Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Low cost Innovation

In the era of Apple it is very easy for people to get hooked on the artefact and fail to appreciate the kind of thinking that gave rise to it.

To achieve effective innovation what is frequently needed is the ability to ask some basic questions and think afresh about what we are doing. (Which of course is exactly what Jobs and co. did consistently).

What does this really mean in practice?  Here are two case histories I often use when considering what would innovative thinking look like if there’s no extra budget but things need to change?

In the first few years of the Second World War Hitler’s U-boats were taking a terrible toll sinking a huge tonnage of Atlantic shipping. Ensuring Atlantic convoys would continue to get supplies through to the UK was the single most important determinant of ensuring continued resistance to Hitler. If the Atlantic convoys were all sunk then so was the possibility of resistance to Hitler. However the British kill rate for destroying U boats was abysmal – about 1% of those sighted were sunk.

Enter Patrick Blackett, physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Blackett developed what we now call organisational research. With a very small team he started to ask some questions. The Navy knew that the U-boats could only move at a certain rate. Something like 45 seconds elapsed between sighting and dropping depth charges. They knew that the U-boat would probably dive to about 150ft so you set the charge to go off at 150ft. Well that’s fine, the depth charge explodes but it’s is in the wrong place because what they hadn’t taken into account was that the U-boat might change in direction not just depth.

So what did Blackett suggest? That the parameters be changed. You would only go for attacking U-boats if they had been out of sight for no more than 25 seconds and that you would set the depth charge to 25ft because they could not have gone any deeper than that in 25 seconds.

The net result of this was that it improved the kill rate from 1% to 10%. That is the equivalent of having a new secret weapon which is ten times more powerful than its predecessor. But actually there was no new secret weapon - just a different way of thinking.

Much of the time U-boats travelled on the surface so they should’ve been pretty visible. Given an estimated number and the distances they travelled it was possible to calculate how often they should have been sighted,

In fact only thirty percent of the sightings that should have been achieved were being achieved. Why was this? All sorts of fancy ideas were suggested. Again some basic questioning yielded vital information. The planes used were converted night bombers. Because they were used at night they had been painted black. However they were now being used as spotter planes in broad daylight and black is the most visible colour against a daytime sky! Repainting the underside of the wings white led to a doubling in the number of sightings. That is like suddenly doubling the number of planes you have available.

When I share these cases with business leaders they immediately grasp that the innovation lies in rethinking the challenge and asking new questions. 

So  you might want to consider what is the equivalent for you in what you are trying to do? How might you do more effectively what you already do now?

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