I am impressed by the RSPB’s new positioning of their request for donation with a portfolio of activities under the heading of ‘pioneers’ (http://www.rspb.org.uk/pioneers).  They’ve identified three themes; marine innovations, recovering lost habitats, and restoration rainforests (sic).  My eye was caught, naturally, by the ‘innovation’ label.  When one reads the detail, the projects being supported might not fit a pedantic definition of innovation, but I like the thought that a donation is supporting new ways to address persistent problems and some of those new ways are improving understanding and then working within the systems.  Like building the data sets to inform the location of Marine Protection Areas.  Like helping fishermen solve the problem they face of accidentally catching albatrosses.

Maybe it’s just a reflection of my interests, but I wonder if other charities would get a good response from their supporters (and others) by explaining how they innovate to solve problems, rather than just continuing the familiar approaches?


Re-inventing the wheel

October 22, 2011

If you’ve visited my website you’ll know I’m fascinated by people who innovate by approaching problems in a fundamentally different way.  One such was George Cayley who is best known for designing the first glider to successfully fly with a human on board.  In pursuit of lightness he needed to address the heavy wooden wheels of the day that took the load in compression in their wooden spokes.  Cayley invented the ‘tension-spoke’ wheel – like today’s bicycle wheel.  Use wires instead of wood, use tension instead of compression and, conceptually, ‘hang the axle from the wheel’.  Brilliant reframing of the problem and solution.  And the rest is history.

Then there was Michelin’s effort – the ‘tweel’ touched on in an earlier post here (https://innovationcoaching.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/innovation-and-system-boundaries/).

Another iconoclast is John Keogh who managed to patent the wheel in Australia in 2001. See (http://pericles.ipaustralia.gov.au/aub/pdf/nps/2002/0808/2001100012A4/2001100012.pdf) for a copy of the patent.  He did this to highlight flaws in the then recently introduced ‘innovation patent’.  While the patent won’t stand up to a challenge, it’s a nice example of reinventing the wheel!

How often do innovators think about what and how their customers learn?  And about who teaches them?


Innovation is a dance between developers (of a product or a service) and their consumers and users.  The innovators seek new things to offer, either to do a job better or perhaps to do a job that the consumer didn’t recognise was possible.  And the consumer is on the lookout, consciously or unconsciously, for better ways to do things or new things to do.  Sometimes the innovator leads, think iTunes (sorry for the same old example) and sometimes the innovator follows (“we’re proud to be customer-led”).


But the innovator isn’t the only player in the game.  Competitors shape consumer expectations.  Shaped well, expectations and familiarity can be very powerful.  For example, admittedly some years ago, Nokia built a loyal following of consumers who liked the Nokia mobile phone interface.  Many refused to switch brands because they liked the Nokia experience.


But competitors teach consumers to want different things.  Perhaps the most compelling example is in the range of apps available for smartphones.  Many apps offer things to do that you simply didn’t know you needed.  Standing in London on a wet night and can’t find a taxi?  There’s an app that will tell you what buses are nearby and will take you to your destination.  Knowing that teaches consumers several things; they needn’t walk and they needn’t pay the premium for a taxi.


Which also illustrates that competition comes from strange places in a complex world.  A smartphone app enables a bus to compete with a taxi on new terms.


So when you’re thinking about the users of your products or services you need to be aware that they will learn.  And the best teacher will have an advantage.  And teachers from elsewhere will change the game.


Are you thinking about how your customer learns? From whom? And what?