Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

Construction needs Perestroika in Big Media

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Sun, January 29, 2012 00:09:10
Borrowing. I love to borrow concepts from other sectors and put them to use in whatever activity I am up to. Training methods from other sports, design methods from dramatic writing applied to design in construction, or similarities in architecture and the theatre. To paraphrase Andrew Hargadon: Don’t think outside the box. Borrow someone else’s thinking from inside their box. It’ll be radical in your box. (How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate, Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

Building on borrowed material is the basic idea of open innovation; using the knowledge and skills carefully developed by someone else in your context, and offering yours to help others with their problems. I believe that open innovation and the free flow of ideas are key to healthy economies in the western hemisphere in the future. Innovation is where we will find our competitiveness as Asian companies are putting their feet in our door. Do not for a minute expect the best of them to be anything other than first-class. Anyone who has English as their first of second language had better take this seriously.

You have to get your ideas from somewhere though, and a free and open Internet is one of my main sources. People bring all kinds of interesting ideas my way just by tweeting a link of an idea. To reciprocate, I try to do the same. In my opinion, we are building the viral infrastructure needed to save jobs. In the light of this, the fact that Europe is only a few weeks away from adopting ACTA is frankly disgusting, as illustrated by for example 3.5.1 here. We are about to let a handful of organizations representing the audiovisual industry govern the way the world communicates. Now read that last sentence again. And they are doing it in secret. Anything we know about ACTA is leaked. Seriously.

Intellectual property rights are important. But they are not more important than free speech or than the cornerstone of our future welfare. Major companies are losing tons of money because their business idea is to provide products that people are not buying. Music is a service again, like before. If you build on providing me with a music product, you are in trouble. Their solution is lobbying for bills like SOPA and PIPA (die, foul fiends) and ACTA, so they can have power over, for example websites that build on the users submitting content. That means us; you and I. Anyone that, say, searches youtube for user-submitted demos of software will be affected. Anyone interested in open innovation will be affected.

There is of course a better way for the dying Big Media to stay in business than restricting the open web. Instead of lobbying for laws to allow IPR holders to sue their clients and shut down their means of communication, why not embrace the technology that’s already here, and find new business, new ways to legally provide creative content. Like construction, they need to restructure their business. Fewer lobbyists and lawyers. More designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and goofballs.

I see many similarities between Big Media right now and the Soviet Union at the time of Perestroika (Wikipedia entry here):

Perestroika (Russian: перестройка [pʲɪrʲɪˈstrojkə] (literally: Restructuring) was a political movement within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, …. Its literal meaning is "restructuring", referring to the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system.

Arguably, the power struggle over Perestroika was a major factor in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Michail Gorbachev did try acceleration (uskoreniye); incremental modifications without fundamental change. Perestroika is the name of the more fundamental reformation that substituted it. The process of change brought to light existing tensions within the union and made it impossible to keep it together.
Because of the emergence of web 2.0 and social media, of all the SoundClouds, Twitters and BoingBoings out there, I believe the audiovisual industry is in a very similar situation as the Soviet Union was in before Perestroika. Their situation is untenable. We are seeing them fight back the only way they know how to still be in control. Because with open innovation, corporations are not in control. Their gatekeepers lose their function. People outside rule. Users/clients/customers rule. Like it did for the leadership of the Soviet Union, the situation for Big Media is about to get seriously out of hand.

And with Evil Legislation on our doorstep (the crucial EU parliament vote is in June), I am afraid that the situation for the construction sector is too. The ongoing transition of construction from project-based logic to more of product-based logic requires us to understand and explain the mechanisms of the manufacturing industry when adopted in our line of business. This requires us to collaborate with others, outside of our comfort zone. It requires a free and open flow of information. Even construction needs ACTA stopped and Big Media to find better business.

Consider this. Would you be reading this blog post if you didn’t have access to Twitter?

No images. ACTA just closed down Flickr because of this.

That was almost a joke.

Predicting the future, revisited

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Sat, January 14, 2012 23:50:54
Yesterday, a younger colleague (thank FSM for people not yet stuck in old habits) pointed out to me that there might be a serious flaw in my logic in my last post. She politely pointed out that I think the ECTP vision for 2030 we wrote in 2005 in part already is old news. That will likely happen to your strategy too, she said and smiled.

Now, that is two cents worth thinking about. The ECTP vision is fairly abstract, because it covers the whole Euopean construction sector, and so builds on needs and trends that are farily stable. But this new strategy we're writing is for a single research group and will necessarily be more concrete. Predictions for the future need to be fairly general. The concrete substance of the trends we build the LTU strategy on, how long will they hold?

Is it possible for us to lay a track that we want to stay on for a s long as it takes?

The ECTP vision looked 25 years ahead but the LTU strategy only looks ten years ahead, with is a mitigating circumstance that will help. But the problem remains; a business strategy can include the flexibility to adopt to quick changes in the market, but research is a long-term activity. For how long should we expect a research strategy based on extrapolation of current trends to be useful? Ten years? Five? Three? It is my experience that construction research in a new (-ish) field needs to be developed for three to five years before it has useful substance. We need a strategy that'll work as a compass, on a concrete level, for at least five to seven years.

Or is it possible to work out a strategy that includes flexibility? Yes and no. Mode II research (yeppur, that's what we do - you should read the text I linked to) communicates with the context which the research studies. In Mode II research (also explained here) knowledge is co-created between stakeholders and researchers. So, this research is easier to adopt to changes in the context than Mode I research is. But that is valid on the level of a single project or a group of parallel projects. For a research group to develop critical mass and credible research, there needs to be stability in the focus over a longer period of time than a doctoral project.

We want to write a strategy that guides our work as to what we should do in order to support the positive development of the construction industry (you know, the product logic and coherent value-chain I keep going on about). Since we work with customer pull for our resaerch results (an absolute necesity in Mode II research) we need to be needed by the industry. In order for our resaerch unit to be a significant player, we need to be able to guess rather accurately where the development will lead the industry.

Can we get a sufficient hit-rate in predictions of a future scenario seven years from now?

Image: Derail by Jinx! Flickr Creative Commons.

Building efficiency in 2022

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Wed, January 11, 2012 17:02:24
I just came back from Brändön, north of Luleå which on the latitude 65.6 degrees North. Fantastic. When people up here say "Winter, ", they're not kidding. Luleå is where my second workplace is, Luleå University of Technology (aka LTU). For almost fifteen years, the researchers in timber structures at LTU have developed their group and their research from structures and engineering details to the processes of the timber housing manufacturing industry. The research subjects now span from client decision-making to efficiency in design. The common denominator in all work is Mode II research on efficiency in systems building.

Brändön looked like this in January 2012. Eight degrees below freezing, overcast, snowfall, no wind, no sound. Beautiful.

At LTU, apart from structural engineering, the main strength areas are production, systems building and supply chain management. The main ability of this group of researchers is to be able to identify problems and propose solutions for the companies, and use the empiric material gathered to address gaps in the academic literature.

All work is done in close collaboration with the industry. The plan has been set in motion to move from housing manufacturing to general systems building, based on other types of platforms and systems. My regular workplace NCC is one of a handful of companies that spearhead this development in general construction. Hence my position as adjunct professor at LTU. My job is to connect the two.

At the meeting we just concluded, we agreed that it is time we decided on what our image is for the future of the sector. The contemporary trends in the construction sector are beginning to be sufficiently established so we can extrapolate them into a scenario for the future. Trends where the LTU research would be relevant include increased demands on commercialization of research (innovation) and on reduction of production costs. They also include the current struggle with value chain integration, the emerging renovation sector and the rules and regulations for construction being emerging fields of focus, the ageing and increasing individualism of the clients, and the climate issue substituting energy as focal point. We are going to pool our resources and write these trends form the viewpoint of what we should be doing in 2022, and in the years leading up to 2022.

If we can agree on such a scenario, we could deconstruct it into tasks that our research group should focus on. What is our role in this development? What can we contribute to the sector? Which projects are needed? Who should we connect with, work with and learn more from? The scenario would in effect function as our strategic – and maybe even operative – compass.

Personally, I think that LTU timber structures are a research group unparalleled in Sweden when it comes to giving research-based practical advice on systems building for the construction industry. We should be more outspoken with what our thoughts on the current developments are. I am honoured to head the work on our scenario for the future. Maybe me having been the main author of the ECTP Vision for 2030 (pdf) had something to do with it. Anyways, we decided that a decade is a suitable time-frame, so the future scenario will look to 2022. We’re going to flesh out a draft and then discuss it with colleagues in the sector. Reality-check alert.

We are looking to create a situation where our work is pulled from the needs of the recipients even more than it is now. We’re also widening the scope by including the general construction supply chain and its clients. In the past, we have tended to polarize between systems building (which we called industrial construction and everybody seemed to misunderstand) and traditional, project-based construction. The latter is still the overwhelming majority of all construction and evolves only slowly. Putting it down because it is not radical enough only alienates people. Our plan for the future is radical, but the first step towards it is likely not. So, we’re increasingly focussing on the slow evolution of traditional logic to a situation where construction has a coherent supply-chain, the habit of small recurrent improvements, and all the other traits of systems-based building. Maybe our niche is to give advice to companies on how to take each step to get to that 2022 future. We might even be able to push a few companies over the the crest of that hill. We’ll see. The work on the scenario is a start.

Anyone else out there doing anything similar? I’d love to hear from you.

¡Viva La Evolución!

Images by Dan Engström, Creative Commons.

Pull on this.

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Thu, January 05, 2012 01:24:21
Let’s assume you’re done with a research project or a development of some sort. You now have a data set for your colleagues to understand. It might be the interaction between actions in a product development process, the number of sick days for employees in different business units of your company or the connections between your key performance metrics. It might even be the connections between the characters in Les Miserables, which is what they did in the graph below.
It doesn’t look like much, I know. And just showing a static version of it doesn’t do it justice. It’s interactive, you see. You get to manipulate it. It’s so cool and opens so many opportunities. Since my blog medium is very basic, I’d like to you to do something for me. I want you to leave my blog for a minute or two and play around with it (link here). Let the cursor point to a spot of colour and see which character it is. Click on a spot of colour with only a few strings attached and pull. Then click on one with more strings attached and pull on that. Go do that and then read the rest of this post. Knock yourself out. I’ll wait for you here.
OK. Have you done it? No cheating. It’ll only take you a minute. If you work where pure evil decides what you can and cannot view on the web, play with it at home. Seriously. This is amazing stuff. Go do it. In the meantime, I’d be happy to play you some elevator music.
Now have you done it? Good. Cool, wasn’t it?

It’s a force-directed graph. It shows you the relationship between a set of points and how manipulating (yes, pulling on) a certain one will affect the rest. Pulling on one with many connections will affect the whole data set. Pulling on one with only one connection will do very little. The width of the possible uses for this I can only begin to imagine.

This force-directed graph template is just one of many data driven documents available for download at D3.js, a small, free JavaScript library for this sort of graphs. D3.js is meant for people like you and I to find the perfect templates to use as pieces in our own jigsaw puzzle. You pick a suitable template for a data-driven graph, let it read your data from a source file (which can interact on command with your original research results data if you like) and then you get an image that was meant to be manhandled. It was designed to be used by an active group, not looked at by the lone ranger.

At the page for the Les Mierable graph, you’ll find the source file to be a certain miserables.json file. As of yet, I have no idea what format that is in or how to fill it with my own information, but I am sure going to find out.

So imagine a workshop where you use this to show the results of your project. Will your audience be interested? Will you make them curious? Will you make them write down the graph URL and go back to their office in order to be the cool guy that shows it off? Hell yes.

These graphs give us the tools to take responsibility for the implementation of our project results. They let us quit being consultant researchers that take the jobs thrown at us, that send reports and move on. They allow researchers to take active part in business. That’s not a bad thing.

And here’s the key. When we have collected some form of data, which is a key ingredient in R&D, we look at it from different angles, write the text and then develop suitable illustrations to suit the text and data. Very respectable, but it doesn’t make anything happen in the minds of business people.
I suggest industrial researchers turn this established procedure upside down and do the exact opposite – develop the project from the graph. Work on what can be illustrated in a meeting room, instead of trying to make everything you’ve worked on come across. By all means write a report too. Just remember that if we have to present a report for the people in the room to be able to decide whether to take any sort of action, we’ve likely failed. Our R&D project is dead in the water and a good deal of the investment wasted.

But then again, maybe you don’t write shelf warmers. Your reports are so frequently used by others that you want to stick to sending people a 37-page pdf document in the mail beforehand.

No. I thought as much.

Well, if you don’t yet believe in the power of the image as primary medium for collecting and examining data, go to this post at the blog and have a look around. Check out, say, how the world is feeling right now through and you’ll be ready to write a blog post just like this one.

Credits: Force-directed graph from d3.js. Images from Flickr Creative Commons: bored by roy costelly, Muzak dial by Ryan Harvey and Turn The Whole Thing Upside Down by Melissa Gray.

Structural Engineers are Homeless Bums

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Sun, January 01, 2012 23:39:12
The wise readers of this blog know that I am fond of input from outside; outside of construction, of Sweden, of engineering research - anywhere but from where I am immediately comfortable in my own knowledge. Learning from others is at the heart of creativity. Today I have invited Glen Cooper, a Structural Engineer from St Albans, UK, who writes engineering related blog posts at The topics which he takes on are varied, but he discusses with vigour the essential softer and less technical side of our industry. You can also find him @avatarengineers and email him at With no further ado, here's Glen's reflection.

Structural Engineers are Homeless Bums
For us Engineers, LinkedIn is fast becoming a virulent breeding ground for many cool existential engineering debates. It is also managing to provide us with a forum capable of bearing the seeds from a few perplexing engineering problems too.

Off the back of a LinkedIn discussion around the pay & wages of Engineers [here], has come some rather rare opportunities to take an engineering analogy or two for a test spin. Let me share with you a great attack, parry, and riposte if I may.

It was mentioned that a fellow Engineers suggestion to "stop moaning about pay and just get out there and make some money" was akin to telling a homeless person to get a job or asking a depressed person to cheer up. Facile and less than constructive. [Kat Lai, LinkedIn Discussion, Structural Engineer – Group]
I believe that we are more like homeless people than a person with depressive tendencies, but they are in some way linked.

One of my close family members was made homeless for a while. He was a great guy - but there is no easy way to help someone who does not wish for or indeed need the assistance. You see I had come to the conclusion years ago that those of us who find themselves becoming trapped in these ill-conceived circumstances, will follow one or several of these lines of action;

1. Shocked into taking action. This appears as an explosive reminder to avert a life disaster, and they use this realisation to do something about it. Most of these will find a way to resolve their problems, and self-heal along the way. Highly motivated, if in a retrospective capacity.

2. Making do. Critically this involves the down trodden to loose self-belief and eventually accept their circumstances. Upon further investigation you will find that they genuinely believe that this is all they deserve out of life. Any attempt to help them needs to first tackle the key reasons why they are content to languish, before galvanising them for their triumphant return to status.

3. Addiction. The person is addicted to a particular 'thing' or 'way of being' which works against their currently held status. It is inevitable that they will fail. Until the addiction has been broken, then they will continuously fall short of the necessary motivation to raise their status back to the norm.

4. The Tribe. Some people choose this way in life because the alternatives are way too complicated. In society, we build highly dynamic groups of friends, where status, empathy and acceptance form a social understanding which can be tiring to some. The thought of becoming a member of an uncomplicated tribe who never judges you, is an enticing idea. No internal judgement, status free, uncomplicated.

There are of course lots of reasons why someone might become homeless, and the majority of them offer opportunities of return to status. For example, loose a job - find another job. This is obviously not as easy as just writing it.

For this post, I would like us Engineers to think on the 4 points above and try to understand how we can turn our need for greater 'pay and status' into a plan for the future.

"Homeless people, like the rest of society, have goals that, if not met, can lead to feelings of loss. Even though homeless people may have some supports, their disconnection from society and inability to achieve basic goals may lead to low self-esteem" Frederick A. Diblasio , John R. Belcher

If we are 'making do' with our position, then we have to understand the hidden reasons for our inaction. If we are addicted to a 'way of being', focussing only on our own business and career, then we have to begin to wean ourselves off this selfish behaviour.

Finally, if we plan on making this philosophy the secret mantra of our 'tribe', as many generations of Engineers have do so before us - simply because it is a less complicated existence... then it's about time we admitted to it. Time to move on, I think.

Dan's comment
My fabulous older brother (who is in construction management in the UK) used to lovingly call structural engineers like me and our dad cannon fodder. He used the example of the London Millenium Bridge which went from being called the Foster Bridge by his colleagues to the name the Arup bridge the second it showed instability. And yet, Arup can boast of maybe the most influential structural engineer in construction since Thomas Telford, namely Cecil Balmond. If you haven't read Informal, you need to do so.

When it comes to the role of engineers in the ongoing transition of construction, I think Glen really is on to something in his post. There are too few engieers who use their skills in order to openly question the comme il faut. Engineers are trained to creatively solve problems and optimise their solutions. But we are not trained to do business from those skills. We do charge clients for our services, but to be perfectly honest, we're not very good at it. In fact, we're so poor at seeing the value of our work that we tend to accept the situation where our skills are not only priced less than deserved, they're valued less than deserved. Time to change that, engineering brothers and sisters. If you're home is the regular engineering silo, get out of there and find the home you deserve. THen make it known that you have moved in.

Credits: Text and image copyright Glen Cooper, 2012.

Leave your mark

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Mon, December 26, 2011 01:07:45
Implementing industry research in construction. We've been doing poorly for years. Arguably, one problem is that when we look for solutions, we stay inside the paradigm that created the problem in the first place. It is time we changed that. It is time we made our mark on our sector. It is time we introduced something unexpected.
Before you ask: No, I don't know how. Not yet. But in anticipation of my New Year's resolution to change the world I have collected a handful of methods for getting us started. Feel free to download the list here as a Christmas gift from me to you:What happens if we deliberately set out to develop a breakthrough? Directly in the new year, my colleagues and I are starting down the road towards the answer to that question. We want to know if the we can make a radical improvement of our R&D in construction.

Arguably, something similar will be happening over in your hunting-grounds too. Because when the best option really only is the least bad one, it is high time to create a step-change. Let's help each other out with it.

Image: Strange Things Are Happening These Days! Flickr CC by Koshyk.

Let’s change the world forever

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Fri, December 23, 2011 14:57:21
Let’s change the world forever. At least the way we develop and implement new knowledge in construction. It can be done. We even have a plan to back that up.

Here’s the thing. We’re doing it all wrong. Have done for decades. Small wonder that our colleagues in construction are looking at us researchers like we were from Mars. Our plan is to scrap the report.The issue

Here’s the thing. My job is industrial research. That means I do research and development in order to help my colleagues improve their business. I’m not primarily trying to make good business for my own unit of engineers but for the units that actually build stuff. You know; houses, bridges, that sort of thing. My main job is to do research that help us understand how we develop and package building products, wherein I mainly work with how we cut costs while still improving the product quality.

Much of the empirical knowledge we use in our research comes from a number of short-term development projects. We analyse a problem here and test small developments there. Every year, people like me produce quite a substantial number of reports and articles from such projects. Let’s have a show of hands, those of you that have you read them.

No. I thought as much. That’s my whole idea here. Research is presented in the format of text and images on paper. That’s how we develop, disseminate and deconstruct the logical argumentation. Because the very reason for research is to produce new knowledge. In sharp contrast to this, the reason for industrial research and for those short-term development projects is the improvement of someone’s business. Some researchers create new knowledge because a knowledge gap invites their curiosity to explore it. Some researchers, like me, work to fill that gap because filling it means that their colleagues will make better business.

Even though in our sector they converge over time, there is a big difference between the two. There is a difference in how you design your research, how you measure success, and most of all in how you use the results. The issue, which is my main subject today, is that there seem to be very little difference in how we present the results. We are researchers, so we send pdf documents in the mail and hope to make a powerpoint presentation after which we leave a pile of reports and papers behind. We do the project and then think about how to tell people about the results. That is no good.

Redesign your R&D

We design our projects after what should be included, like the good researchers we are, not after the recipients can be expected to take in. At that crucial meeting where we present our project results, we go through the memo and report that we sent and unfortunately, no one has had the time to read it beforehand. We stand there with our reports and are faced with the task of getting a complicated message across understood quickly, in real time. We have the knowledge and the understanding we need to convey the message quickly, but we are not prepared for presenting it quickly.

I tend to say to my students that they should not write so that they get all information into that email or presentation, but so that everything they write is taken in by their audience. Imagine if we do exactly that with our industrial research projects, and even take it a step further. Imagine if we design these projects to contain only that which can be taken in during three minutes. If we do that, we need to go to demonstrations instead of reports. It is likely we can only use media like images, video clips and models.

Let’s take Lego as an example of a useful tool. A new product or process can easily be mimicked in Lego. Like a real World Cup football match or the concurrent design and assembly of the Harry potter Hogwarts Great hall, brick by brick. Maybe we want to demonstrate a functioning Lego sniper rifle or a Lego domino row building machine. Have a look at one or two of the links above. I think you'll agree that videos make it easy to convey even complicated concepts quickly.

Lego even helped us with the virtual building software tool we need; the Lego Digital Designer and made their own business based on it (an on the creativity of their customers), Lego Design By Me. Our job is to be prepared for using that kind of media. We only need to be creative in choosing the best possible way to convey the new knowledge we gained in under ten minutes. We should aim for no less than everyone dropping their jaws.

Cut to the chase

Even complicated concepts can be conveyed in a very short time, so that it is possible for the recipients to make an assessment of what it would mean to them to adopt it. Except understanding your recipients needs (which is a different blog post), the key is that you decide the medium very early. You work in that medium and with that medium in mind for the workshops and dissemination of the new process. You bring the model or show the clip. You will be surprised by the interest you will get from having used an unexpected medium.

Now you’re working like you were in advertising; you are making your colleagues understand the essence of your message quickly, think about the potential of it and maybe even want more. You’ve turned a difficult meeting situation around to a great opportunity. You have active participants who actually have understood the gist of the project results. Because the gist is all they need at this point. You can now enjoy the opportunity to discuss the reason why you did the project in the first place: the business that should come out of it.

I know that you are bound to have any number of documents in writing on your servers. Don’t throw them away, silly. I mean scrap the report as the main carrier of the information. Those documents on the server are not the ones that you bring to the meeting. Leave them there. They are backup, they contain the knowledge needed AFTER that crucial meeting.

You need the written reports and data when the decision has been made that you should go on with the next stage of developing the new process or product. But you do not need them to introduce your results. You do not need them to make that first impact that is so crucial to the implementation of your hard work.

Scrap the report.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Editing a paper by Nic's events, Papers by mortsan, Lego generations by ansik

One thought away from a breakthrough

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Tue, December 13, 2011 00:40:13

A sociologist, an engineer and a marketing manager walk into a bar. Then what?

Did you know that you are only a single thought away from an amazing breakthrough? All you need to do is think it. Put like you were a trailing hockey team (only two shots away from the win), it sounds terribly easy. Actually, it can be. Here’s what to do. Collaborate.

In his fabulous book ”How breakthroughs happen. The surprising truth about how companies innovate”, Andrew Hargadon argued for technology brokering. He argues that enlightened trial-and-error of cross-disciplinary teams will triumph over the deliberate planning of the lone genius. Don’t think outside the box. Look inside someone else’s box where they already have been thinking. Use that thinking to match a need in your field and you have an innovation. One very successful example of this is the IDEO DeepDive methodology.

Andrew Hargadon’s book was a real eye-opener for me, inspiring but also frustrating. When the book was published in 2003, technology brokering took very hard work. How do you finmd the people, the ideas and the boxes to connect with? The systematic building of intersections of people was hard to pull off. So I shelved the idea because I couldn’t be bothered to do the work. But it is now December 2011 and times have changed. After the 2003 web 1.0 (I write, you read) web 2.0 (we all both read and write) has established itself in the form of Wikipedia and twitter, just to name two. People are finding each other all over, like the Occupy movement which is reinventing politics, thanks to the use of hashtags like #uws and #occupy on social media. And social networks are developing into social markets, like zilok (rent anything) and taskrabbit (get any chore done).

It is almost too easy to find someone that knows what I need to know. I realize that it it is time for me to blow the dust of the ideas in Andrew Hargadon’s book and look for that unexpected, perfectly matched skill in a different arena. Let me give you a couple of examples, courtesy of Alfons Cornella. First, the Jukari Fit to Fly. Reebok were of the opinion that women are bored in gyms, so in 2009 they teamed up with the Cirque du Soleil to develop something that is a distinctly different type of training. The Jukari has its own youtube channel. Second, Amazon (who is a web 2.0 company in itself) teamed up with the 7-eleven chain to provide pickup lockers for parcels. The one company had the digital infrastructure, the other had the physical network of stores. And don’t get me started on the Renault and L’Oreal Zoe spa car.

Does this seem far-fetched? We cannot all practice business like we are designers (Nike) or technology like we are culturalists (Apple). But this method of using different skills and backgrounds is nothing new to construction. It is the same line of thinking that we use to argue for partnering. There will be one colleague that knows the solution of a problem. We only have to make sure that colleague is given incentive to share the solution, and that this opportunity is given early enough in the process. In order to do that, we have to share what our problems are. We just do it A) between projects, and B) with companies not within our comfort zone. For real.

Our main challenge is that old habits die hard. Our economic system is built on competition. This method of creating innovation and step-change is built on collaboration. This requires trust, and trust is built on generosity. Share like you care. It not only is good business, it is also good fun. But it's hard. You will get frowns from management. At the end of the day though, I think you'll find this new-ish paradigm rewarding.

"The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall." (I never thought I'd quote Che Guevara, but there's a first time for everything)

Right. Let’s say you’re in. I talked you into testing. You’ll likely argue that with hindsight, connecting Coca-cola and Italian coffee maker Illy to create a soft drink-type market for coffee looks easy enough. But actively coming up with the perfect connection is harder. Or is it? Actually, there are a handful of methods we could use. This list is by all means not complete, it is only my first draft of methods I’ve come across. Personally, I think it contains everything one needs to make that breakthrough. It’s just a matter of starting. But remember, you can’t do this alone. Bring in some people that are unlike you and get to it.

1) Map your challenges

Map what your challenges are and identify what sectors likely have that ability. Describe the business idea and try to team up. I gave some examples above. If you want to map in a network, there are organisations like Co-society and Jump Associates that do that sort of thing.You probably have such resources closer to home, you probably just haven't looked.

2) Reengineer your revenue stream (Jump Associates article here)

If a company of consulting engineers were to go from charging by the hour to charging a subscription fee for their engineers or creating franchises, the business of that company would change to its very chore.

3) Challenge-driven innovation

What is your main goal and what is the main challenge you face in reaching it? Define that and then ask what it would take for you to reach the goal and overcome the challenge. You might just find out that articulating that was all you needed to do to identify the change needed.

4) See the need, fill the need

Like Rodney Copperbottom did in the Pixar film Robots, look to your own experience of working with your clients and see where there is a need. Then fill it. Like Rodney, fail fast, fail often, fail inexpensively. Ben Rennie suggested (here) that in the next 30 days, we try creating something, share our ideas liberally and simply view the world from someone else’s viewpoint.

5) Name the product and decode it

A product needs a challenging, inspiring, intuitive name. But a catchy name can unleash a creative urge to decode what that product is. Have a beer or two with some colleagues and come up with a name for a product. Then let that name be the catalyst of development.

6) Mindmapping innovation

This exercise really does create new ideas, and can be done for the fun of it during a coffee break with three to five strangers if you wish. Put five columns on a large piece of paper. Headings are Technology, Target group, Problem, Distribution and Business idea. The first four columns you fill with anything you can think of. Then you have the group close their eyes and point to a word in each column. They then come up with a business case involving those four words. Have them write it in the fifth column.

When we did this (with Kreo as facilitators), our words where Cassette tapes, Pensioners, Unhealthy food habits, and Supermarkets respectively. We came up with a business idea involving Walkmans which guide you through the supermarket, and marked with the dinner you want today. If you want to go on with the exercise, this can be done over and over. The best cases can be posted on another paper and the skills of the group can be mapped on a third paper. In that little exercise there will be a business idea somewhere.

A sociologist, an engineer and a marketing manager walk into a bar. The question is what they came out with.


Images Flickr Creative Commons: Product design innovation workshop led by Larry Shubert of Zip Innovations, by Bytemarks. Collaborating nails, by michaelcardus. MindTouch: Collaboration Revolution, by Roebot

Final image: Mindmap of innovations, by yours truly.

Reasoning and examples in this blog post come in part from Alfons Cornella of Co-society, Barcelona.

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