‘Green Eggs and Ham’ by Dr Seuss was one of the first books I really fell in love with. I remember it was a Christmas present left at the foot of my bed….one that I was allowed to open as soon as I woke up…however early. It had an orange cover so I reckon it was this edition
Years later my son loved it too. I must have read it to myself – and out loud to my son – at least a thousand times.
I’d forgotten all about it until I read in Austin Kleon’s delightful Steal Like an Artist that Dr Seuss wrote it in response to a challenge. Having written The Cat in the Hat using only 236 different words his publisher bet him that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words. He promptly went and wrote Green Eggs and Ham which did just that.
I don’t think any fine artist or poet or product designer or composer will be terribly surprised by this story. Indeed as Kleon writes:
Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities. The way to get over a creative block is simply to place some constraints on yourself.
That’s a pretty good summary of what happens in Bromford’s Innovation Lab. When we tell people about the Lab, and some of the ideas it has helped us generate and test, they get really excited and demand to come and see it. But to be honest all there is to see is a pretty standard empty room….with a few seats and a white board wall.
The magic only happens when we bring together someone with a problem they want to solve……and a small group of colleagues, customers and friends (from our network of interesting people)……oh and lots of post-it notes. Then by asking lots of questions, tearing the problem apart and breaking down any inhibitions about what constitutes a worthwhile idea……we come up with some really fresh ways of solving the original problem. Sometimes we discover that the problem wasn’t what it was originally thought to be and sometimes by framing the problem a different way it stops looking like a problem at all. When we come up with solutions they are invariably ones built around ideas from the team that deals with the problem every day but which they might never have come up with without the freedom to think differently or the ‘dumb questions’ of the outsider.
Once we have an idea we think might work we build a prototype of the solution to test quickly and cheaply. If it looks like it has legs then we’ll consider taking it forward to a full blown pilot stage with clear measures and timescales.
In his book How to Kill a Unicorn Mark Payne draws on ten years experience running his own innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212. Payne argues that too many innovation ideas don’t work because they are like unicorns – they are lovely things to think about but they just get stuck as ideas and never become real….never get deployed into things that have an impact on the world. There is a real risk of this when we find what looks like a solution and then have to hunt around trying to find a problem for it to fix.
So I was a bit worried the other day when I was asked to sign off the purchase of a 3D printer. Everyone is talking about 3D printers. There are stories of 3D printers building houses; 3D printers creating meals; 3D printers even used to make guns. But are these problems that needed solving and has the 3D printer helped solve them in a way that is better, or cheaper or has improved the customer experience? Could the 3D printer be a solution looking for a problem? Could this be a lovely unicorn that everyone is fascinated by and wonders at but which never helps make a difference to the life of a single customer?
Well, when the printer arrived this week it certainly attracted a lot of interest. It was the first time most people had actually seen one up close and had a chance to pick up a 3D object that had really been ‘printed’. The printer will undoubtedly generate lots of column inches about innovation and new ideas…..just as the drone and Google glass did before it……but like its predecessors I’m optimistic that it will do more than simply generate crowds of curious people who soon lose interest and wander back to their screens. The Lab is giving colleagues and leaders across the business permission to look for problems; to be comfortable with the idea that not everything works the way we’d like; that our customers could have better services that are easier to use and which better help them achieve the things they want to achieve.
Two days after the 3D printer was installed I went to take a look and it was already being used to print out some small parts that our repairs engineers routinely run out of and cannot always get hold of quickly. Could a 3D printer in one of our depots enable a plumber or an electrician to get a customers home working again more quickly….so our customer could get their life moving again…..wash their work overalls or bath their kids?
Leaders are often good at coming up with great solutions. They can get very enthusiastic about their plans to implement their idea without much thought about whether it is actually needed or will work. What our Lab has taught us is just how poor we often are at articulating a problem. By investing more of our time in really understanding the problems faced by our customers, our colleagues, our business; and then giving those closest to these problems the space and time in a Lab setting to come up with new ways to solve them, we’ll really be using innovation to make a difference.
The guys who host the Bromford Lab are all too aware of the risks and challenges of purchasing the 3D printer and we’ll be keeping an eye on it to make sure it hasn’t started to grow a horn.