Thirty Years

February 13, 2021

Today I’m celebrating 30 years of independent consulting.  From fax and acetate slides and flipcharts to conference calls, shared screens and collaborative virtual whiteboards.

From my two first projects (how to pack dried coffee under an inert atmosphere and whether an innovation centre could build a self-funded business in technology transfer), through to today’s projects (product portfolio management, senior leadership team coaching, innovation in biopharma, and decision-making under uncertainty).  308 projects for 118 individual clients across 39 different organisations.  The shortest project was one fairly amazing hour and the longest was a little less than five years.  Interestingly, as you might expect, a power law describes the distribution of case sizes, and 50% of turnover came from just seven people.

But most importantly from the last 30 years, the friendships and joys of working alongside and for competent professionals from so many different industry sectors and organisations of all sizes across the public and private sectors on fascinating issues of delightful complexity and often considerable political sensitivity. (That’s ‘small p’ political).

The variety has been a source of unending interest; from agricultural machinery to beer, confectionary to cosmetics, domestic heating boilers to fusion research, housing associations to investment banking, medical devices to nuclear safety, railways to radar, and sugar to semiconductors.

And the activity has had plenty of variety in it as well; innovation, coaching, culture change, facilitation, foresighting, merger integration, product development and management, risk management, and technology and R&D strategy.

And here’s looking forward to the next 30 years… maybe.

BTW – other things from 30 years ago

  • John Major was PM and George H.W. Bush was President. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned.
  • 600-700 oil wells were set ablaze in Kuwait
  • Mt Pinatubo provided the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century with “observed surface cooling in the Northern Hemisphere of up to 0.5 to 0.6°C  …   a cooling of perhaps as large as -0.4°C over large parts of the Earth in 1992-93” [1]
  • The first web site was put online – by CERN labs in August
  • The Apple PowerBook was launched
  • The first Linux kernel was completed
  • The first commercially available digital single-lens reflex camera (Kodak DCS100)
  • ‘The Big Issue’ was launched
  • The Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire achieved the first ever controlled and substantial production of fusion energy
  • “Creature Comforts” (Nick Park’s stop-motion film) won an Oscar
  • Ayerton Senna won the Formula 1 championship (again).  Mazda won at Le Mans and Jim Richards, driving a Nissan Skyline GT-R, won at Mt Panorama.

[1: https://pubs.usgs.gov/pinatubo/self/ ]

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the last couple of years I’ve been working around the resilience topic; how systems can be compromised by ‘cascade’ failures (if the power goes out then what else disappears?[1]), definitions of resilience (see my post https://innovationcoaching.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/a-useful-graphical-representation-of-resilience/) and how to make decisions that explicitly consider resilience as well as efficiency as criteria.

It’s interesting how little the ecologists’ viewpoint impinges on the conventional business thinking.  Ecologists explicitly consider whether an ecosystem under stress will recover to the ‘same’ system or whether it will translate to a ‘different’ system – looking for tipping points which means that the new system dynamics are fundamentally different.

Interesting also to see how much of the thinking around the post-coronavirus world assumes that things will be as before, exemplified by commentary about “when we get back to normal”.  This seems to me to be an unhelpful mindset.

More useful, perhaps, to think about “when we get to a post-pandemic world”, “via a journey of change”, “about which many (which?) of the old assumptions will be wrong”.  And, of course, how we will get to that new world.

Working with one of my clients (pre-pandemic), we were exploring which assumptions about their future were deeply embedded, widely shared, and potentially wrong. Exciting and useful insights emerged.  The assumptions about cause-and-effect in their marketplace and in their business operations had the greatest impact on their projections – and some of these assumptions were arguably fragile.  The ripple-through of a faulty assumption across a tightly-coupled business showed potential weaknesses in resilience that surprised us all.

(Regrettably, the assumption that “consultancy to think about future scenarios is a luxury during a pandemic” proved to be true in that case.  But the pandemic is providing a worked example in testing assumptions and resilience.)

 

[1]  See “Living without electricity” (https://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/living-without-electricity) for a cascade failure story.

Photo: Saltlake south of Beacon, Western Australia, courtesy of Prof Andrew Boulton

Have you ever noticed how powerful a real example is in cutting through confusion, disagreement or hyperbole?

In pragmatic product management I’ve found use cases helpful to draw a line of logic between a product feature specification, the user benefit and the product cost incurred in delivering that feature.  In setting performance boundaries to decide what’s realistically useful and what’s just “specmanship”.  In designing product portfolios to define product adjacencies and overlaps.

Use cases also enable marketing people to illustrate segmentation.  Is this use case plausible among this target audience?  Really?

Nice new product?  Loads of clever features? So what?  Educate customers (and sales people beforehand) with plausible and engaging use cases.  (And if they’re not plausible use cases then why did you build the features in the first place?)

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited

Many people think that getting R&D to communicate with marketing is difficult.  Not if you communicate via use-cases.  Engineers and developers can easily translate technology mysteries to sales people by describing the use case that a new technology enables.  And, importantly, the use case provides a common language to negotiate the art of the possible and the art of the saleable.  Where I’ve been involved in choosing new technology directions, I’ve found that the discussion partners, be they sales people or the board, engage with, understand and explore use cases.  Then it’s no longer ‘technology push’ but rather ‘market pull’ via benefits offered and sought.  The debate is real rather than superficial hyperbole.

Similarly, in exploring opaque new research offerings, a key question is how would the customer use it?  But also look at other use cases.  How would we sell it?  How would we make it?  How would we repair it?

Risk management?  Dig into the detail with a use case to illustrate aspects that may be missed – for example, as we build redundant systems how will we know the extent of failure?  And how will the system inform the decision-makers?  What will they see?  Be specific and avoid management jargon which may hide a failure to think things through.

I’m just embarking on a project to ‘research research’ – how does research deliver value in practice in a particular sector?  Loads of hypotheses, plenty of generality, and some plausible claims.  But we need use cases to bring it to life – both to explore the reality and then later to communicate results to an audience that will include scientists and non-scientists.

In the tower of Babel, the use case is the lingua franca.

Signs for adults

July 8, 2018

Parking isn’t exactly forbidden…

 

No Parking t

Before and after.

Before the fence 180528Fence at Westfield 180527

End of an era.

 

You’ve been warned

December 30, 2017

You've been warnedI really like this sign.

There is a suggestion of the risks you might be running (but no more), advice (but the decision is up to you) and clear information about the risk recovery mechanisms and constraints.

No nanny state here.

You’ve been warned – now make your decision.

 

Another brilliant weekend at Goodwood – wondering at intriguing solutions….

B type 50 brake 1With cable brakes it really spoils your day if, in turning the front wheels, the geometry change causes the brakes to be applied because the path length of the brake cables changes.  So you want to put a lot of effort into designing a system where the tangent of the brake cable path is always aligned with the centre line of rotation of the steering hub.  And on the 1930 Bugatti Type 50 this is achieved through an elegant little offset sprocket.

B type 50 brake 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Have you seen all the recent hype about “augmented reality” so that manufacturers can provide service information just at the point where it’s needed by the technician doing the work? (If you haven’t seen it – this is typical: https://9to5mac.com/2017/08/07/augmented-reality-car-maintenance-genesis/)

Invicta had this cracked in 1931 with a gorgeous engraved plate mounted just where you’d need it as a reference.

AR 1931

Invicta 1931

 

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Then there was the amazing Delage 1926 gearbox with a very unusual shift pattern – reverse is beyond 1st gear – yes, in a straight line!

Delage box

=-=

And leaping to the present, Gordon Murray’s iStream technology (which was mooted to massively reduce investment costs in manufacturing: http://istreamtechnology.co.uk/, and was expected to appear in city cars http://gordonmurraydesign.com/GMD/T25.html) actually appears in its first customer car – the new TVR

iStream

See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URzSrI-3_PY

Just a few examples from across 50 years of automotive innovation …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technology Venturing Forum

September 30, 2017

TVFAn interesting couple of days this week at the Technology Venturing Forum in Cambridge (https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/events/technology-venturing-forum/).  This is developing into a very promising community for leading edge thinking about new ventures in all their forms in an ever more digital world.  I presented my thinking on the increasing sophistication of academic engagement with industry, the emerging role of the post-doc and the move from relationships between companies and universities to relationships between ecosystems. Others covered IP, corporate venturing, business models, open innovation and tools to explore the innovation space.  Usefully, it was all firmly grounded in pragmatic reality and experience.

I’ve been enjoying Neil Crompton’s wonderful commentary on the V8 Supercar series (for years now).

Fascinating to see how, by knowing what to look for, he spots and comments on minutia that presage unfolding events.  This from his experience driving as well as commentating.

Multiplies my enjoyment by orders of magnitude.

And just one specific instance of a general truth.

Frank Pick

September 1, 2017

The other day, I dropped by Piccadilly Underground Station specifically to see the Frank Pick memorial.  These words were found in his manuscript notes for (a talk to?) to Workers’ Guild in 1917.

Sentiment (170901)

And I couldn’t have phrased better the summary description of how the initiatives of this remarkable man seem to me to have been years ahead of his time – see below.

Plaque (170901)

 

I find Pick’s sentiments thought provoking, and I have to wonder what he meant by “<”; simple inequality or something more profound?

And why didn’t he reverse the words and use “>” which would be a far more obvious sentiment?