Category Archives: leadership

The disrupting benefit of innovation

Most scientific and technical conferences include plenary speeches that are intended to set the agenda and to inspire conference delegates to think, innovate and collaborate.  Andrew Sherry, the Chief Scientist of the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) delivered a superb example last week at the NNL SciTec 2018 which was held at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool on the waterfront.  With his permission, I have stolen his title and one of his illustrations for this post.  He used a classic 2×2 matrix to illustrate different types of change: creative change in the newspaper industry that has constantly redeveloped its assets from manual type-setting and printing to on-line delivery via your phone or tablet; progressive change in the airline industry that has incrementally tested and adapted so that modern commercial aircraft look superficially the same as the first jet airliner but represent huge advances in economy and reliability; inventive change in Liverpool’s Albert Dock that was made redundant by container ships but has been reinvented as a residential, tourism and business district.  The fourth quadrant, he reserved for the civil nuclear industry in the UK which requires disruptive change because its core assets are threatened by the end-of-life closure of all existing plants and because its core activity, supplying electrical power, is threatened by cheaper alternatives.

At the end of last year, NNL brought together all the prime nuclear organisations in the UK with leaders from other sectors, including aerospace, construction, digital, medical, rail, robotics, satellite and ship building at the Royal Academy of Engineering to discuss the drivers of innovation.  They concluded that innovation is not just about technology, but that successful innovation is driven by five mutually dependent themes that are underpinned by enabling regulation:

  1. innovative technologies;
  2. culture & leadership;
  3. collaboration & supply chain;
  4. programme and risk management; and
  5. financing & commercial models.

SciTec’s focus was ‘Innovation through Collaboration’, i.e. tackling two of these themes, and Andrew tasked delegates to look outside their immediate circle for ideas, input and solutions [to the existential threats facing the nuclear industry] – my words in parentheses.

Innovative technology presents a potentially disruptive threat to all established activities and we ignore it at our peril.  Andrew’s speech was wake up call to an industry that has been innovating at an incremental scale and largely ignoring the disruptive potential of innovation.  Are you part of a similar industry?  Maybe it’s time to check out the threats to your industry’s assets and activities…

Sources:

Sherry AH, The disruptive benefit of innovation, NNL SciTec 2018 (including the graphic & title).

McGahan AM, How industries change, HBR, October 2004.

A reflection on existentialism

Detail from stained glass window by Marc Chagall in Fraumunster Zurich from http://www.fraumuenster.ch

I was in Zürich last weekend.  We visited the Fraumünster with its magnificent stained glass windows by Marc Chagall [see my post entitled ‘I and the village‘ on August 14th, 2013] and by Augusto Giacometti (1877-1947).  The Kunsthaus Zürich has a large collection of sculptures by another Giacometti, Alberto (1901-1966), a Swiss sculptor, who is famous for his slender statues of people which portray individuals alone in the world.  He was part of the existentialist movement in modern art that examined ideas about self-consciousness and our relationship to other people.  For me, this echoed a lecture that I contributed last week to a module on Scientific Impact and Reputation as part of our CPD programme [see my post entitled ‘WOW projects, TED talks and indirect reciprocity‘ on August 31st, 2016.  In the lecture, I talked about our relationship with other professional people and the development of our technical reputation in their eyes as a result of altruistic sharing of knowledge. This involves communicating with others, building relationships and understanding our place in the community.  The post-course assignment is to write a reflective essay on leadership and technical quality; and we know, from past experience, that our delegates will find it difficult to reflect on their experiences and the impact of those experiences on their life and behaviour.  Maybe we should help them by including a viewing of existential art in one of the Liverpool art galleries as part of our CPD programme on Science and Technology Leadership?

Wanted: user experience designers

A few weeks ago, I listened to a brilliant talk by Professor Rick Miller, President of Olin College.  He was talking at a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’.  He tolds us that the most common job description for recent Olin graduates was ‘user experience designer’ rather than a particular branch of engineering.  Aren’t all engineers, user experience designers?  We design, manufacture and maintain structures, machines, goods and services for society.  Whatever an engineer’s role in supplying society with the engineered environment around us, the ultimate deliverable is a user experience in the modern vernacular.

Rick Miller’s point was that society is changing faster than our education system.  He highlighted that the relevance of the knowledge economy had been destroyed by internet search engines.  There is no longer much advantage to be gained by having an enormous store of knowledge in your head, because much more is available on-demand via search engines, whose recall is faster than mine.  What matters is not what you know but what you can do with the knowledge.  And in the future, it will be all about what you can conceive or create with knowledge.  So, knowledge-intensive education should become a thing of the past and instead we need to focus on creative thinking and produce problem-solvers capable of dealing with complexity and uncertainty.