With the pace of change intensifying and the number of business challenges intensifying, the promise of striking gold with the next big idea is always alluring. To find an idea that truly sticks, you have to be somewhat contrarian, advises serial entrepreneur and innovator Chris Lord.
Can you imagine a world without light bulbs? One of the most important inventions ever, it revolutionised home and work life whilst influencing urban development and accelerating the economy. The first practical electric light bulb was attributed to highly revered inventor Thomas Edison, one of 1,093 patents he filed in the US alone. But at the time of its commercialisation, not everyone was impressed.
A British Parliament Committee, for instance, sneered that it was “unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” At the same time, a British Post Office engineering group said that the “subdivision of the electric light is an absolute ignis fatuus.” In other words, a fairy tale. A sham. When it comes to spotting a genius innovation, so much for the wisdom of crowds.
Consensus, particularly by committee, and the anonymity if provides can seriously damage innovation efforts. If an invention feels safe and comfortable by committee then remind them that safety and comfort is the enemy of innovation. And even in the most collaborative creative cultures, say like Pixar Studios, there is always an individual who is personally accountable for a transformative creation or invention.
To get the ‘lightbulb moment’ that person, the innovator, pushes the boundaries in ways that most people (and almost all committees) don’t. As a serial entrepreneur with more than 1000 patents under my belt and two exits from companies I founded totalling more than £150m, I know how to achieve breakthroughs that unlock business growth.
In my experience, there are three key contradictory behaviours you can use to disruptively innovate, whether you are personally responsible for it, or manage the talent charged with delivering it.
Someone, and often everyone, will tell you that you cannot make your innovation happen. Ignore them, trust your own gut and do it anyway.
The first company I founded didn’t start as a life sciences enterprise but it ended up as one. As a producer of nicotine replacement therapies, I had to build a clean room in our factory.
The purpose of this room is to ensure that any contaminants do not ingress to or egress from the cleanroom causing contamination. Having witnessed a disastrous one in China, which incredibly had open windows allowing airborne contaminants in, I decided to build our own after meticulously studying the regulations and using a sprinkling of common sense.
Of course, everyone told us “you can’t construct a clean room yourself” and that we needed to outsource this to very expensive third party experts. As a start-up I wanted to avoid unnecessary additional spend but I also wanted control, I like control! particularly to avoid the mistakes of expert clean room builders I had seen first hand in the aforementioned Chinese pharmaceutical facility.
With an entrepreneurial ‘can do’ mindset of course, the team and I found that building an effective clean room was surprisingly easy. No it’s not simply closing the windows, but essentially it’s a room with special paint, a special floor along with an HVAC system, and an airlock; we installed a manometer above each of the cleanroom and airlock doors so that we could both ensure and monitor the pressure gradient from the clean room through the airlock to the main room and offices. We did however have a lovely wide window installed overlooking the rest of the lab, though we didn’t have the window opening to let in fresh air like they did in China!
Reject received wisdom
The first business I ran was jointly founded by my father and uncle. A market leader, it adapts vehicles for the disabled and is still going strong to this day, evolving into electric vehicles and push button solutions.
Before taking over the reins, I was 22 year old engineer, I was in charge of a crash test. Not any old test, however, it was one I needed a ‘pass’ on to sell the rights to manufacture a special adaptive seat in the US.
In less than 24 hours, I was to fly to Minneapolis, to seal the deal. However, at that moment, I was in Middlesex University with four seats which were undergoing a third party crash test and two had already failed, with the sled catapulting off the rails unambiguously indicating a clear fail.
The Department of Transport representative who designed the test, was a super bright, academic type. But he was also super efficient at destroying my car seats and possibly crashing my huge US deal.
Though academically-sound, I suspected that his crash test wasn’t an effective ‘real world’ type test. So I urged a different methodology, which turned his approach on its head and came at it from the other side. He wasn’t a happy chappy initially but agreed to the new approach, as long as the physics and numbers stood up. In short they were working from 40g deceleration down to the required 20g. The test was such that only after the test and after analysing the accelerometer data could we determine the deceleration the seat was subjected to. That’s fine if you’ve an infinite number of seat samples. Also it meant that after each test I received a big feat fail at these ridiculously high deceleration values. I thought I would rather work from the opposite end work up from 1g! At least then I would have a catalogue of passes, albeit insufficient in severity but nevertheless passes to my name.
So we both watched – him curiously, me slightly sweatily – as test seat number three shot down the rails on the test sled and thud it went at the end of the rails, then…silence.
The seat was still attached to the sled and it had more than withstood the required impact with a huge safety margin. It turned out after analysing the data that the seat had in fact withstood an admirable ‘15.6 G’ which apparently was a resounding success. The next test, with some further tweaking, put the seat over the 20 G figure which was all that I needed to get on the plane to Minneapolis.
This really was one of my first experiences of having to go against all the advice and all the experience and go with my instinct and preference. It is always a very conscious decision to make and you know when you are doing it you are going against some unwritten rule or something, or basically saying to the ‘experts’ they don’t know what they’re doing and that you do. From experience nut of courser not always I have been right.
Be wary of consumer ‘insights’
Innovators are fond of the apocryphal quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Ford didn’t actually say this, but there are innovators who want to believe he did, because they believe customers are unable to communicate their unmet needs for innovative products.
Perhaps they’re not. Or perhaps those looking for insights ask the wrong questions. In the era where cheap cars were available to the masses, but you only gave consumers the choice of a faster horse or bigger horse, they couldn’t choose a car, if it’s not offered as a choice. This is often the problem.
In my journey to get the world’s first – and to this day only – medical license (MA) from the MHRA for an electronic vaping product, I was on a mission to unhook the world’s one billion smokers from cigarettes. Patches weren’t working, nor gum, so my business partner and I were among the first in the world to look to e-cigarettes as an alternative. Because we asked the right questions. We didn’t ask smokers if people wanted safer nicotine, we knew they did. Instead, we asked how they wanted it.
But even with an e-cigarette, some bright and bushy tailed consumer research type told me of a new direction for the product: “consumers wanted a bigger battery that lasted longer”, so we needed bigger e-cigarettes. Nonsense! If the right questions were asked, he would have realised that people wanted longer battery life, in a smaller product, so really the innovation was smaller batteries which lasted longer.
History indicates that Henry Ford most certainly did think along the lines of ignoring consumer needs to a degree. It worked for him when he had a production line monopoly until GM caught up. Turns out a verified quote of his, “(our buyers) can have any colour they want as long as it’s black,” didn’t end so well.
So don’t blindly follow ‘insights’ but don’t ignore customer needs either. Instead, use the right questions to start finding the most innovative answers.