Innovation, USPs, and the herd instinct…

Have you ever listened to leaders talking in person, or via video or teleconference, about innovation, unique selling points (USPs) that make the company stand out from the crowd, and slogans to be used to grab the attention of potential customers? The answer is  ‘probably’, a word used to great effect in Carlsberg advertising campaigns  that trace their roots back to 1973. The Badger’s sat through many such talks over the years, but one more than twenty-five years ago generated a memorable insight that’s still relevant today.

At a senior staff gathering in a London hotel conference centre, the Group Chief Executive gave a lengthy presentation that announced and justified the company’s move beyond its software, systems development, and systems  integration roots into outsourcing and offshoring services. The presentation not only boasted about this being innovation, but also it conveyed new USPs. Many present were, like the Badger, experienced, delivery-centric people who felt the assertion that this was innovation was highly dubious, and that the new USPs were aspirational and not underpinned by any reality. The audience understood the IT market was changing, but they reacted badly to the claim this move was innovation because competitors were already way-ahead, and it felt like the company was just following the herd rather than playing to its true strengths.

In the hotel bar afterwards, a subsidiary executive provided some wise words of insight when tackled informally about the presentation. They pointed out that although the business world worships innovation as necessary for survival and growth, the reality is that true innovation is rare and it’s imitation that is the endemic driver. They used examples of the new products and approaches emerging across the IT industry at the time to illustrate that these were born out of imitation and not innovation. The executive also highlighted that since the herd mentality is a feature of human behaviour, no one should ever be surprised that companies follow the herd and assert USPs that are primarily just slogans to differentiate in business conversations with potential clients. The bigger a company, the executive asserted, the more the slogan is influenced by spin and market trends, and the more tenuous the link with raw capability. This has coloured the Badger’s calibration of company sales and marketing messaging ever since, and the executive’s innovation, USP and herd mentality insight still resonates in today’s world in which we are bombarded with information relentlessly, and organisations do everything they can to grab, keep, and capitalise on our attention. So, just remember that if something claims to be an innovation today, then be sceptical because imitation is endemic and true innovation is scarce. Similarly, always explore any asserted USP to see if it passes the ‘unique’ test amongst industry peers, because it’s the herd instinct rather than uniqueness that dominates the world of business.

Robots in Nursing Homes…

The Badger’s immediate priority in 2020 so far has been dealing with the health and care of a frail, 91-year old, father in moving to a nursing home after a lengthy stay in hospital. This transition went better than anticipated and the Badger’s respect for all the health and care professionals involved has reached new heights. They have been magnificent. A transition to a nursing home becoming ‘home’ is, of course, difficult for any person, especially when they have medical, mobility and dementia issues but still desire full independence, but the staff have been great and have eased the process for everyone.

If you have dealt with a similar scenario then you’ll know that it makes you aware of little things that can improve the patient’s quality of life and the bigger things that would help carer’s in their work. Useful items of simple technology are available that can help with the former – see here and here, for example – and robotic pets might ultimately help some people in the future! Regarding help for carer’s, however, the Badger’s observation is that technology that helps to safely move the human body during the daily routines of life will provide the biggest help. There has been robotics research in this area for some time, and robot advances in nursing home settings is moving apace in Japan, gaining more momentum across the developed world, and receiving investment from the UK government. If the Badger becomes resident in a nursing home in a few decades time, then a robot will inevitably play a role in getting him out of bed!

A young digital native in the Badger’s family made the following comment after the Badger’s father had been in his new home for a week:

‘There’s no point in me having a laptop, tablet, smartphone, Alexa or online games when I get old because I’ll forget what they are and how to use them. Talking to someone will be more important’.

The Badger wouldn’t put it quite that way, but the comment was very insightful!

The right robots will undoubtedly help in a residential care environment, but in the Badger’s opinion they will never replace the humanity shown by the special people who really care for their vulnerable and high-dependent residents. The Badger ’s father readily responds to people who engage him with encouraging words, a touch of a hand, a smile, a wiggle of the nose or a wrinkle of the face, and a joke or some banter. Robots  that help care staff should get more profile and investment, but it’s people and the humanity of their interactions that really makes a difference in our twilight years. So, bring on the robots, but not as a replacement for the special people who look after us when we can’t look after ourselves…

It’s people that innovate…

Tim Harper, a serial nanotechnology entrepreneur, recently wrote a great article on ‘Seven rules for nanotech innovation’ for Physics World, an Institute of Physics publication. Sadly, you can’t read it online unless you’re a member. What struck the Badger from reading the article was two things; first, just how closely Tim’s points aligned with the Badger’s experience in IT services, and second that innovation comes from people with belief, determination and resilience in the face of the indifference of others. Corporations per se don’t innovate, but the individuals within them do!

Of course, it’s corporations that benefit from the ideas of their employees, especially when there’s an internal culture that truly encourages creativity and innovation. Often, however, that internal culture is absent, and talented, hard-working employees become frustrated or apathetic about progressing their ideas, and some leave to take their chances as an entrepreneur in the big wide world.

Corporations must continuously innovate in the digital world (e.g. see this from McKinsey) and most in IT services say the right things, have innovation champions, have extensive internal processes to capture and evaluate ideas, and have budget to nurture ideas with potential. Processes and controls are a necessity for any commercial enterprise, but these processes are too often bureaucratic, cumbersome, and slow, which discourages busy people from engaging with them. The Badger’s seen few true innovations come to fruition through such machinery; most ideas seem to stall in the process with people wondering why they bothered!

So, what do you do if your ideas are getting nowhere? Be hard on yourself and re-evaluate your idea ruthlessly and objectively. We can all be blinkered about our ideas, so remember it’s ‘the market’ that comes first not the science or technology. Will your idea really have commercial usefulness and, if so, in what market? Who’ll use it, pay for it and why? If you’re unclear on this then it may be why you’re encountering indifference and getting nowhere.

If, however, you’ve clear answers, then you may just be mired in slow, dogmatic corporate bureaucracy which is at odds with a truly creative and innovation-centred culture. If your passion for your idea is overwhelming and your frustration high then you may be at a career crossroads. Do you leave for a dynamic, smaller company hungry for new ideas to fuel growth, or do you plunge into the uncertain world of becoming an entrepreneur? Only you can make such judgements. If you do, then do so knowing that  it’s people that innovate, most innovation originates in smaller companies or start-ups, and that most of these are eventually bought by bigger companies! Your job satisfaction could soar, and you could make your fortune far sooner than with a corporate. One final point. Be confident in yourself and never stifle your creativity. After all, your ideas are just as valid as anyone else’s…