Category Archives: Innovation

The next big idea is a billion years old.

When we start something new, when we’re looking for solutions or are making an important decision we often look for sources of inspiration and perspective within our companies or sectors. We might interview our customers, employees, or suppliers. We might ask academic institutions or experts. We could commission research to see what competitors or even other sectors are doing.

Too often we miss out on asking advice of a rich source of wise answers that exists right in front of our eyes… nature.

Our planet is old – 4.5 billion years old. And for an astounding 3.8 billion years, it has harboured life. Life has had a bit of time to evolve strategies to maximise existence and sustain itself! It has arrived at well-adapted solutions that have stood the test of time, within the constraints of a planet with finite resources. Each new shoot or seed is nature taking a lean methodology approach to experimentation and rapid prototyping to find better solutions every time they grow. Millions of organisms have adapted and evolved to survive, to meet their needs efficiently within the limits of the planet and alongside all other life forms.

How could we learn from and emulate nature’s successful strategies?

  1. PRODUCT DESIGN

Nature is a master designer – and companies are catching on to the fact that they should look to how nature has addressed a specific challenge in order to come up with an optimised solution. This means looking at how shark skin is able to move sleekly through water and using that in swimsuit fabric and ship paint. It’s about a shift from rectangular, flat solar panels to ones that are shaped like leaves – the longest ever experiment in optimising surfaces for capturing sunlight. Interface designed pads to secure its carpet tiles to floors inspired by the way lizards have foot pads that enable them to cling to surfaces. This has transformed the carpet industry, created disruption in the glue industry and cut costs, reduced impact and provided a competitive differentiator for the organisation.

Questions to ask: What is the challenge I’m trying to solve?  How does nature perform this function?

2. PROCESS DESIGN

In comparison to the sleek processes of nature, human processes are clumsy, wasteful and inefficient.  Take manufacturing, a “take, make waste” process. We draw components out of the ground, turn them into products that may or may not be used and that ultimately land up in landfill. A tree takes resources out of the ground, moves it up a spiral and produces leaves. These resources are deposited on another side of the tree, ensuring broad distribution of essential elements that become resources for the next leaf.

Or look at innovation processes – many run by specialist teams stuck away in a room of a large building, silo’d and shut off. Nature innovates mostly in the edges – bringing together diversity between habitats (e.g. swamp land and grassland) and seeing what emerges. As the edge increases, the boundary habitat allows for greater biodiversity. Change happens at the fringes and the longer the ‘edges’ the more diversity and more change can happen.

Questions to ask: How does nature perform this process? Specifically, how could my organisation manufacture in a way that optimises resources? How can we create ‘edges’ and ‘intersections’ for our organisation to collide with others for increased diversity of thinking and accelerated innovation?

  1. ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND VENTURING

Recently I worked with a bright Imperial College graduate with an excellent idea that could shift the virtual reality industry by allowing better understanding of location for the user. He thought of how a new ecosystem would replace an old one in order to ensure that his product could be part of a technology shift into a new space. Steve Jobs did this with the iPod. Instead of just launching a ‘me too ‘music player, like the Sony Walkman, he defined the entirely new ecosystem that his music player would operate within – and the route to shift the industry. For this to work we need to think like nature – what is the broader function of this ecosystem, what are the elements that are needed to sustain it, which are key stone species?

Questions to ask: What is the broader ecosystem my venture is operating within? How do I effectively inhabit that?

  1. ORGANISATION RESILIENCE

Oak trees feed squirrels acorns, and squirrels eat harmful fungi off the oak. SABMiller buys its hops from farmers that buy its beer. Lloyd’s Bank worked with me to understand how to make the communities it operates within and takes transaction fees from, wealthier. We don’t operate in silos – everything is interconnected. Shifting thinking from being separate from the world around to being interdependent allows for greater resilience.

Questions to ask: Where can I increase my resilience by understanding and leveraging inter-dependencies?

  1. CHANGE

Nature is always in flux. We can see a tree as a static object – trunk, branches and leaves.  Or we can see it as a process in motion, taking up water and nutrients, depositing them, storing them and releasing them.  All organisations (and individuals within them) are in motion. We resist change, but it is inevitable. We can learn to flow with the changes and adapt, rather than take a static view of where we are. This involves seeing the emerging seeds of change and consciously deciding which ones to water and which ones to pluck out. It requires us to see beyond our current horizon into horizon two where these seeds will start growing to horizon three where the change will take root – and to plan and organise accordingly.

Questions to ask: What are the emergent properties of this current situation?  How do I leverage them for future success?

Einstein famously said you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.  Looking for answers in nature allows you to use ancient tried and tested wisdom to leapfrog contemporary thinking and to come up with better ideas.

Step away from your desk.  Walk away from the board room.  Take a walk in a park nearby. Look at patterns, look at functions and look at the way nature has worked out how to live. Be inspired. And please do remember to respect, protect and, even better to regenerate this great mentor.  

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This article is taken from a speech delivered for Interface in 2016 and to the Swiss Advisory Group in 2017. If you’d like me to speak to your audience on this and other topics that inspire action and shift perspective or to find solutions with you to tricky challenges, please do get in touch nicola.millson@future-academy.co.uk.

Learning our way into tomorrow. 

Talking shop: systems change, intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, innovation and social impact…

Thank you Cecilia Thirlway @solverboard for a fun interview! The original posting of her interview with me is on Medium.

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Talking to Nicola was a pleasure as it brought up a topic I hadn’t thought about for a while — system change and system design. I wrote about systems, particularly human systems, a while ago and have always been fascinated by how they grow and develop. Nicola’s thoughts on the subject were a really interesting insight. It was also a joy to talk to someone who was interested in the human journey of entrepreneurship as well as the economic and commercial one — we love to tell the stories of successful entrepreneurs, but spend less time working out how more people can be helped to be successful with the right emotional and practical support. And finally, of course, the topic of tech for good is one close to my own heart.


So Nicola, tell me about The League of Intrapreneurs. What makes an Intrapreneur and why do they need a league?

Intrapreneurs as people inside companies that have got a passion to create social impact, as well as the influencing skills to be able to make good things happen. We’ve seen some outstanding examples: Miriam Turner from Interface coming up with extraordinary ideas to be able to turn ocean plastic into carpet with social returns. She’s a great example of an Intrapreneur – adding significant value to businesses whilst at the same time solving big social issues.

To be effective, Intrapreneurs need a few different things: first is the support of others to know that there’s other people like them – an identity. Second, they need community they can learn from and with, and to go on the journey with them. The third thing they need is new skills and different ways of thinking. And the last thing that they need is visibility.

The League of Intrapreneurs helps create that identity and then is supported by people like me that offer tangible services to Intrapreneurs – through peer learning circles, through workshops on systems thinking and influence and tribe creation. Others support visibility and learning through conferences like the Intrapreneurship Conference and through competitions.

Do you think anybody can be an intrapreneur or is it a certain mindset or certain set of skills that people need?

It’s a tough choice to be an Intrapreneur! I think that everybody has a seed of possibility inside them but to be brave enough to buck the system for something that you believe in is a big step.

What sort of organisations do these people come from?

We find them in almost any organisation — we’re seeing more and more people coming out of different types of organisations that could work together to shift the system. For example, the Ellen McArthur Foundation is linking together corporate intrapreneurs in the plastics space with government agencies and NGO’s. We start to see people from different organisations working together to form ecosystems of change agents tackling big issues.

And how does the League fit in with your other work?

Essentially, I do three different things:

Firstly, innovation for large organisations. This includes strategy, global innovation programmes and internal start-ups for organisations like Interface, M&S, Nesta, the Carbon Trust and SABMiller.

Alongside that I’ve been working with disruptive start-ups with the idea of helping them scale their positive impact through Upstart Advice. I coach entrepreneurs from various programmes including Climate-KIC, Mass Challenge, Climate Launch Pad, Innoenergy and Imperial Enterprises Lab.

And finally I help convene change agents and support movements for change in order for the change seeded to have somewhere to land. This means that people to have the skills, the mindsets and the ways of working in place as this change happens. All of it is a way of understanding change and the self and opportunities to create better impact.

The first one was Six Heads, which has been a huge amount of fun: it’s young and it’s quirky and it’s all on sustainable innovation. It’s a gathering place for professionals to share stories, to learn together, to run events for each other to test out their skills and that can involve anything from perma-culture to trapeze. This is now run by Louisa Harris – an extraordinary young woman. The second movement is the League of Intrapreneurs, which I’ve helped to establish in the UK. Last, is my new initiative, the Future Academy, which brings together change-makers to solve societies most challenging problems and provides capabilities required for the next economy.

So that’s my model in terms of how I think about my work within the business system: transform the big, scale the small and create fertile ground for change to happen.

What kind of things do you tackle?

We did a really interesting project with SAB Miller last year: we were asked to work with them globally to support social innovation. It was fascinating because we were working with intrapreneurs across such a range of topics: we had someone from Switzerland looking at climate change, we had somebody in South Africa looking at poverty, another looking at access to markets for smallholder farmers, at water, the list goes on. All of these were internal projects that allowed growth opportunities for the employees involved, opportunities to increase business revenue and social impact. We set-up an innovation accelerator and supported projects through structured mentoring, coaching and communities of practice.

It was wonderful getting the feedback: one of the best quotes was somebody who said I’ve finally found meaning in what I do, I’ve got purpose in my job. I can see how I can make a difference and still do what I do day to day.

I think meaning is incredibly important, isn’t itYou get to a point in your life where you wonder why you bother, and what impact you have in the world.

It’s best to think: do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. All of us at the moment are exposed to so much horrible stuff: you know, you can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing fish dying, climate change, social inequity and the death of democracy… so how do we sit around and not do something. I think that people are looking for ways they can work differently and I think companies are starting to take more responsibility. One of the ways that they can do that is by unleashing their talent on these issues and to look for solutions that suit multiple objectives.

Why do you think that needs unleashing and why now? There were huge amounts of innovation in the industrial revolution, but no one was an innovation consultant then.

We face bigger social issues than we’ve ever faced before, and I don’t think it’s just about unleashing it I think it’s also about channelling it. I don’t think we need any more flavours of soft drink, I don’t think we need any more flavours of ice cream, but I do think we need to channel ingenuity into solving some social problems — and not only solving them but reframing some of the ways that we’re operating as a society. From consumerism to community or from consumer to citizen.

Do you think businesses are now much more interested in doing good?

A lot of it is enlightened self-interest. If you speak to the businesses pioneering this area — Marks and Spencer, Unilever — they talk about the fact that everybody wants to work with them as a result of this approach. For all businesses, being able to capture talent is important, and millennials particularly are looking for purposeful organisations to join.

When you look at indicators about employee well-being and retention, a company that provides meaning is important. It was interesting when the retail sector here was hit how quickly Marks and Spencer bounced back versus some of the other retailers, because there’s so much trust in it as a purpose-based organisation.

And is the pace of change getting faster? Do you think movements such as Tech for Good are gathering pace?

I like to think so. Think about the progression from sponsorship 20 years ago where big corporates would give money to their local football team to modern corporate social responsibility. Now we’re seeing the third wave where it’s becoming far more integrated. You see companies having to report to investors on climate change, you see organisations having to think about purpose to attract millennials, you see them looking at their supply chains differently and having different kinds of contracts to have longer term relationships, you see choice editing which is beyond commercial.

A great example is Interface, which makes floor tiles. About 20 years ago, their CEO realised he was ruining the world by running this business and he set out to completely reinvent the manufacturing of one of the most boring things ever: the carpet tile. He’s pioneered environmental standards around how carpeting works, he invented little stickies that go on the floor so that you’re not putting toxic glue down. The most recent one uses discarded fishing nets to make carpets. These discarded nets often end up floating in the sea killing fish, but now they have a value to the fishermen so they’re not being discarded.

In one of my other interviews I discussed philanthropists like Bill Gates who make a huge amount of money and then redistribute it. Is it better to make money and then redistribute or share the talent, or is it better to have a more equitable world to start with?

I’d love a more equitable world to start with, but what I believe is that business is the biggest system that we’ve got, it’s completely powerful. It links all of us and it determines and creates the world around us, so it makes sense for us to use this system differently. What I’m really engaged in is the system redesign, because I think that business could and should be the thing that solves the problems that we’ve got. It is a social construct: we just need to construct it differently.

That sounds interesting — tell me more?

My interest in systems innovation came out of the question of whether I am doing the right thing. You try and do things, but are you intervening in such a way that you are going to make a fundamental difference? I started becoming more and more interested in what the points in any kind of system are where you can create the most change and how you work that out.

The thing that’s always fascinated me about human systems is the potential for the weird and the wonderful to happen. If you have any kind of engineering system you know you hit point a and b will happen, but as soon as humans get involved you get weirdness.

In a way, the word ‘system’ is wrong: there’s something deeply organic about the way that systems operate and in the way that we as humans operate. Where I start getting interested is in how the systems are partly embedded in the past and partly in the present, and how they are embedded with stakeholders and people. What are the stories that are being told in parts of the system, and how do we humanise it in such a way that we can start to understand where some of the levers are? A lot of the levers are around mindsets and perception.

I’m a big fan of Edison: lots of people invented the light bulb but he put the entire system together to make it work as a commercial item. Often we create something and we don’t understand what the different things are that we need to build around it. He had to carry out many system interventions to get his invention integrated — he trained people and he set up schools.

I’m noticing that coming out of the best universities are amazing post-graduates in physics and engineering and mathematics. They are the creators of the future but they don’t have a huge grounding in sustainability and systems thinking. I’m meeting some that are setting up their businesses at the moment and speaking to them about unintended consequences. People are creating drones and robotics and looking at machine intelligence, and they need to understand this stuff and go into it consciously.

It’s also important to understand that there are three journeys across any innovation programme. Of course there’s the journey from the idea to the implementation, but I think there’s two other journeys that are often overlooked. One is the journey of the self: what do I want to be, where am I going with this, but also your personal resilience — how do you make sure that you look after yourself on the journey? A personal resilience plan is just as important as a business plan or a stakeholder engagement plan.

The third journey is the journey of team, how do we get like-minded people to work together, how do you set objectives and make it work for everybody. There’s enormous amounts of literature around developing ideas and commercialisation, but the weak points making things fail are around influencing those inside your company, building a team or creating the community that can drive things through.

I think that’s what’s next for me, to think about that idea.


These articles are supported by idea management platform Solverboard. I work with Solverboard as their Head of Innovation Practice, and they have kindly agreed to support this side project of mine. Do check out their suite of idea management tools for businesses of any size, their public open innovation platform Solverboard Open, or their extremely well-written blog 😉

Crafting a beautiful business

Alan Moore is a business innovator. He changes the way people understand and think about the world, and how their businesses can succeed in a world of constant change. Alan helps companies craft innovative, high performance businesses that are ethical, sustainable and restorative that will yield high commercial returns. Building beautiful businesses is his life’s mission.

He has worked with many leading businesses across six continents, in the form of advising, board positions, teaching, workshops and invitational speaking. These include, Google, Microsoft, KPN, H&M, The Coca Cola Company, MacLaren Automotive, Accel, and Institutional Pension Funds…and of course, me…!

This article was originally published by Hack&Craft and can be found here.

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I have always been fascinated by beautiful things: architecture, furniture, tools, books, even businesses. Beautiful things are prepared with love. The act of creating something of beauty is a way of bringing good into the world. Infused with optimism, it says simply: Life is worthwhile.

The effort to craft enduring beauty is not dependent on style but truth. Beauty is what lends things their immortality. Beauty therefore gets out of surfaces and into the foundations of things.

The time has come I believe to rethink the role of business in our world and its overall contribution to our society. We need to re-frame business in the context of beauty.

What does it mean to be a beautiful business? Beautiful businesses are transformational in the universal and valuable utility they bring to the world, joyful in experiences they create. All sourced from an embracing of clear purpose of how to serve their customers well. Beautiful businesses are restorative to people and planet. Businesses with beautiful cultures are attractive – to employees, and customers. Consequently, people want to belong, to enthuse, and support them.

This raises important questions: what is the process for making retail beautiful? What does beauty mean in software? Can beauty as a lens help guide us to arrive at better answers? Can beauty scale? Can beauty provide durability, and opportunity? Can a beautiful business be adaptive?  Can a beautiful business yield high financial returns and still be ethical? Should beauty be a commercial duty? Does beauty require us to think more holistically? What would be the language of beautiful business? Do we think differently about our environment if we see it as beautiful?

So, how do we get to beauty? It is through design in its broadest terms. We always have a choice of what it is that we create, since everything man-made is designed.  What constrains us are  our imagination and the will to apply it. Designers ask two simple questions — is it useful and is it beautiful? We can use these two principles to reshape the world we live in. Good design has always been good business. As William Morris might say, ‘have nothing in your house that is neither useful nor beautiful’.

So what might companies do to craft a beautiful business? Here are a few thoughts:

Retail

Aesop is a retail business that sells products for the hair and body. Created in a minimalist style it has 42 stores worldwide and is renowned for its commitment and attention to design and detail, “why make something ugly when it can be interesting” says its owner Dennis Paphitis.

Creating the business in 1987, Paphitis already understood  that a commitment to the ultimate customer experience is what would make his company sustainable and profitable. In the same spirit, Apple rewrote the rules of retail through its iconic store design and customer experience.

The million dollar question, is this: Is it architecture, marketing or some spiritual experience that these products and stores embody?

I guess who you are will determine your answer. Maybe it’s all three?

There is something else though that joins Aesop and Apple – they are both masters of their materials. They push engineering, manufacturing, even accepted levels of service, beyond what was considered possible.

This is the foundational work, the hard work of making beautiful products, delivered in exceptional retail environments. Apple may no longer be too cool for school for some, nonetheless, their commitment to design, exceptional design and exceptional retail experiences means they have more cash in the bank than the US Government.

The beautiful experience matters today – get out of the car at a Four Season hotel and the staff know your name; order something from Amazon and you get an almost instant email to say your package is on its way. These are all designed experiences. And we are seeking experiences.

What we call experience reflects meaning, authenticity, and an opportunity to recapture a lost essence in modern life. These are values that are difficult to represent in accounting terms. Yet they all have an important and increasing role to play. Look at the rise of artisan everything; beer, gin, cheese, clothes etc., Street food fresh and fast food cooked to high levels of quality without the retail overhead. Street food vendors, without shopfronts or or retail accouterments, nonetheless have a fanatical following.

The reason is that people don’t just want experience, they profoundly need experience to be meaningful and to make life joyful.

My local butchers, who won ‘Butcher of the Year’ award, run ‘sell out’ butchery workshops. Whoever heard of butchery workshops? Do people go to learn how to cut meat?  Yes they do. They are not the only ones passing on experience to customers. From spoon carving in a forest to making gin in a London distillery. Workshops are a form of ‘getting closer’. It is becoming additive to the retail experience but it does so in a way that renews our capacity to enjoy life.

Other recent developments have also had a profound effect on the quest for a high quality experience. We use our smart phones at a minimum 150 to 200 times a day. Touch screen technology and intuitive and simple to use apps mean our expectations of experience have increased as our ability to access new information, relationships and interests increases. Designing meaningful customer experiences becomes a key business activity.

Design as ‘experience’, for example, understands that designing and creating for our tactile selves — things that are intuitive, easy and joyful to use — will sell more products and services at a higher value. In a Temkin survey 6x more people were likely to buy with a positive emotional experience, 12x more likely to recommend the company, and 5x more likely to forgive a mistake.

Software

Our world runs on software, programmed lines of human formed code. We design it. Increasingly the design of software is mirroring the need to redesign life more generally. That is why the Blockchain is a beautiful thing. The blockchain is a universal utility to facilitate low-cost, near immediate transfers of value anywhere in the world – digitally. It comes without the need of a third party, such as a bank with all its own selfish needs and flaws. Specifically the blockchain is beautiful because it is a trust-generating engine, which is highly scaleable.

The Blockchain is like DNA / the hidden infrastructure that is life giving. The blockchain is designed to be distributed over many networks, it has no central power and is therefore social in its design.

It has a universal ledger, a database that contains every transaction ever made and that can never be tampered with. An inviolable time stamped record of transaction. It is this transacting of value that is the forbearer of what happens next: money, land registry, cultural artefacts, etc., any situation in fact where there is a transfer of value and where deeds of ownership are vital to document and record, it is in these circumstances that  blockchain technology will play a defining role.

The growth will become exponential because its protocol is open, allowing others to build new commercial, financial and transactional products and services. For example, the Linux Foundation is running the Hyperledger project an open source collaborative effort created to advance cross-industry blockchain technologies. It is a global collaboration including leaders in finance, banking, IoT, supply chain, manufacturing and technology. Currently 95 organisations are involved including; Accenture, Deutsche Börse, IBM, and Fujitsu.

Importantly, Hyperledger is an open collaborative effort. Openness is the new global operating model especially in software where it now powers hundreds of thousands of projects and the most significant infrastructure.

Software is beautiful for several reasons that we can learn from. First, it is incredibly successful at changing the world. Second, it arises from open human interactions and collaboration where greed is suppressed for the greater good. Third, it has begun to simplify the commercial world and mediate trust in profound ways. It excludes wasteful third parties who role has been simply to create friction in order to make money. Increasingly software takes the friction out of life and helps us realise new experiences at lower cost.

Culture

The culture of the workplace is the humus for how an organisation works well. Happy staff, like rich soil, produce, yield and deliver better quality stuff.

The more a culture is focused on what it wants to do the more it can be restorative in helping its employees grow as people and as professionals.

If a business can find the point where its people are happy to produce, it will make more money. Its staff will be more productive, whilst saving the cost of sickness, stress related illnesses, and retaining talented staff.

Telus is a telecoms, TV and mobile company with a very rich workplace culture characterised by a generalised learning programme. They have a toastmasters’ chapter, a book club, guest lectures and so on. The idea is people need to approach work through the prism of learning. By encouraging learning in a broad cultural way, the company believes it is more adept at switching on specific learning needs when business changes. So they do more than most firms to bring that idea to life.

Gransfors Bruk make axes. They say they make the best axes in the world – their culture is one of craftsmanship. This is about how one have designed and built a successful company predicated on quality. A quality of product achieved through a holistic approach to design and manufacturing that incorporates a process to bring out of the workforce a commitment to craft and ethics.

The individual axe maker is given the time he or she needs to forge an axe head to the point where  they are satisfied this is their best work. Then, and only then, will they stamp the axe head with their monogram. The process means men and women are personally dedicated to give their creative best. An engaged craftsman is a committed craftsman, ergo an engaged workforce is a committed workforce. Meaning is created through a craft approach to life. You have to love the work you do. Both Telus and Gransfors Bruk are ‘crafting organisations’.

Businesses who make beautiful cultures become very attractive, because they are, ‘authentic’. People — employees or your customers— want to belong, to go the extra mile, enthuse, endure, support, and invest. No amount of incentives or motivational talks can match the power of people feeling they’re involved in something a little bit special. Indeed, that they actually have a part in making it happen. We embrace what we create.

Leadership

Pixar make much loved animated movies. Pixar are extremely successful at making great films, not only because what they create  are masterpieces of animation, but also because they tell compelling, universal stories that are often groundbreaking in the themes they explore: love, life, death, relationships as well as fantasy.

But this is not easy. After the phenomenal success of Toy Story, Ed Catmull and his team agreed there had to be a way of openly and tenderly holding a creative idea so that it could evolve to its true potential of excellence every time.

Achieving  this required the creative idea to be open to  scrutiny in every aspect of its script, design and production. So, Pixar created the Brainstrust,

This is how it works for every movie Pixar makes. Members of Pixar regularly come together to openly test the development of a film. The rules are: only constructive criticism, and to speak with candour. It requires great trust to do this, to speak plainly and honestly and for the director to listen to all feedback. Without trust there can be no creative collaboration.

The focus of Braintrust meetings is on solving a problem. Individual knowledge morphs into collective intelligence, highly valuable in examining how one gets from mediocre to world class.

Catmull believes every movie they start with sucks in the beginning. In his words, meetings are filled with ‘frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love’; they are there to excavate the truth in a movie.

The other rule is that the director is never instructed to do something. The director listens and develops his or her own interpretation and understanding of feedback.

It is unusual for a creative company, or any company, to work so rigorously in an open, collaborative environment.

It takes patience and time – virtues that Pixar is willing to give. To create enduring beauty requires intense collaboration between people who share the purpose of creating  truly unique experiences.

What lies behind this concept of Braintrust is that, actually, leadership decisions, those that we might previously have left in the hands of the director or the CEO of a company, are better when they are informed by the group and are better again when that decision is left open to the last possible minute. A similar development can be seen in software  architectures where microservices allow CTOs to hold programming commitments to within minutes of a go-live, where previously they were committing months ahead of a release.

Anyone no matter in which industry they work, can create their own Braintrust. In fact you might need to. It might just get you from mediocre to beautiful.

Businesses practising beautiful leadership know how to bring great potency to their organisation by empowering their people. Equally leadership that engages people in thought and deed can energise all that are invested spiritually, emotionally and financially in that business. Muhammad Ali was once asked what his shortest poem was? His response, “Me, We”.

Utility

Multi story car parks are not the nicest places to be. They create their own unique social and economic problems; frustrating queues to get in and out, they are particularly unwelcoming to women, and an insurance nightmare. It is a design challenge.

How to design something more elegant, more beautiful? The city of Aarhus as the Europe’s largest AI multi-story car park. Drive your car into one of 20 booths. Step out. Shut and lock the door then press a button. The car is transported below ground. The automated, pallet-free system offers some 1,000 parking spaces spread across three floors. From the moment the driver presses the button everything is automated. Nothing is touched on the vehicle except the wheels, and the AI system calculates through the day the likelihood of your return and ensures a fast recovery of the vehicle when you want it back.

Recently, I watched people drive in, deposit their cars and then pick them up. Young and old alike were intrigued and delighted by this incredible piece of design and engineering. It is in itself a beautiful thing to see. The utility is beautiful having solved the problems of personal safety, time efficiency, insurance etc., in such an elegant manner.

Businesses that create beautiful utility will reap the rewards of that commitment to take a common object and turn it into a work of uncommon grace. It could be a car park, a spoon, a film or a phone. People that design for beautiful utility, create wonderful, optimistic life enhancing experiences in big and small ways, and always sell out.

Restorative manufacturing

Flute Office is a pioneering company that is producing an entire suite of workplace products along with a groundbreaking business model to change the way we think about what we sit on, and what we work on. The product is designed and engineered to high standards, from upcycled cellulose and is 100% recyclable. Rather than buying a desk, you buy a service, personal to each customer, with a no-quibble guarantee, rapid delivery, and end-of-use buy-back.

But it’s not just the design or manufacturing model that is of interest. It how this upcycling can displace cost inefficiency. Taking fixed costs that are redundant. allowing capital to be placed somewhere else to be more productive.

For example, it costs the NHS £84m to deal with waste. Upcycling just half of this material the NHS would save £135m per year. Moving from a capital purchase to a subscription model, a further £100m could be saved. That is almost half of the entire annual NHS budget for new equipment.

20% of all landfill comes from office furniture, it takes 540 kgs of raw material to make one desk, so why not make something that addresses those issues of waste head one? Large corporations have warehouses full of desks, it takes 20 minutes to fully install a desk, Flute office desks take 2 minutes.

Businesses that are beautifully restorative, always give back more than they take. They provide benefits, which are economic, environmental and social. Nature has been around for a long time, why not borrow from her playbook?

What makes a beautiful business?

So what makes a beautiful business? It’s purpose, it’s process, culture, utility,  leadership,  enterprise design,  manufacturing and system design. Is it possible have all in one company? Yes. Is it hard? Yes. Creating beautiful things is the hardest thing we will ever do. Ugly is easy. But there are clear benefits to creating beautiful businesses. Here are some key points that we can apply.

  • The joyful and meaningful experiences it creates for employees and customers.
  • Culturally attractive to its customers, employees and investors.
  • Optimistically works to a higher order purpose.
  • The transformational value it delivers as beautiful utility.
  • Engenders trust for all those who work for, or buy from, the business.
  • Is restorative. Giving back more than it takes. Restorative to employees, restorative to the world from which it takes, buys people’s time or harvests raw materials.
  • Understands its vision lives daily in everything it is and does.
  • Is a crafting organisation, always curious, always trying stuff out to make sure it stays relevant as the world evolves around it.
  • Is design led, constantly asking, ‘is it useful and is it beautiful?’
  • Values intuition. Hand, heart and mind.
  • Is lovingly disruptive.
  • Understands great work can take time – the time it takes to make it inevitable.

Everything we make in this world follows the same process. We must think it, imagine it, dream it, then we make it. Everything is designed. And if everything is designed then we have the opportunity to make it beautiful, restorative, engaging, valuable and meaningful. We all need something to believe in so why not make it with beauty and grace.

What would your business look like if it were more beautiful? You can find out more in my book Do Design!

A call for boldness

If Einstein is right and we can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them, then our tentative shuffle forward as a society to answer the clarion call of climate change will never provide us with the chasm leap required to address an overheating world.

We shouldn’tbold be surprised at the tentative shuffle – we have designed our social mechanisms to maintain the successful status quo.  Businesses and governments are set-up to create stability – not to provide the breakthrough thinking required to solve the biggest challenges of our time. But, we can’t wait around for the odd start-up or crazy pioneer to radically reinvent our systems. Technology and Elon Musk will not save us.

We need to break through institutionalised mind-sets and deliver change within the frameworks of our existing social mechanisms. We need to harness the power of the biggest social constructs we have – businesses – to be able to unleash resources, at scale against our societal challenges.

And of course it is in the interest of business. How can these large transactional mechanisms survive in a world of shrinking resource base, dying customers and migrating employees? Climate change is in the words of Stern “the world’s greatest market failure”.  Of course, there is also the other side – the carrot if you like – for those who act sooner to create the capabilities, source the technologies and thereby realise the opportunities inherent in the future we are moving towards.

Yet anyone that has ever been on a diet or started a new fitness programme knows that change is really, really hard. And even harder when it’s herding many organisations and individuals towards a new outcome. Here are some thoughts to support business boldness:

  1. Join forces: More and more coalitions and collaborations exist to support businesses and the systems they operate manage a transition to a low carbon world. Whether it is as specific as refrigerants or materials or generic as a Sustainable Cosmetics Forum, opportunities exist to operate beyond traditional organisational boundaries and work together to make far-reaching changes.
  1. Set external targets: Nestle (in a rare case of providing exemplary role modelling) links its corporate goals to the SDG’s. Other companies, including Natura and Unilever are looking at the BCorp structure to provide an external framework to guide their business actions. It is of little use to have internal targets in a connected world. The ability of business to thrive is dependent on the health of everything around it.
  1. Set 100% targets: Ikea shifted the target of 50% FSC certified wood to 100% across all products. This provided such clarity for suppliers that the original goal of 50% was met 2 years early. Each purchase decision made by a large business (or government) sends a long ripple of influence through the world. Use it.
  1. Leverage innovators within: Within every company there are people already with answers to tomorrow’s problems. These ‘intrapreneurs’ are motivated to align social purpose and organisational goals. By identifying, mobilising and connecting these individuals,  pockets of possibility are created that ultimately shift corporate culture towards the new.
  1. Change the game: In a world of boring, ‘me too’ %-based reduction targets, Interfaces resolution to ‘Reverse Climate Change’ is exactly the bold move required to reframe the game and demonstrate leadership. It ignites employees and customers and sets out new ways of innovating, competing and doing business.

If we started with Einstein – let’s end with Goethe… “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now”.


Nicola’s first role working against climate change required her to come up with ideas for new businesses across all sectors in the Uk that could demonstrate the commercial case for a shift to low-carbon. She is still using commercial innovation to  change the world.

Getting what you want: Pitching

Pitching – how you frame and communicate your need – is essential to getting what you want.  

I’ve been thinking about pitching for many years to support the entrepreneurs I work with win competitions, create partnerships and raise funding. Pitching skills help us get what we want beyond starting a new business or initiative. We pitch when we present ourselves for a job interview, market our product, tell our colleagues our new idea or try to get kids to clean their rooms!

There are many resources available that explain what to include for the content of the pitch. This may differ slightly depending on situation, but generally we need to be able to explain the value proposition, revenue model/incentive, team and relevant capabilities and high-level plan of action.

However, when listening to pitches, I’m often reminded of Maya Angelous’ quote “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Below are some of the less tangible things I’ve learnt about successful pitching:

Pitching starts from first contact – any interaction you have whether on phone, email or written document should all be seen as part of your pitch and create a coherent and compelling narrative. Everything you do builds (or takes away from) credibility and connection. A rude or badly thought-through email before the pitch can create a poor impression. Ask yourself what story you are telling through each interaction and adjust if necessary.

Prepare for the moment you walk into the room – be sure to present your best self before you start. How are you holding yourself? What are you wearing?  What is your non-verbal communication? How are you standing? You can only create one first impression… someone who slopes into the room looking hung-over and wearing only one shoe, may not get the desired response! What first impression do you want to create?

Check in with yourself – know why you want this and be clear which part of your psyche is motivating you. Projects and ideas motivated by ego and anger may lose momentum. Those by a deep connection to the outcome or a curiosity about self are generally easier to sustain.  People support people and likeability is a huge, sometimes unconscious, part of any assessment. Be authentic. Why am I doing this and what do I need to do to bring my best self to it?

Be prepared – to explain your project or idea succinctly against any criteria set out. Make sure your ‘ask’ is clearly articulated. I find the business model canvas or other similar tools useful to ensure I have thought through all aspects of a proposition. Trying different pitch types e.g. pitching using the Pixar style or for a TED talk are useful preparation. Practice both words and gestures. Create a prototype to test/prove the concept. Am I ready for anything?

Know your protagonist – who is this idea benefitting? Do they care? What do they have to say about it? An idea needs to centre on an ‘end-user’, ‘beneficiary’ or ‘customer’. There are lots of great design thinking tools that allow you to think through any idea from the protagonists’ viewpoint. This is critical to the success of any idea. Who is this idea for and why do they care?

Check in with your audience – are they ‘getting it’? Should you pause to connect with them? Are you speaking ‘their language’ (this may be by competence e.g. finance or marketing, their orientation e.g. expressive, quiet or literally cockney, northern, etc.). Have you identified and clearly communicated what’s in it for them? Can you get them to interact with and thereby connect with the idea? A good way to do this is to ask a question e.g. “How many of you travelled here by bus this morning?” Am I connecting with my audience?

Be self-aware – check if you need to flex your style i.e. to minimise or maximise personal attributes e.g. hand gestures, enthusiasm, aggression, quiet confidence, etc. Check your confidence level – there is something different about saying ‘we are trying to’ vs ‘we will’. Are you over-using ‘filler’ words such as “some”, “like”?  These are indicators of a lack of confidence, conviction or preparation. How am I being in this moment?

Bring the idea to life – use graphs, stories, prototypes, story boards, lego and movies to help explain your idea. I’ve seen people bring cooking to a pitch for a new restaurant, create a future magazine cover for a social project and design a prototype of a new wind turbine with toilet rolls to explain their concepts.  Creating an experience is very powerful. Make sure it adds to your idea not distracts from the pitch. Can I explain my idea in a creative way?

Keep it simple – know what your ‘big idea’ is and be able to explain it in a single sentence. It might be helpful to list our context, complication, solution beforehand in order to be clear on the problem it solves and the value it adds. Don’t have more than 3 points in your pitch. Be clear on your 3-5 key messages and ensure these are communicated. Test your pitch on unusual suspects – your kids or the pizza delivery man. This will force you to simplify your message and check your language. What is the one key takeaway for my audience?

Don’t be afraid of questions – you ‘own’ the conversation. Any answer is a good one if delivered with authenticity, humility and openness. The delivery is often more important than the content. If you don’t know the answer – be honest – but come up with a plan to get the answer. Typical questions pick up on risks, stakeholders, customer needs, capabilities and funding. Can I stay calm and connected to my belief in this idea no matter what?

Creating a successful pitch is as much about your personal preparedness and mindset as it is about your revenue model (we rarely believe your ‘hockey stick revenue curve’, anyway!). Preparation is all about you – stay true to yourself and authentic in your communication.

And best of luck!

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If you have a world-changing idea that needs some help – please contact me on nicola.millson@6-heads.com. Through the Upstart programme and League of Intrapreneurs we work with intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs to shape and scale social innovation. More information about the kinds of businesses we work with and things we do can be found here: Scaling disruption

FOSTERING YOUR CAPACITY FOR SYSTEMS CHANGE & LEADERSHIP

If you are an innovator working to create positive social change from within your organisation – you may be an ‘intrapreneur’. We would like to invite you to join fellow Intrapreneurs from companies including: Barclays, Interface, M&S, BMW and Unilever to be inspired, build skills and meet exceptional people. On the 3 May, as part of a regular event series, the League of Intrapreneurs will be holding a session on Leadership for Systems Change. If you feel this might be a good event for you to attend, please see information below and apply for membership at hello@leagueofintrapreneurs.com or get in touch with me at nicola.millson@leagueofintrapreneurs.com. 

“Collaboration is the Human Face of Systems Thinking.” – Peter Senge

Companies today are facing complex, external challenges, many of which cannot effectively be tackled by one institution or even one sector in isolation. Issues such as climate change, water scarcity and youth unemployment, for example, are all systems-level challenges, which require radical collaboration across a host of likely and perhaps unlikely allies.

Consider Café Direct – The UK’s first and largest Fairtrade drinks brand – which was founded through a collaboration between Oxfam, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange Trading and Twin Trading as a response to the 1989 global collapse in coffee prices. Café Direct since revolutionized the Fairtrade market by launching the first mainstream coffee brand catalyzing a shift in the global system of coffee production and distribution.

Or take sustainable materials as another example. Though Nike is one of the most iconic brands on the planet, their ability to influence the footwear manufacturing supply chain to utilize more sustainable materials was limited. So, they teamed up with a diverse group of manufacturers and retailers to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Together – they have the ability to shift the system in a way that no single company could.

The ability to shift systems requires new ways of seeing the world as well as working with others – it requires systems leadership.

Join us for an inspiring evening with guest speakers:

Richard Evans, Chairman, Impact Hub Global 

Kresse Wesling, Elvis and Kresse 

Together, with fellow intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs and change agents, we’ll explore questions such as:

+ Systems feel so big and complex? How can I clarify my own understanding of systems change?

+ What role can I, my team and/or institution play in addressing systems change?

+ What are the capabilities required for effectively tackling systems change?

+ What tools and resources are available to help me deepen my capacity for systems change + leadership?

League of Intrapreneurs’ events are intimate, interactive and inspiring gatherings of seasoned and emerging intrapreneurs. We meet each month in different locations across London, hear from thought provoking speakers and have lively and enriching discussions in small groups. This is not a typical networking event. Expect to have your passions nurtured and your mind expanded, all whilst deepening friendships with other London-based impact intrapreneurs.

As a non-profit, we operate on a pay as you feel basis, with a recommended donation of £25.

To apply to join us or to learn more about membership, get in touch at hello@leagueofintrapreneurs.com.

With many thanks to our event sponsor, SABMiller.

WHEN: Tuesday, 3 May 2016 from 17:30 to 21:00

Scaling disruption

There are multiple ways we can intervene in the current business system in order to support change toward better environmental and social outcomes. One of these ways is to scale small initiatives that have the potential to create significant change in the current ways business operates. This is particularly effective where these ‘disruptors’ also act as commercial demonstrators to traditional organisations and inspiration for other emergent entities by proving the case for alternative forms of business.

I have a portfolio of these ‘disruptors’ that I currently coach from seed stage until first significant funding. This means taking them through a structured programme of business development, drawing on IDEO, LEAN and my own start-up experience across multiple sectors and stages of new business building.  The programme is underpinned my three key principles: fail fast, engage early and rapidly build credibility. This means we work closely together to:

  • Identify and engage potential customers to establish and build the business toward meeting real needs,
  • Set-up of a series of experiments where the team can quickly configure and test different operating methodologies, and
  • Understand how the market operates, where the gaps are and which organisations could inform and, even better, certify the set-up.

This is underpinned by regular ‘pivoting’ as we reconfigure the business model to meet emerging needs and cost structures. It is supported by work around vision, team dynamics, business basics and fundraising.

Two oranisations in my portfolio are currently seeking an extension of their seed funding. They are:

Clotho London: The destination for sustainable fashion. http://www.clotholondon.co.uk/

Set-up by two recent graduates from Imperial College (who worked together as Chemistry lab partners) this business aims to create a secondary market for good, used clothing. It is a simple technology platform built on the principle of clothes swapping. It provides young women with a more sustainable option for quality fashion choices. Clotho thereby works towards preventing new purchases of high-street brands and reducing the 350,000 tonnes of used clothing that goes to landfill in the UK every year. They currently operate collections at 3 UK Universities and are rapidly growing a loyal customer base. They are looking to raise investment to fund operational costs as they scale their service.

Vesco: Developing sustainable feed systems. https://vescofeed.wordpress.com (under-development)

Vesco has been set-up by four classmates from the Imperial College Environmental Technology MSc programme.  They are developing a sustainable ‘insect-based’ animal feed designed to mitigate the environmental and biodiversity impacts of contemporary soy and fishmeal-based feeds. They aim to harness the efficiency of insects in converting organic waste into high-quality nutrients and are running a number of experiments to rear  fly larvae on a variety of organic wastes. They are working closely alongside high-profile potential customers to co-develop product specifications and a unique, ‘circular’ offering and are in the process of organising trials for pilot products. Vesco is looking or funding to allow further development of the concept by paying a base wage to the team. 

Both these worthwhile organisations will effect change in the existing systems they operate within – clothing and food – through demonstrating initiative, possibility and trialing new business models.  Any funding or other suggestions to scale and support these worthwhile organisations would be appreciated.

Alternatively, if you are a young enterprise with a good idea towards a positive shared future or an investor/accelerator/incubator with disruptors in your funding portfolio  that need help in clarifying their business models towards delivering scalable impact –  please do get in touch.

For further information or to arrange a meeting, please fill in the form below: