ added value to what I did for him. No-one else looked at things like I did.  He valued my ideas and the work I delivered.

    Then the guy who’d hired me left the company. His successor had a more traditional approach to doing business. On first meeting her, I suggested we grab a coffee in the foyer; she replied she’d rather the boardroom. She asked about my strategy, about similar projects I was doing for other clients. I explained that my strategy was founded on my curiosity, that the rest of my portfolio was a real mash-up of different projects from different worlds.

    The next morning she sent me an email explaining that the company would not be using my services any more. My initial reaction was disappointment. I liked working with the business and I’d miss it. I guess no-one likes to be dumped. But then I remembered not everyone likes the taste of Marmite. And that’s fine.

    Because there are those who like to do things the usual ways, who fit into neat boxes with labels on them. And then there are the rest of us; who have different approaches, who flip traditional thinking on its head.

    I was reminded of this juxtaposition reading Chris Baréz-Brown’s new book ‘Free!’; Chris talks about the ‘Yin and Yang’ of business. Businesses have always been very yang. This is the ‘machine-like’ approach, sticking to the way things have been done before, very planning-led, relying on empirical evidence and data. That’s not me.

    Chris argues that whilst the yang has served us well, today organisations need more of the yin. We need a more human-centered approach, based more on gut and emotion than spreadsheets and plans. That is me (it’s the kind of approach I’ve advocated in my own books, ‘Mash-Up!’ and ‘Zoom!’).

    From 2012-2014 I was a regular contributor to the Financial Times ‘Business Life’ pages; here in a newspaper that deals with very complex issues, I had the opportunity to tell simple stories from a human-centered point of view. My articles were successful because  - in crude terms - they were stories about people, for people. You didn’t need prior knowledge of startups or innovation to read them. Whether you were the woman sitting with her iPad at a midtown Manhattan Starbucks, or the bloke in a London pub flipping through the paper in the evening, everyone could get what I was talking about. Reflecting on Chris’s book I realised I was the ‘Yin guy’, bringing a human-centered approach to the pink pages of the FT.

    So I think every business needs to embrace the yin - to challenge conventional thinking, to suggest new ways of working and doing. And perhaps those of us who who bring the yin to work do get treated like Marmite, but that’s okay:  the value is in looking at things differently, shaking up the status quo.

  • What's the point? Figure out the value by playing around first.

    Finding a sandwich bar in a foreign city that offers gluten-free bread is rarely easy. But last week in Barcelona I found one.  And there was only one reason I’d found Conesa: foursquare.

    I have to admit - even as a user - I’d often questioned the value of the location-based app foursquare. When I went to SXSW in 2009, people were using it to find out where the parties were (alas I didn’t have a smartphone then, so I was out of the loop). In those early days of the app, it seemed like many of us were using it as bragging-tool, letting our Twitter followers know we'd just arrived at a trendy NYC bar or an upper class airline lounge (fortunately most of us disabled auto-sharing on Twitter long ago). Founder Dennis Crowley describes it as a service that ‘combines social networks, location awareness and game mechanics to encourage people to explore the world around them’. Which rings true, but still doesn’t nail the value for the user.

    So whilst there were many fellow foursquare users in my network, few of us could have nailed its value back in 2009/10. Some were hooked by the gamification element, delighting in unlocking the badges that came with more check-ins, checking their weekly score. Sometimes the obsession became antisocial: I remember several meetings where the other person spent the first 60 seconds fumbling in their laps to check in to their venue on their phones.

    I’m still on foursquare today, although I’m inconsistent in how I use it. I may check in at venues in London, but not at ones in my own neighbourhood. Sometimes I don’t want everyone to know where I am so I won’t check in at all. And if I’m working with a new client, I don’t think it’s my prerogative to announce that I’m at their offices unless I’ve cleared it with them first. So my foursquare data is not a full reflection of my movements.

    My experience has reminded me that the value of a product or service is not always instantaneous, you need to play around with it before you 'get it'. So all these years later, here’s my ROI from being on foursquare:

    1. A special restaurant finder. As I’m gluten-intolerant, it’s hard finding restaurants and cafes that cater for me in a city I don’t know. Traditional search engines throw up too much noise - search on ‘gluten free restaurant Barcelona’ in Google and there’s a lot of irrelevance . But try searching ‘gluten free’ (or better, ‘sin gluten’ in Spanish) on foursquare and the results are specific to user tips at actual venues.
    2. A recommendation engine. When you’re in a new city and check in at different types of places (cafes, bars, art galleries), foursquare connects the dots with other user’s behaviour. Recently on a trip to Amsterdam foursquare told me that others who liked the cafe I’d been to and the gallery I’d visited also liked a suggested bar, which I then tried. Unsurprisingly it was my kind of place. It knows my habits.
    3. A location-based connector. Sometimes others in my foursquare network have found themselves near me with time to spare, and got in touch saying they happen to be on the same street. I’ve had several unplanned meet-ups with people that way.


    So sometimes it takes time - and time to play - before you figure out the value of a digital product. Of course founders need to define the value of a service at launch, but once the product is out in the wild they also need to be brave enough to listen to their users about where the real value lies.

  • Unleashing our creative confidence

    When I started working in broadcasting, there was a clear delineation between ‘creative’ roles and ‘non-creative’ roles. You were a researcher (creative) or a production manager (non creative). I never liked that; I liked to mix disciplines up. When I transitioned from a role producing a live event (creative) to apply for an internal post of production manager (non creative) my CEO warned me that this was a fork in the road - I had to make a career choice. Did I want to be a creative or a non-creative? He said if I applied for the production manager role, I was choosing a non-creative path.

    That conversation was twenty years ago, but I don’t think much has changed. Today many organisations assume creativity and innovation are the domain of ‘creative types’. That’s always felt very flawed to me. Even when I worked in management roles - managing the creatives - I still felt creative. But, to be honest, I think I lacked ‘creative confidence’.

    So I was really interested to go to London’s Royal Academy last night to see IDEO founder, David Kelley and his brother Tom talk about their new book Creative Confidence. In the book David and Tom argue that each and every one of us is creative.

    I haven’t finished the book yet, but in the meantime here are seven points I scribbled down from their talk - some useful takeaways to help us unleash our creativity:

    1. Know what drives you. Rate out of ten each thing you do every day. Note what drives you up to a ten When David got cancer he started rating what he’d done each day. He noted that driving along in the car singing out loud to music scored high; going to faculty meetings scored low. He stopped going to so many meetings.

    2. Leave planning until later. At the start of a creative project, have a bias towards action, not planning. Tom and David said the tendency at the start of a project is for everyone to get their laptops out to start planning. But don’t. Dive in to make your project happen; you can worry about planning it later.

    3. Choose a creative life. The Kelley brothers talked about what they had learned watching people who described themselves as ‘non creative’ making the transition to become creative. It’s all about making a choice; if you want to have a creative life, you may have to choose it.

    4. Don’t worry about dropping the balls. They talked about a colleague at Stanford who helped people overcome their fear of failure by desensitizing them to the fear of dropping balls during juggling. If you don’t have a fear of dropping them, you become a better juggler.

    5. Your work environment is like your body language. Someone asked how important it was for an organisation looking to embrace creativity to have a radically different sort of office space. The Kelley brothers replied every organisation doesn’t need to have a space like IDEO’s, but your office space should be true to your belief system. It's like your body language.

    6. You still have to work at talent. Creative confidence needs nurturing. A genius still needs to practice their talent six hours a day.

    7. Creative confidence starts with the individual. Someone asked whether creative confidence is an individual issue or an organisational issue. They replied it's an individual issue - that’s where it starts, but the collective result is in cultural change within organisations.

  • Alec Ross: blending tech with international diplomacy

    When you think of where you might find innovation, you might not expect to look in a government department. But that’s Alec Ross’s area of expertise -  Alec was senior advisor for innovation at the US State Department, where he worked for Hillary Clinton in a role blending technology with diplomacy. He led the State Department's efforts to find technology-led solutions for foreign policy issues from poverty to human rights.

    Alec was in London last week speaking at the FT Innovate conference; I grabbed a chat with him as part of my ‘Year Of Living Curiously’ video project, watch it here: