The sum of parts

CJ Meadows has a passion for scuba diving and is a certified shark feeder

CJ Meadows has a passion for scuba diving and is a certified shark feeder  

Connecting pole-feeding of sharks with a board meeting may seem far-fetched to some, but not to CJ Meadows. The professor of design thinking and innovation at the SP Jain School of Global Management has a passion for scuba diving and is a certified shark feeder.

When you’re under water, she says, the technique is to hold down the pole and be aware of the pattern of fish that are coming around. Once you pick out the shark, you get your timing right and put your fish in front of him, setting him up for a win. That’s when the other sharks start flapping. And while they’re doing this, you just wait it out and then start all over again.

At board meetings, she says, “If you sit and listen to what’s going on in the group, you’ll see a pattern. When you spot who you’re going to engage with, set them up to win, and let them take the bait. Everybody else will go flap, flap, flap. Just wait till they all calm down and then just do it again”.

A prerequisite

The prerequisite, of course, is that you are willing to observe and listen. “The point of feeding someone an idea or making a connection with an opportunity is not so you can look good,” she says, “is to create a win. And you only win together.”

Making seemingly disparate connections is also key to design thinking. Dr Meadows calls it ‘fusion’: the melding of ideas, methods, needs, tools, industries, and more, to create breakthrough value. If you’re willing to — or have to — cross domains, there are ideas that are crying out to be applied in a new place.

Martine Rothblatt, for instance, “took satellite technology and stuck it into the radio industry, creating serious satellite radio. Simple enough technology, simple idea; now the revenues are about $4 billion a year.”

Dr Meadows’ research on fusion aims to learn how world-class cross-domain innovators go about it, so it can be mapped into team processes and company systems. Her going-in model of innovation has four elements.

Four elements

The first is openness. “Leaders are great ‘noticers.’ They see what’s around, they talk to everyone, they’re open to ideas and can bring them into their industry. They maintain an openness outside and are open inside to inspiration.”

The next thing is collecting. The innovators Dr Meadows studied collect degrees and skills. For instance, Karen Stephenson, corporate anthropologist and a pioneer in the field of social networks, started out getting her degree in art and quantum chemistry. And through following what interested her, she gained tools, techniques, ideas and technologies.

Later, when she saw something she wanted to apply them to, she had them in hand. “Thirty-five years ago she was told this will never take off. Now social network analysis is very important for big data, the internet, defence and security.”

The third is when you see a need in someone else. Critical for innovation is starting with a real need, irrespective of whether you co-create with a client or find it yourself. (Remember that ability to notice things?) “Design thinking is all about designing to suit someone’s needs, and you want to operate at the intersection of three things: desirability, feasibility and viability,” Dr Meadows says. Driving the need-based approach further is empathy, which to her is at the core of design thinking.

And then, she says, “Once you have started off with internal and external openness, have collected and sensed a need, can you put a need and a technology together? Can you put your technologies together?” This final element is fusing.

Innovation can be radical breakthroughs or small, regular improvements. Take the automobile: early models were not good enough to drive; you couldn’t start them easily, they were slow and rickety. Only sustained innovation and improvement made them useful and, now, ubiquitous. “I would say to organisations, ‘Don’t just focus on radical, new innovative thinking that’s going to create your business in the near future. You need also to do the sustaining innovations.’”

Importantly, she says, if you are going to make something radical that will destroy your current business, “don’t try to put it inside the business. If you do that, it starts to take over your business, and your own business will kill it. Make a separate business unit.”

Key thing

The key thing to remember, though, is that the environment in which businesses now seek to innovate is volatile. Whether it’s feeding the sharks or cranking up your car, you need to be on the ball. But it’s not just a matter of doing the same things more quickly, Dr Meadows says. “We need to find new solutions to problems. We need to solve them differently. That’s where you get breakthroughs that create whole new domains.”

Critical for innovation is starting with a real need, irrespective of whether you co-create with a client or find it yourself

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