Allez! Allez! Innovation

I was talking with an associate the other day about supporting teams in adopting an innovation mentality.

This goes beyond just a one-off solution, a brainstorm or company hack-day, the challenge is making innovation part of the culture so it becomes just the way in which we operate.

I’ve been mulling on what I could design as a consultant to drive this change and then a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see Sir Dave Brailsford, performance director of British cycling, speak about the theory of accumulation of marginal gains and how this was used to such great success in British Cycling.

Sir Dave explained that ahead of each race, he would sit down and look at all of the possible race conditions that could impact riders – weather, food, sleeping arrangements, mechanics, everything. He then set about trying to ensure that each condition was optimized so the impact on the riders was positive.

For example, during a road race cyclists stay in different hotels each night, sleeping in different beds and dining in variable restaurants. So Sir Dave, started bringing beds on the race and sending a team ahead to set up each riders’ bed in each new town, so they always had a consistently good sleeping experience. He did the same with food – the Team Sky chef now travels with the team and takes over the hotel kitchen each night with his team to ensure that the food is as tasty and nutritious and possible.

Little by little the race conditions are managed and this enables to the riders to deliver consistently fantastic performances’ without distraction.

I realized that this approach could be used to help embed an innovation mindset in businesses and that we could explore it further by posing three (fairly) simple questions:

  1. How do we need to be in order to be innovative?
  2. What conditions impact our ability to be this way?
  3. How can we optimise these conditions to allow us to be this way?

For example, if we start thinking about the characteristics of innovative teams (the ‘how we need to be’ part), we might come up with a list like this:

  • Aware – both of internal business needs and also customer needs
  • Agile – able to be fast and responsive
  • Passionate – driven by the purpose of what we are trying to achieve
  • Energetic – able to sustain momentum and drive things forward
  • Connected – to the business and its goals
  • Collaborative – able to work together, sharing knowledge and insight
  • Cohesive – working as a team, supporting each other and sharing each others success
  • Directed – towards a common goal or outcome
  • Curious – wanting to try the new and able to fail and learn from mistakes

You probably have more of these (and please let me know if you do, as I’d love to hear them).

So far, so good, but this is an ambitious list – how do you then make sure this happens? This is where the conditions come in. What impacts out ability to behave in these ways?

For example, if we take Awareness; what do we need to be aware of? Is this information currently available to us? Or Agility; what impacts on our ability to be agile? Is it our technology? Is it our other responsibilities? Is it internal process – for example, do I have to prepare a business case each time I want to try anything new?

If we take the ideal behaviours one by one and start looking at all the things that might impact them (tools, time, environment, processes, insight, culture, leadership, etc, etc), we can start to identify the many, many things that affect on our ability to behave in these ways.

And once we have identified these things we can start to look at what tweaks we can make to improve them and optimise our conditions.

For example, maybe your team is dispersed, making cohesion an issue, if so, could bringing them into the same physical location help? Or perhaps curiosity is being hampered by a fear of failure, in which case, what could you do to help make failure acceptable and to share learnings from experimentation in a positive way?

This I think gives you a smart way to start applying the theory of marginal gains to your innovation program. And I would suggest that this exercise be carried out with the teams themselves – they are the ones that understand what affects them and they will be the ones that come up with novel solutions to help improve them.

Sir Dave believes that if it is possible to make a 1% improvement in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains will end up being hugely significant. They certainly proved to be so for British Cycling, so why not for business too?

If you want to chat about how you could do something like this with your team, please give me a shout.