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In these challenging economic times you don’t need to look very far to find the word ‘innovation’ and the reasons why it’s so important. The word ‘innovation’ is in fact much overused; often it is wrapped in a significant amount of rhetoric.

14 April 2015

Commercial Maritime


Cue the day job - you know the scenario; the phone is ringing from the moment you arrive, email is constant, meetings, site visits, briefings, model tests, boat shows, invoices etc., etc., where on earth does one have time to 'innovate'. In fact, if we are going to suggest that the word itself is much overused then what is 'innovation'? 

In a recent interview, BMT submarine designer Graham Hawkes surmises that,
"Innovation doesn't mean inventing things. The fundamental difference is that when you invent something, you haven't necessarily solved an existing problem. Innovation is about starting with a challenge, problem or need and finding a solution which didn't exist before." This would tell us that innovation is as much about identifying the need as it is about coming up with the solution.

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek argues that innovation is often confused with novelty. For example, when a camera was first added to a mobile phone was that novel or innovative? Sinek argues for the former. Does it really matter what we call it? Invention or innovation - for me, it's all about being creative and finding suitable applications for that creativity. However, I do believe that there is an important distinction to be made with regard to the application - Lucca Bassani hits the nail on the head in Q10 of SY Design; "Innovation must have a reason, it has to deliver an improvement of the product and its functions and purpose". This very much reinforces the earlier point made by Graham Hawkes.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Henry Ford's famous quote - "If I had asked people what they had wanted they would have said faster horses." This implies that we shouldn't always look at existing products, purposes or functions. For me this type of creativity is more akin to art - there may be no rational purpose, the function may not serve any present need and the economic proposition may be at best marginal, but should any of those be reasons to suppress such ideas? Certainly those who develop them run the risk of ridicule from the majority, but some of the world's greatest examples of successful innovators have done just that.

What is the Elixir to get people to be more creative outside of a fixed client brief or defined scope of work? Our industry has no shortage of creativity and for many companies, certainly those centred around one or two principal individuals, the answer may lie on a personal level with each individual. However, in my view there are some common ingredients that can be applied to everyone.

Stefan Sagmeister who runs a design studio in New York recognised that over time his work was becoming increasingly similar. Every seven years he completely closes his business to take a structured sabbatical where he looks for influences to renew and refresh his creative outlook (The Power of Time Off- Whilst many of our businesses might not survive such a radical approach, the results are very evident in his work and this example introduces the power of time - taking time off to reflect, gain clarity and do things that inspire, energise and excite which in turn, will have a positive and measurable impact on the creative work.

Despite how history may document them, very few inventions or innovations, often referred to as 'eureka' moments, are created in a singular moment. Most have in fact been nurtured over long periods of time, stitching together ideas from different fields until, as aptly put by Steven Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From-, they "Fade into view". This reinforces the notion that you can only drive creativity and innovation so hard - certainly one cannot bundle employees into a meeting with the brief simply saying 'go innovate'. It takes time and feeling stressed is known to suppress the part of the brain responsible for creative thought. Additionally, it implies the need to have a variety of interest that spans not just your own field of expertise, but as broad a spectrum as possible seeking out connections - this is second nature to designers who will look for inspiration in every aspect of the physical environment. Within my own field of naval architecture it also means looking for opportunities to cross-pollinate ideas from other engineering fields and see things from different perspectives.

It's true to say that it happens in nature. Insects and birds fly from one flower to the next, creating genetic variety and diversity. In accordance with Darwinian theory, the varieties which meet their environmental challenges most successfully will indeed survive. In the same way, when you cross-pollinate ideas you dramatically increase your chances of success. I believe that you can achieve this in two ways; internally and externally.

To do this internally you have to have a diverse business. Here at BMT part of our strength in one market may often be underpinned through the sharing of ideas and practices from another. From an external perspective it's vital that you take every chance to collaborate with other like-minded organisations - partnering with competitors may even, at appropriate points, be a key to success. Collaboration is also part of the immeasurable value BMT gets from being part of numerous industry working groups and trade associations - the direct financial benefit is zero but this is no reason for dismissing such activities.

However, collaboration cannot be discussed in such general terms without the matter of protecting Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) being discussed. Large corporations spend as much time protecting innovations and enforcing patents as they do on generating them, whilst at the other side of the spectrum the totally IPR free world of open-source has produced Linux, Wikipedia and even the mountain bike concept (the latter being an excellent example of user-driven innovation). Sitting somewhere in between these is a good place to be and in my experience, providing you collaborate with transparency and understand what the ground rules are, success is possible for all. A key ingredient here is trust - we all recognise that the best work can result from genuine friendships, the kind of friendships that are built on trust and an open exchange of ideas. This approach requires us to shed our egos as well as any desire for recognition as the singular principal creator and share both ideas and constructive criticism without judgement or offence.

All of these ingredients are only of value within any company if the right culture exists. The value of design and engineering companies lies solely with its people; there is no physical output other than the ideas, designs and calculations we put on paper. Establishing a culture of freedom to think and innovate requires an attitude of 'entrepreneurship' - encouraging staff to not only spot new opportunities but also to act on them, empowering them to experiment with new ideas all the while tolerating the fact that not all of these, in fact very few, will deliver the Holy Grail.

In these challenging economic times you don't need to look very far to find the word 'innovation' and the reasons why it's so important. Surf the web, pick up any business journal, newspaper or magazine and we are all being told that 'innovation' is the best tool in order to remain competitive and responsive to change. The word 'innovation' is in fact much overused; often it is wrapped in a significant amount of rhetoric taking the form of an inspirational call to arms

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