A Different Way of Thinking and Working

IdeaConnection Interview with Andy Bruce, co-author of Fast Track to Success: Innovation, Creating a Market Sensitive Culture
By Vern Burkhardt
"The starting point for managing an effective innovation team is to manage yourself. Whenever we see a manager setting career and personal development activities for members of their team we are often impressed by their professionalism.

Unfortunately, all too often they have not been so diligent with their own personal development planning." Fast Track to Success: Innovation, page 116.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): In Fast Track to Success you talk about the "six P's" which companies that innovate get right. What are a few of your tips for enabling companies to ensure they get it right?

photo of Andy BruceAndy Bruce: You are only as good as the weakest link! Don't slavishly implement loads of changes all at once. Do an innovation audit first, which is covered in the book and on the Fast-Track-Me" web site and see where you are weakest. Improve that area first.

However don't be scared of making mistakes. Don't ever trust anyone who says they have never made a mistake, especially in the area of innovation!

VB: You say that one of the P's, process, is "often called project management in most other areas of business." If, as you advise, project management is becoming a core business tool is it a set of skills that almost all employees in a company should learn in order to increase their potential for success in the 21st century?

Andy Bruce: Absolutely. We believe that knowledge of project management and its core principles should be a basic skill for all managers, no matter what their expertise or background. That, combined with an understanding of how to manage ideas and innovations – innovation management – are the two core skills that managers of western businesses should master in order to stay ahead in the 21st century.

VB: What are the core attributes of a good project manager of innovation in business, which you define as the "commercial exploitation of ideas?"

Andy Bruce: Focus, focus and focus.

The misunderstanding of what innovation actually is leads to being too vague and looking for ideas on anything and everything. The best innovative companies are very focused on what they wish to innovate and how to go about it.

In the area of personal skills above all else I value the ability to listen.

VB: You use the term "inexpert facilitator." Has it been your experience that organizations too often use untrained facilitators for meetings when the goal is to generate high quality ideas or solve tough problems?

Andy Bruce: Either untrained facilitators or internal managers with an agenda.

A good facilitator is never actually seen or valued. They listen to what is going on and gently move the session in the right direction. At the end of the successful session the members of the meeting will think they have done it all by themselves. Facilitators are there to get the best out of other people – not to show how good they are.

VB: "It seems that the most innovative individuals and companies value certain attributes rather than definitive skills: attributes such as open-mindedness and flexibility. The tenacity to see things through to a conclusion is often highly valued." Attitude is that important?

Andy Bruce: We have come across many individuals who, based on their resumé, did not have the skills for the business or issue at hand. However, their personal attributes often made them invaluable.

Tenacity to get things done and overcome barriers in a large organization should be valued. Our experience is that the most tenacious people in business today are entrepreneurs in small and medium businesses and women in large businesses or in cultures opening up to the Western style of management.

VB: You provide this "Quick Tip:" "Make sure you add creative thinking to your selection criteria when recruiting people to join your team." How do you assess this trait?

Andy Bruce: Ah! Perhaps 'different thinking' would be a more appropriate label.

There are people in every business who don't toe the line or "sip from the corporate cool aid." Assessing this would probably best come from a psychologist, but you know who these people are when you work with them. The irony is that they are often awkward to get on with and may not be team players.

VB: Do you have any advice for business leaders who say they have tried to encourage a creative culture but failed, or were less successful than they would like?

Andy Bruce: There is no one 'creative culture.' I would advise them to look at their efforts differently – look at barriers to creativity from an employee's point of view, for example.

I believe that any business can be more creative and innovative, but just like any other business trait or discipline it has to be constantly worked at. You wouldn't give up if, for example, your business wasn't any good at sales – so why creativity and innovation?

VB: "A 100 percent success rate for projects will probably reflect that you are not taking enough chances or being innovative enough." Would you agree that this is hard for many leaders to accept and promote – that the organization needs to encourage failures if it wishes to achieve more than just incremental innovation?

Andy Bruce: This really gets to the heart of what managers and directors measure. What are your innovation KPIs? Are you just measuring the number of successful projects or hit/miss ratio?

Go back to your business strategy – what do you want to achieve? There are many very successful companies that just get involved in incremental innovation. They know their markets, customers and needs and that type of innovation fits them well. However, there are many companies that have to engage in real step-change, long term radical innovations to survive. In this case, their business and strategy should reflect it.

VB: In your consulting practice do you encounter cases where managers and executives don't actively and aggressively promote innovation processes, and yet their companies appear to be successful?

Andy Bruce: Yes we do come across them. However when you analyze their success they often can't repeat it, and therefore there is a high degree of risk. Usually it is based on one person, one technology or one idea. My bet is that in a global economy with the power of the Internet increasing you can't leave innovation to chance any more.

VB: "You do not want to be the most efficient producer of what you do today if nobody wants it tomorrow." Do you sometimes have fun discussing this with people in training sessions?

Andy Bruce: Absolutely. The joke about the most efficient producer, betamax videos, or black & white TVs still holds true. This often is a good starting point for managers looking to shake up senior management to the reality of competition and innovation. At business schools they call it scenario planning.

VB: When talking about a process for idea pipeline evaluation, you advise, "intuition or 'gut feel' should not be ignored." Is gut feel often correct?

Andy Bruce: The book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell is a favorite of my colleague Simon Derry. It sort of explains what 'gut feel' is and how surprisingly accurate it can be. I urge people to read it, and everything else Malcolm Gladwell has written.

VB: Would you agree that one of the most difficult challenges people face in organizations is eliminating low-value or unnecessary activities because, as you say, "…we tend to do those things that we enjoy and put off what is less fun"?

Andy Bruce: That's very easy to say but when you're working in a large business to get things done you have to follow a process. In this case it may not be about eliminating these seemingly low-value activities but getting through them as efficiently as possible.

However, I really enjoy finding out 'why' people feel a certain process has to be done a certain way and what value it adds to a business or process – and then at the end everyone realizing what a waste of time it is and ending it. It's very satisfying.

VB: Would you share an excellent example of a business that has figured out how to use technology tools to support a sustainable approach to innovation?

Andy Bruce: The thing about innovation is that ideas tend to be kept very close to one's chest, so I probably can't mention any names.

We have some U.S. food companies – household names here in the UK and in the U.S. – who are using the InnovX system to get the best out of their R&D centres in Europe, and leverage more suggestions from employees. They are now setting up an Open Innovation page on the InnovX platform to get ideas and innovations from their supplier base. This is very exciting stuff. You could fill one of your North American sized supermarkets with the number of new food ideas from employees. The new packaging ideas coming forward will not only be more environmentally friendly, but cost a lot less than current methods.

VB: Is Open Innovation becoming better understood, and thus used by increasing numbers of companies in the UK or other parts of Europe?

Andy Bruce: Yes…and no. It depends who you open your ideas to.

More companies understand what the concept of Open Innovation is but then again many customers – a target of some Open Innovation approaches – are quite conservative in outlook. There is a myth that if you ask your customer base for ideas and innovations you will be deluged with great ideas.

We see, especially in technology companies, a move towards 'partly-open innovation' – supposedly it could be called 'ajar-innovation.' Technology companies gather a network of trusted individuals, suppliers, testers, and users, and ask them specific questions or ask for ideas on specific topics. This tends to be more focused, results in a higher quality of ideas, and is less time consuming.

VB: What is the fast track to success?

cover of Fast Track to SuccessAndy Bruce: Getting all the 6Ps in place. If I had to choose one out of the 6Ps it would be planning! It sounds odd but great innovators plan to be innovative, and link it to the corporate strategy – everything flows from that, maybe?

VB: Did you follow most of the advice you include in Fast Track to Success in your own career?

Andy Bruce: The book was based on what we as a team learned and do in practice. We actually do what is in the book. It's a moral thing really – I wouldn't write a book telling people what to do unless I'd done it myself.

In terms of 'careers,' as a team we have all had varied careers that have included the military, engineering, customer services, health service, programming, and sales in the UK, Europe, U.S. and Far East. This gives all of us a broad outlook which is very helpful.

VB: Would you agree that the many tips and approaches you provide for a "career fast track" are applicable to all people new to management positions and managers moving to new assignments, not just to managers responsible for an innovation team or for implementing innovation throughout their organization?

Andy Bruce: Absolutely.

I always tried to have in my mind the new manager thrown in at the deep end and told to be 'more innovative'. The book was specifically aimed at managers without a specific role for innovation or R&D. We hoped that managers responsible for innovations and R&D would know this stuff already, but maybe not.

VB: One of your Quick Tips is "Take time to look constantly at your part of the business and ask, 'What are the barriers to being innovative and creative?'" Are most of the barriers personal?

Andy Bruce: Either mental – personal – or institutional. The bit of research Simon Derry did on barriers to being innovative in the UK highlighted that most of the barriers were personal or inter-personal. A lot of them were down to poor understanding of what innovation is and how it can be managed.

VB: You advise that if 20 percent of key opinion leaders are positive about a change, you will probably be able to drive it through. Only one in five can make that much of a difference?

Andy Bruce: Our experience is that if you have a core of enthusiasts and a couple of key players on board, then you can move mountains. It might not be easy but it can be done.

VB: "Think about how you want people to remember you after you have moved on: what will they say about you?" Does this question seem to spur many you work with to be more creative and to excel in their jobs?

Andy Bruce: Actually, probably not. The good managers we work with rarely think about their legacy. That is usually the preserve of politicians.

Most managers are self-motivated by a passion to do something well or different.

VB: "The most effective teams identify and implement best practices – tools and techniques that the best companies use, adapted to suit their local business context." Do you have any tips on how to identify the "best companies"?

Andy Bruce: Look at the evergreen companies that constantly re-invent themselves, their products, services or markets. They are the real innovators.

VB: Is one of your key points that "…in the 21st century with its global economy, there should be a chief innovation officer or director of ideas to lead, champion and manage the innovations process?"

Andy Bruce: Ideally, yes. This is an outward sign that the company has a structured approach to being innovative.

However, there are plenty of good companies that have a creative and innovative culture with no one person responsible for innovations. Everyone realizes that it is their responsibility to think creatively.

VB: When talking about creativity techniques, you give a significant tip: "…before using any [creativity] technique with a group, you should always allow time at the start to capture the ideas that people will already have thought of before coming into the session, as you will not have their full attention until they have shared them with the group." Did you learn this through experience?

Andy Bruce: Actually it's the old joke about consultants – someone who takes your watch to tell you the time.

Keen young facilitators and consultants are always looking to use new creativity tools to get ideas flowing, when in fact if you ask everyone to bring their existing ideas to the session you get lots and lots of ideas. The real skill is 'piggybacking' those ideas on top of each other to create new ideas. Often staff is never given the time or the opportunity to set out their existing ideas properly. Doing it really helps.

VB: Would you tell us about the services you offer through Project Leaders International?

Andy Bruce: PLI is the consulting arm of the business. We deploy the best practice tools and techniques about innovation management within companies either through training or by looking to improve business processes. We work with people and don't seek to impose one set way of doing things.

VB: What about SofTools?

Andy Bruce: SofTools is the software side of the business – its focus is the Platform in the 6Ps. Technology and the power of the Internet can add so much nowadays. The key is knowing how to harness it properly.

VB: Do you have any other tips you would like to share with our IdeaConnection readers?

Andy Bruce: Enjoy doing different things, not just at work but at home too. Last September Mark Edwards, SofTools Technology Director, and I climbed the Matterhorn!

VB: Thank you for taking the time to tell us about the fast track to innovation success.

Andy Bruce: It's been my pleasure. Remember the 6Ps!

Co-authors Andy Bruce and David Birchall advise that today "a different way of thinking and working is required – one that combines analytic and creative thinking and that focuses as much on implementation as it does on ideation."

The 6Ps that companies which successfully innovate get right are:

  1. Planning – innovation starts with strategy providing a context or focus for innovation activities;

  2. Pipeline – capture, organize, screen, prioritize, and manage ideas;

  3. Process – manage creative ideas through to implementation;

  4. Platform – track an idea, using web-based software, during its time in the pipeline through assessment of its value post-implementation;

  5. People – senior managers are open to new ideas, a champion drives every idea through to completion, and an executive sponsor allocates budget, time and resources; and

  6. Performance – define the key innovation performance indicators, and have regularly scheduled review meetings where the agenda focuses on innovation.

Andy Bruce's Bio:
Andrew Bruce is an engineer and is a graduate of the Australian Graduate School of Management.

He is widely acclaimed as an authority in 'Innovation Management,' covering the creative and innovation process from ideas to implementation. He has been a management consultant, facilitator, and trainer since 1991. Client projects have ranged from strategic planning to business process reengineering and cultural change.

In the late 90s, Andy Bruce founded two companies specializing in innovation and project management. SofTools develops web-based applications to enable management visibility, control and confidence over their pipeline of new ideas and their portfolio of implementation projects. The company's first commercial product was an e-learning solution developed in response to client requests to enable business managers to gain access to the latest business techniques 'anytime, anywhere.' This application has now been developed into an advanced web application that is implemented by specialist consultants to solve complex business problems.

Project Leaders International, Andy Bruce's second company, provides consulting and training services to assist the adoption of innovation and project management best practices.

Andy Bruce is co-author of Fast Track to Success: Innovation (2009), Manage Projects: Meet Your Deadlines and Achieve Your Targets (WorkLife) (2007), Think Strategically: Plan the Future and Make It Happen (WorkLife) (2007), The Management Book: Everything You Need To Know To Be An Effective Manager (2002), Putting Customers First (Essential Managers) (2002), Business FAQs: Answers to the 100 Most Difficult Business Questions of All Time (Capstone Reference) (2002), Coaching Successfully (2001), Do It Now! (Essential Managers) (2001), Project Management (Essential Managers) (2000), and Strategic Thinking (Essential Managers) (2000). He also wrote Creating a Market Sensitive Culture (1997) – a publication based on management research sponsored by the Institute of Management.

Share on      
Next Interview »