The Art of Innovation

Will Hodges catches up with Charlie Leadbeater- 'innovation expert' and independent business consultant

Charlie Leadbeater, as he himself is quick to point out, is one of those people for whom it is easier to say what they used to do than what they currently do. My research on him brings up numerous references to 'ideas generator', 'strategic adviser' and 'the wizard of the web'. He is universally recognised as a leading authority on business, innovation and online commerce. He has advised numerous companies and organisations including 10 Downing Street, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft.

Leadbeater started out on a much more conventional career path as a newspaper man, working for the Financial Times for about 10 years as the paper's Labour Editor before joining the Independent as Assistant Editor. Whilst at the Independent he came up with the idea for a light-hearted newspaper column aimed at young, female readers entitled 'Bridget Jones' Diary'. He admits to borrowing the idea from an existing column in another newspaper - 'The best way to have a new idea is simply to borrow it from someone else', he points out - before putting it into effect with the help of fellow Independent writer Helen Fielding. His experience of failing to capitalise his 'best idea ever' (Fielding was left with all the rights to the character who went on to become the subject the subsequent novel and film) led him to leave journalism and become self-employed. It was at this point that he made sure he would take full advantage of the opportunities that came his way.

As the speaker points out, the word 'innovation' has become a buzz term of late and Leadbeater is keen to underline some of the core principles behind the idea. His own experience dictates that it comes from a handful of very simple ingredients - as he goes on to explain, there are several fundamental rules you need to follow if you want to think about the environment you need to provoke innovation.

'Innovation comes from curiosity' - Leadbeater explains that when pursuing a new venture it is essential to think about what motivates you, and one of the strongest motivators is curiosity; 'following your nose', as he puts it. He gives the example of the inventor who created post-it notes whilst attempting to come up with a type of sealant to attach car roofs to the body of the vehicle. The substance he came up with was not strong enough to fasten metal to metal but when he applied it to paper it worked perfectly and so the post-it note was born.

The second key ingredient is a less obvious one - crisis. Crisis, as the speaker points out, is absolutely essential to innovation, be it a war, an economic crisis or just sheer necessity: 'In crises barriers break down; people have to act quickly. Take the ice-cream cone. In 1904 a guy selling ice-cream runs out of paper cups and with no way of serving his product turns to the guy in the kiosk next to him who is serving waffles. On hearing the plight of his neighbour, the waffle seller rolls up one of his products and serves the ice-cream inside - the waffle cone is born'.

The next point Leadbeater makes is that, generally speaking, it's fairly difficult to come up with ideas unless you welcome constructive challenges. 'The only way to develop real ideas', he explains 'is to expose them to constant challenges. Be prepared to work with people around you who are prepared to give you that challenge. That will teach you new ideas. Success is the worst teacher; when you learn is when things don't work out the way you think they should.'

Being prepared to ask stupid questions is the subject of his next point. 'Some of the best ideas' he explains, 'have materialised when people have been prepared to ask questions that other people consider to be irrelevant'. The example he gives on this point is the founder of Dell Computers, Michael Dell. Leadbeater relates that up until Dell changed the rules of the game in the mid 1990s computers had always been sold by the manufacturers via computer sales specialists. When asking why this was the case, Dell was invariably met with the same response 'that's just the way things work'. Tired of the same instinctive response, Dell decided to go ahead and do things his own way, devising a way of bringing computers directly to consumers via online sales, advertising, home delivery and direct sales.

Leadbeater goes back to his own experiences for his next point - 'borrowing'. 'The best way to have a new idea', he asserts, 'is to borrow it. Rather than burying your head in your own vision, take time to inspect the ideas that are already there all around you which may not yet have been fully realised. Bring elements of things around you into your own environment'. Again, the speaker provides evidence of a master of this particular art-form. A street performer from Quebec, Guy Laliberté, took inspiration from a tour of Europe and on returning to Canada decided to put together a show combining influences from different genres. Ballet, theatre, circus performance, rock opera - all traditional, well-trodden ideas in their own right but when mixed together they formed a new product that was totally unique. Today Laliberté is a 95% share holder in Cirque du Soleil - a company valued at $1.2 billion. 'Often the key to finding an innovative idea', Leadbeater affirms, 'is rather than facing forwards head down towards a goal, is to go out and look sideways'.

Ways of finding your way around a problem is one of the reoccurring messages of Leadbeater's talk. The kind of thinking that got you into the problem, he explains, is very unlikely to get you out of it. Instead, solutions come from conversation - the imparting and sharing of thinking and intelligence. The best way to have a new idea is to have a conversation with someone who can offer new insight: 'Creativity is not a one man game; it comes from having conversations and combining your ideas with those of other people. If you can share knowledge between different people then you get answers quicker. The more you share the more you are likely to get back; by the same token, the more you horde the less likely it is that someone is going to give you something In any business', he explains, be it the legal sector or professional services, to find a solution to the client's problem it is critical to engage them in their ideas and their way of thinking. Understanding the client is vital'. In Leadbeater's words, the most valued clients are the ones who make you think; the ones who demand something different of you.

Ultimately, however, it all boils down to commitment and perseverance. 'Ideas are ten a penny' proclaims Leadbeater, 'what really matters are the skills and commitment required to turn an idea into action; the way you develop an idea and deliver it are what matter. Lots of time people come up with ideas and don't know how to implement them; they lack the drive or the ability. Really great innovators come up with big ideas and have the passion and commitment to follow it through. Steve Jobs had a vision of putting a computer in every living room in America. This mission carried him through to create Apple'. 'Innovators often leave big companies. It is usually the smaller, more creative companies that know how to foster the best talent'.

It is this final point that is perhaps the most resonant - it is all very well to talk about an idea as we have been doing for the last hour but talk means nothing unless you are prepared to act on it. 'You don't learn to swim by sitting by the side of the pool', he says. I get the impression that Leadbeater is a pretty strong swimmer.

Charlie Leadbeater was speaking at a Linklaters event. To see a video of the talk check out: www.linklatersgraduates.co.uk/engage

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