I don't find this hard to believe: Today's Guardian runs a story about an inventor in residence at the British Library called From the Garden Shed to the British Library: the nutty professor takes over. The last paragraphs make sobering reading:
"As Sheahan gets up to return to his inventing - he is busy with a child-resistant, easy-to-open plastic container - he has one last piece of advice: don't start in the UK.
"The only area I've had problems with is the UK. Larger companies are run by financial people. They don't want to take the risk. I can tell quite often by just meeting them that they may want the technology but don't want to pay for it. I don't want to say this but with my experience, I'm not even interested in exhibiting here."
At that he walks off. Back to the office and not, he insists, the garden shed."
And then there is Seth Godin's Reasons and Excuses
"Most organizations need a good reason to do something new.
All they need is a flimsy excuse to not do something for the first time.
And they often need a lawsuit to stop doing something they're used to."
So why is it different here? I suspect he answer is not that simple but emerges from an organisation's attitude to external ideas, its innovation processes and its understanding of its own industry.
Andrew Hargadon has spent time looking at How Breakthroughs Happen: the Surprising Truth About How Companies innovate. In the Forward Kathleen Eisenhardt writes "While How Breakthroughs Happen is replete with insights, from my vantage point two observations are crucial. The first is the idea that innovation is the result of synthesising or "bridging" ideas from different domains.
As Andrew observes, Henry Ford and colleagues created the assembly line from an unlikely blend of observations from Singer sewing machines, meatpacking, and Campbell Soup. [Other examles are noted] These and other extraordinary innovations are the result of simultaneously thinking in multiple boxes, not the oft-prescribed 'thinking outside the box.' In short extraordinary innovations are often the result of recombinant invention.
Picture uploaded by cyancey . Used with thanks under CC.
The concept of bridging reveals a couple of counterintuitive points:
1. Whilst it might be appealing to focus on the future, breakthrough innovation depends on exploiting the past........ Innovations that rely on the past are pragmatic. They save their developers time and money, even as they lower risk. In contrast, innovative attempts that focus on developing fundementally new vivions from entirely novel knowledge very often fail. This path is too slow, too challenging, and too risky.
2. The organising structure can dominate individual creativity. Most of us buy into the myth that breakthrough innovation is the product of individual creative genius. ....successful innovators are not really more gifted or creative than the rest of us. Rather they simply better exploit the networked structure of ideas within unique organisational frameworks.
The other crucial observation is that breakthrough innovations depend on 'building' communities. Of course, the substance of innovation has to be there. But the ideas that go on to become breakthrough innovations rely on fundemantally rearranging established networks of suppliers, buyers, and complementors into new networks or ecosystems. Otherwise hoped-for innovations will never develop. The initial innovation is the starting line of the race, not the finish.
Picture uploaded by Zepfanman.com. Used with thanks under CC.
This observation underscores yet another counterintuitive point:
3. Innovation is as much social as it is technical. Resistance must be met, and alliances forged, because people often cannot understand innovations, or cannot see how they would be benefit if the innovations were adopted. Breakthrough innovations must often be cloaked with references to existing activity.
and a final counterintuitive insight:
4. Although myth portrays Edison as a lone creative genius, he actually worked in a collective."
Picture of personnel in Menlo Park Lab, 1880. Source.
I think of the successful return of the Apollo 13 mission as an extreme example of pragmatic innovation!
Thirty-seven years ago, the spacecraft ferrying Apollo 13’s three astronauts, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, to the moon was crippled by an oxygen tank that overheated and exploded. On the ground, a group of engineers encouraged by Flight Director Gene Kranz’s now legendary call, “Failure is not option,” conceived a way to safely return the astronauts home by retrofitting the craft using plastic bags, cardboard, and duct tape. The story would go on to become a thing of legends, one of NASA’s proudest moments—and even a Hollywood movie, which shows their innovative activity very well.
Two years ago the Engineers involved were honoured for their efforts.....
None of this directly answers the question of why we in the UK are resistant to inventive solutions but if we look at complaints from development teams we often hear how difficult it is to find a home for any idea that doesn't fit neatly with the ongoing activity. It is therefore essential to adopt ways of working that allow ideas to enter, come through and be nurtured until their value can be demonstrated.
In a nutshell, ideas must be allowed to break through barriers and present themselves to decision makers. But barriers to innovation take many forms as shown on the diagram below. Also shown are the needs for innovation and exemplars of successful companies that are declared to be innovative.