9 posts

Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #5

The learning organisation

Jono Byrne
Aug 21, 2017

Read episodes #1, #2, #3 and #4

The prologue

Episode 4 saw me drowning in an unravelling ‘innovation’ programme for a Team GB Olympic sport.

My ‘missionary’ zeal for science and data had antagonised the sporting tribe I’d intruded into.

As Rio 2016 drew close, something had to give…

My escape

As Shit Creek dragged me under, I needed to be saved.

My salvation came from a community of true believers in the power of science and data. I was summoned back to the ‘Church of Marginal Gains’.

Among my own kind, I blamed others for the failures up Shit Creek.

I wasn’t the only one guilty of self-delusion. Other sport scientists had become fixated on science and data. They believed it was the ‘one true path’ to a promised land of Olympic medals.

But I had doubts. Was there really a ‘magic bullet’ for sporting success?

I was losing my faith.

Zealots, heretics, and reformers

A church can be a force for good. A place for the community to reaffirm its commitment to the common good. A source of support for those in need.

But everything has its shadow.

For a church it’s fundamentalism. ‘Zealots’ with fixed beliefs in ‘one true path to righteousness’ and vehement intolerance of alternatives.

In the Church of Marginal Gains, a small minority of zealots made grand promises of the power of science and data.

Some had never lived among a sporting tribe. But they believed they knew what mattered. And, as I once did, that they could measure, analyse, and ‘manage’ it.

I faced a dilemma. Join a ‘crusade’ to spread the word of science and data or face expulsion as a ‘heretic’.

An old friend showed me an alternative. The way of the reformer. A path of deep reflection on the Church’s true purpose.

To serve the sporting tribes rather than convert them.

The lessons

On our recent Nordic travels, Al Smith and I visited the homeland of historic reformer and ‘Father of Modern Denmark’ Nikolai Grundtvig.

He believed in:

“a freedom that ensured the individual citizen the same potential for life and action everyday as that citizen would wish for his neighbours.”

Danish law mandates that its sports system operates in a “socially responsible way”. Grundtvig would approve.

In Norway, we met Professor Oyvind Sandbakk. A humble man of science, drawing strength and wisdom from experiences as an elite athlete and coach.

More likely to ask insightful questions than give a premature answer to your problems. Professor Sandbakk cares for and respects the ‘craft’ of coaches and athletes.

His words were humbling.

I’d been too busy trying to demonstrate my ‘expertise’ in elite sport. Unintentionally condescending people I considered lacking.

Decades ago, Michael Polanyi taught that “we can know more than we can tell”.

As a scientist, I found the methods of elite coaches messy and inconsistent. They couldn’t tell me what they knew.

But I underestimated their wisdom.

One coach I worked with had never seen an excel spreadsheet. But he could see things I couldn’t see, let alone measure.

History proves he knows what matters. He’s helped athletes win medals at 3 successive Olympic Games.

Arie de Geus’ quote “the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage” is much abused.

Up Shit Creek, I learned a hard lesson…

That the true ‘learning organisation’ is one that listens to all sources of wisdom, in and around it. Not just the fashionable voices.

Heart surgeon Paul Uhlig said it best:

“…bring the people involved together and ask them what works and why. Create protected time for people to meet and reflect. Their shared dedication to excellence will drive things forward from there. Creating opportunities for reflective conversations to happen — making places where people can reconsider their beliefs and expectations together — is how real reform begins…

…the methods for accomplishing this are not hard. They are just different and more rewarding than what we do today.”

In episode 4, I spoke of the importance of relationships in elite sport.

Can we reform the relationship between coaching and sports science?

Can we reform the relationship between those who fund sport and those who make it happen?

That would be ‘innovation’ worth doing.

It’s time to move beyond Shit Creek…

…in search of better routes to the future of sport.

Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #4

Why are you here? Really

Jono Byrne
Aug 11, 2017

Read episodes #1, #2 and #3

The prologue

“You’re just like all the other staff here, hitchin’ a ride on the gravy train off the back of our efforts.”

In my time in elite sport, I’ve had many conversations with many athletes.

Two have stuck with me.

The first, in 2009, was with a senior Team GB athlete. An ‘old hand’ who’d seen it all as captain of his team at Commonwealth, European, World, and Olympic level.

The accusation that I’d jumped on the “gravy train” stung like hell.

In that instant, I understood the suspicious relationship between athletes and staff in a generously funded programme. It was ‘them and us’.

The second, more powerful conversation took place in the winter of 2015.

Floundering in the turbulent waters of Shit Creek, I was again reminded of my privileged place in a world where I didn’t really belong.

Getting it

“You just don’t get it Jono. I’m struggling to pay my rent and my food bill here.”

The accusation that I didn’t “get it” wasn’t a repetition of that tired cliche about ‘getting performance’.

Instead, it was a deeper, more personal, and upsetting insight.

It came from a young woman passionate about her sport, dreaming of competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

I didn’t know she was struggling to survive on the lowest level of funding in the UK performance sport system. An income less than the UK’s legal minimum wage.

What I didn’t “get” was this young woman’s hopes for her life in sport.

I didn’t “get” what she needed to fulfill her dreams.

I didn’t “get” those things for one simple reason.

I hadn’t asked her.


There’s a trap waiting when you start believing in the power of your own expertise.

You think you know what’s best for people you claim to serve. If they’d just listen to you, their lives would be so, so much better.

In the search for ‘efficiency’, you’re decisive, you crack on, and you get busy improving ‘how things are done around here’.

There’s your trap.

You’ve just become a ‘Missionary’.

Bringing your civilisation to the ‘savages’.

Sent into the backwoods by the Church of Marginal Gains, I brought the religion of ‘science and data’ to a tribe of sporting unbelievers.

Like all missionaries, I believed I was doing good, moral deeds.

The tribe felt differently.

The lessons

In my experience, very few people have bad intentions.

But believing your intentions are good is no guarantee of right action.

I’ve seen too many ‘eager beaver’ sports practitioners fervently producing ever more sophisticated tables, charts, and video analysis.

I’ve seen equal numbers of coaches eyes glaze over.

Instead of trying to relentlessly improve how we do the things that we do, perhaps we should ask “what should we be doing?”.

Surveying the current state of UK track and field athletics, respected coach Malcolm Arnold recently made a telling observation:

“Coaches are not being developed or looked after.”

I’ve heard similar observations in other British sports. Are we having honest conversations with coaches about what they really need?

The young athlete who said I didn’t “get it” didn’t want me to analyse and understand her ‘performance’ better.

She wanted me, and others, to understand her better.

In the company of a successful UK Performance Director and a wise friend, I recently experienced “a culture where creating a winner does not come at the cost of the human being”.

As welcomed guests of Team Denmark, we learned about a swimmer who’d retired in disillusionment, and the high performance programme that adapted so she could rediscover her love of sport.

That young woman is Pernille Blume, an Olympic gold medallist in Rio.

Back home, UK Sport Chairwoman Dame Katherine Grainger has said there are “huge concerns about athlete welfare”.

Perhaps it’s time for some ‘innovation’.

But maybe less gadgets this time. Maybe a little less data. Maybe less shiny equipment.

Instead, maybe it’s time for a rethink of the relationships between coaches, athletes, and the system that exists to serve them.

I’m drowning in Shit Creek… and nothing can save me now.

Read episode #5

Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #3

Silver Bullets

Jono Byrne
Aug 9, 2017

Read episodes #1 and #2


The prologue

In episode #2 of Up Shit Creek, I described how I’d failed to ask obvious questions about over-ambitious ‘innovation’ in one of Team GB’s Olympic teams.

Fearing financial insecurity, I became a compliant cog in a machine designed to extract ‘performance’ from a group of athletes.

Here, I’ll start asking the question “what would I do differently if I was in the same situation again?”.

Hopefully the answers will help you to avoid your own personal ‘Shit Creek’.

Stronger and more sustainable

While at UK Sport, I’d observed something interesting. A clue that, in hindsight, might have helped me to understand the pressure that some of the actors in my story were under.

Setting a deliberately ‘audacious goal’, UK Sport’s leaders focused everyone’s attention on a highly ambitious Rio 2016 medal target.

To win an ever greater quantity of Olympic medals, more than Team GB had ever achieved before.

The stated ‘vision’ was “a stronger and more sustainable high performance system”. A laudable aim that anyone can support.

But was that message drowned out by the deafening roar of an ‘audacious’ medal target?

Is a record breaking medal-haul the only viable indicator of a “stronger and more sustainable high performance system”?

In the team I worked with, I didn’t hear conversations about making the programme “stronger and more sustainable”.

Almost every conversation was about ‘performance’.

The performance of the athletes that is.

Not the performance of the system around them.

Questions of perspective

A tired cliche in the UK’s performance sport system is to say “[Person X]doesn’t get performance”.

I challenge that view. Hard.

As we’ve seen this week at London’s World Athletics Championship, the performances of our athletes come under microscopic and highly personal scrutiny.

That’s an easy perspective to take. To suggest that what’s needed is to ‘fix’ the athletes. To seek the ‘silver bullets’ to deliver immediate medal success.

It’s far harder to look at the bigger picture. To ask “how is the systemproducing these outcomes?”.

In examining the state of athletics in Britain today, respected coach Malcolm Arnold has asked such difficult questions.

“If you look at the neglect of development of athletes, the neglect of development of coaches… people are asking if it’s a showbusiness company or something that develops athletes”

Malcolm’s perspective comes from the hard-won wisdom of a vastly experienced front line coach.

A macroscopic view of athlete performance. A perspective that demands attention to what matters in making a “stronger and sustainable high performance system”.

The lessons

We’d embarked on a massive programme of technology investment.

Wholesale improvements in the ability to collect and analyse complicated performance data. Advanced manufacturing techniques to build superior racing equipment.

These were our silver bullets. Magic ‘quick fixes’ that had apparently worked before in other multi-medal winning Team GB sports.

Shortcuts designed to extract the maximum ‘performance’ from a small group of elite athletes.

Shortcuts designed by scientists and engineers, taking a microscopic view of what matters in sport.

But when you’re consumed with the small details, lost in the pursuit of ‘marginal gains’, you can lose sight of what really matters.

The Team GB medal target for Rio was presented as ‘audacious’.

But was it really, like me, just a little bit cowardly?

Afraid of asking the difficult questions.

Afraid of asking “what really matters here?”.

Afraid of the real hard work. Designing more sophisticated indicators of a healthy, productive environment that could produce sporting excellence.

Afraid of the difficult job of creating a “stronger and more sustainable high performance system”.

Our silver bullets didn’t fire us towards gold medals.

They led us directly up Shit Creek, and we took the hopes and dreams of athletes with us.

We’re approaching the rapids… cling on for dear life.

Read episode #4

Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #2

First Contact

Jono Byrne
Aug 5, 2017

Read episode #1

In early June 2014, I took responsibility for an ‘innovation’ programme in one of Team GB’s Olympic sport teams.

A fatal error pushed me firmly towards ‘Shit Creek’ and a rough ride where I failed athletes who deserved much, much better.

But ‘Shit Creek’ also led me somewhere unexpected; on a transformative journey into the unknown that changed my perspective on work, sport, and life for good.

The prologue

In 2011, I became Head of the Centre for Defence Enterprise, a multi-million pound technology venture fund that was the “jewel in the crown” of Sir Peter Luff’s Ministry of Defence equipment, science and technology portfolio.

The pressure was ball-breaking, but with Sir Peter’s enthusiastic backing, I was given unbelievable freedom to act within the boundaries of 2 agreed policy goals.

By late 2013, however, I’d become restless. I recklessly jumped at an offer to take up a senior role at UK Sport, but failed to do any due diligence on the organisation or the role.

Soon afterwards, I knew I’d made a terrible mistake.

I’d traded a free hand for tied hands. I worked with some good people but the atmosphere was sterile, stifled by the presence of a rigid hierarchy. Months later, I’d resigned.

With a mortgage and bills to pay, I knew I’d run out of money in about 4–6 months.

Things were not looking good but, unexpectedly, a past favour was about to be returned.

In the run-up to London 2012, I’d helped a GB Olympic team by using my Ministry of Defence connections to secure access to a unique testing facility.

That same team threw me a lifeline. I eagerly accepted the offer.

The fatal error

The trouble with insecurity is that it makes you a little too keen to ‘fit in’, too willing to tell people what you think they want to hear.

Early on, I was shocked to receive a summary of 11 technology projects that were already underway in the programme. I hadn’t expected anything on this scale.

Fear grew within as I contemplated the ambitious list of projects I was now responsible for.

The technical risks were considerable. The timescales looked improbable. The potential for disruption incalculable.

I knew I had to ask some serious questions. Why was there such a vast array of complex technology projects?

But I said nothing.

While at UK Sport, I’d learned that the performance sport system valued people who “got shit done”.

I still had that mortgage and the bills.

I got my head down.

Silently, I’d committed myself to a Mission: Impossible.

The lessons

In his landmark book on innovation, Clayton Christensen explains that the goal is to ‘disrupt’ your competitors, not your own organisation.

By taking on many simultaneous technology developments, the team faced compounding and unpredictable changes to its established working practices.

As Peter Block has expertly noted, when technological solutions are offered for an organisation’s problems “the resolution of the problem most often requires a change in thinking and action”.

Life has taught me that people are slow to change how they think. Behaviour change is harder still.

As Rosabeth Moss Kanter famously said:

“Change is a threat when done to me, but an opportunity when done by me”

However smart you are, if you try to change someone else, it’s unlikely to work. For an organisation to change, the impetus has to come from the people inside it. Imposed change can, at best, only hope to achieve ‘malicious compliance’.

Here’s where I made my second mistake.

When I walked into the team’s offices, it didn’t feel right. A flat mood, stilted conversations, infrequent laughter. It didn’t look, sound, or feel like a happy camp.

Later, I learned that relationships were strained. The team rapidly gained a reputation for having a ‘revolving door’ for staff.

This was not the place to introduce ‘disruptive’ changes in thinking and working practices.

Yet again, however, I failed to voice my concerns.

Yet again, I got my head down. I ‘got shit done’.

Mission: Impossible was underway. The course set towards a threatening Shit Creek.

Paddle faster, I think I can hear banjos…

Read episode #3

Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #1

Jono Byrne
Aug 1, 2017

I failed athletes.

I failed colleagues who needed more than I could give.

I failed people who were following their passion.

These failures would be painful enough by themselves, but brutally examining why they happened hurts far, far more.

In so doing, I hope those of you working in sport right now can avoid similar mistakes.

In the ‘mini-series’ I’ve called Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle, 4 more short and punchy posts will recount my personal experiences from 2 years working in the UK’s Olympic sport system.

I’ll describe specific mistakes; what factors promoted them (both personal and systemic); and important lessons about errors of judgement that needn’t and shouldn’t be blindly repeated elsewhere.

My goal isn’t to publicly ‘flog the guilty’ (except, perhaps, myself). The personal cost of these failures has been considerable: loss of confidence; loss of reputation; loss of income; loss of security; and (for a time) a debilitating loss of personal and professional direction.

But, in a period of personal reflection that has (sometimes literally) involved ‘wandering in the forest’, I’ve given myself time and space to ponder the true root cause of failures that cost me and others dearly.

Time for reflection deep in the woods…

Lacking moral courage, I failed (repeatedly) to “speak truth to power”.

Living the opposite to Brenda Ueland’s 1938 exhortation to a life of ‘Art, Independence and Spirit’, I couldn’t follow her simple advice:

“Be Bold, Be Free, Be Truthful”.

Even if I’d heeded that advice, some of the mistakes I’ll describe might still have occurred. My role in those mistakes would, however, have been less.

So now is the time to take personal responsibility for my part in a catalogue of damaging errors.

New Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle posts will be published thick and fast over the coming days and weeks. I’ll unleash a concentrated burst of insights that will hopefully be of use to any of you working in sport, and perhaps beyond.

These posts will cover (in more detail) some really important things that I’ve learned:

  1. First contact. Early conversations are critical. Be honest. If you have ‘gut instinct’ concerns, voice them.
  2. Silver bullets. What happens when you transplant ‘solutions’ that apparently worked elsewhere into new and unfamiliar environments?
  3. Why are you here? Really. Why does a sports organisation exist and who does it exist for?
  4. Learning organisations. How can sports organisations most effectively develop themselves?

We’re heading up Shit Creek.

Without paddles.

Get ready for a bumpy ride…

Read episode #2

Innovation: The Wrong Trousers

Jono Byrne
Jun 14, 2017

“It’s the wrong trousers, Gromit, and they’ve gone wrong!”

In the animated movie ‘The Wrong Trousers’, hapless inventor Wallace and his long-suffering dog Gromit discover that a well-meaning technological ‘innovation’ can cause unintended and entirely unforeseen consequences.

For Wallace, the unintended consequence of his ‘wrong trousers’ brought him close to disaster. Fortunately, faithful hound Gromit came to his rescue.

Over a decade ago, I lived through my own ‘wrong trousers’ story.

In common with Wallace, a malfunctioning pair of ‘techno-trousers’ sits at the heart of my tale. But no canine hero was on hand to save the day…


The story of the ‘wrong trousers’…

Or, how an excruciating pain in the bollocks became the catalyst for a powerful lesson about ‘innovation’

In 2003, I led a small team of specialists testing and qualifying safety critical components of the aircrew life support system for the Eurofighter Typhoon, the super-agile combat aircraft being developed for the UK, German, Spanish, and Italian Air Forces. The team was based at the UK’s only ‘man-carrying centrifuge’ facility; a 50-tonne rotating mega-machine that recreates the physical and mental demands of ‘high G’ acceleration experienced by agile fast-jet pilots.

At the time, persistent problems with the aircrew life support system were causing a growing threat to the Typhoon’s test flight schedule. In particular, the advanced anti-G trousers (AGTs) that had been designed for Typhoon pilots seemed a long way from becoming a ‘production version’.

AGTs are strange ‘garments’ unfamiliar to the wider world. Worn over the top of a one-piece aircrew coverall, they incorporate inflatable plastic ‘bladders’ tightly constrained by a non-stretch outer fabric layer. At the onset of ‘high G’ forces, the bladders are filled with pressurised air delivered from an ‘anti-G valve’ in the aircrew life support system. The inflation of the garment literally ‘throttles’ the wearer’s legs and abdomen, pushing blood back towards the heart. Suitably engorged, the human heart can more readily pump blood up to the brain under conditions of ‘high G’ forces. This provides protection against the critical risk of G-induced loss of consciousness (GLOC); vital in a +9G capable aircraft.

In what should have been a routine test of the ‘version 10’ prototype AGTs, I was the unfortunate soul that discovered a critical design flaw.

Riding the centrifuge at +7G, a ‘pressure point’ in the inflated AGTs caused an unexpected outcome. By effectively ‘closing off’ part of the vein that exits from the left side of the scrotum, the AGTs prevented outflow of blood from the affected area. As I was to quickly discover, however, inflow of blood from the corresponding artery was very much maintained.

Within seconds, I was faced with a rapidly expanding left bollock and the pain was indescribable.

Whilst my colleagues characteristically treated the episode as high comedy, I exited the centrifuge ‘cockpit’ ashen faced and in dire need of a calming British cuppa.

Subsequent tests with other human volunteers revealed that around 50% experienced the same ‘inflationary’ problem. To add to the emerging fiasco, the trousers provided greatly reduced protection against the risk of GLOC compared to previous designs.

There could be no doubt that the version 10 AGTs were indeed the wrong trousers.

So what good came of this literal and metaphorical ‘kick in the ball(s)’?

Up to that point, the development of the AGTs had followed a model that will be (perhaps depressingly) familiar to many.

Major defence projects such as the Typhoon are curious animals. In most cases, Defence Ministries funding such projects are not purchasing an ‘off the shelf’ product that already exists. Instead, they are buying a ‘concept’ of a future system that will be developed against a ‘requirement’. Even a casual observer will appreciate that the relationship between ‘buyer’ and ‘seller’ in such cases is inherently complex.

The ‘buyer’ is reliant on its capability to ‘intelligently’ specify its requirements (and, of course, a means of assuring they’re satisfied).

The ‘seller’ meanwhile is reliant on its ability to interpret the specification requirements and on having a means of demonstrating compliance.

In developing an aircrew life support system, the situation is even more fraught in that testing the compliance of the system against the specification must, by definition, put human beings in harms way.

My specialist team sat slap bang in the middle of this difficult space between the ‘buyer’ and the ‘seller’. We were fortunate indeed to be supervised by Wing Commander (retired) Dr Andy Prior MBE, a world renowned titan of the aerospace medicine world. With Andy overseeing the vast majority of our work, both we and our team of human volunteer test subjects were in the safest possible hands.

The fiasco of the version 10 AGTs was, in my view, a consequence of 2 things:

  1. clumsy attempts to ‘manage’ the inherently complex set of relationships between the parties involved by separating people into defined ‘functions’
  2. failure to access (and use) the full knowledge, talents, and enthusiasm available within the ‘community’ of people involved

The version 10 AGTs (and its predecessors) were manufactured by a specialist sub-contractor working at the behest of the major defence industry contractor responsible for delivering the Typhoon aircrew life support system.

The process of developing the AGTs followed a monotonous pattern:

  • the major contractor would order production of a design variant;
  • this would be delivered to the centrifuge for assessment of compliance with specification;
  • Andy would then report our findings to the major contractor and to relevant officials in the Ministry of Defence;
  • the reports would be discussed in ‘high-level’ programme meetings, mostly attended by senior managers from the respective parties;
  • and then cycle would then begin anew!

Over the course of many, many months, version after version of the AGTs would pass through the centrifuge. Following only partially successful testing of version 9, the major contractor’s patience snapped.

Increasingly frustrated as the development schedule of the life support system fell further behind their ‘projections’, the major contractor pushed hard for a new and improved version of the AGTs. Having allegedly ‘kicked ass’ behind the scenes, project managers from the major contractor boldly asserted that they had ‘sorted’ the problems once and for all.

Unsurprisingly, when Andy delivered the damning verdict on the version 10s, the news was, ahem, ‘poorly received’.

Thankfully, 2 Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots who had personally endured ‘bollock inflation’ on the centrifuge provided incontrovertible backing for our findings.

We had arrived at an impasse. The major contractor was fed up; their specialist sub-contractor was fed up; the Ministry officials were fed up; the RAF pilots were fed up; and we (the testers) were fed up too.

It was pretty obvious what was causing the problem. There were too many layers between the people who knew exactly what the AGTs needed to do and the people actually making the things in a factory at the other end of the country.

Thankfully, sense prevailed and a small low-cost experiment was agreed. To cut straight through the intermediary layers, the specialist sub-contractor’s chief designer would be sent to the centrifuge for a fortnight, working alongside Andy, me, and the rest of the test team. Meanwhile, the RAF made 3 experienced fighter pilots available to assist the work.

With the designer now ‘on-site’, Andy and other team members were able to explain the flaws in the existing design. Face-to-face discussions, offering a multitude of simultaneous (but relevant) perspectives on the AGTs proved more effective than communicating via data and ‘test reports’.

Insights came from a range of sources in often ‘animated’ discussions:

  • the RAF pilots knew most about the ‘use case’ — the practicalities of using the garment in real operational conditions;
  • Andy, and (to a lesser extent) I knew most about the interaction between the function of AGTs and human physiology under conditions of ‘high G’;
  • our 2 Survival Equipment Fitters (‘Squippers’ in RAF parlance) had unmatched experience of fitting AGTs to the human form;
  • the designer’s expertise afforded immediate assessment of the feasibility of actually producing any suggested design changes.

After 2 days, the first ‘rapid prototype’ went into overnight production at the designer’s factory in the north of England. Arriving the next morning, the RAF pilots tested the new garment on the centrifuge, providing direct, immediate feedback to everybody involved. Further frenetic discussion ensued, and upon arrival of the next rapid design iteration, the cycle continued.

In 2 weeks, more progress was made than in the preceding 2 years

The resultant prototype looked, felt, and functioned nothing like its version 10 ‘wrong trousers’ predecessor.

In final testing, the RAF pilots declared the AGTs to be the best they had ever used.

A couple of years later, a delegation of visiting United States Air Force (USAF) test pilots visited the centrifuge to test AGTs being developed for their F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Upon trying the ‘production version’ of the Typhoon AGTs, the USAF pilots were visibly astonished by their quality.

Working together, a small group of people had produced an undeniably ‘world class’ outcome.

The lessons…

So what did I learn from this cautionary tale?

  1. The main contractor fixated on complying with specification ‘metrics’ and delivering to a pre-determined development ‘schedule’; whilst this appeared ‘efficient’ and aligned with “what gets measured gets managed” conventional business ‘wisdom’, it actually caused delays, wasted resources, and frustration
  2. The ‘crisis of the version 10 AGTs’ led to a loosening of previously fixed ‘rules’ governing the distribution of the work and people’s roles within it; this opened a space for leveraging a greater diversity of relevant insights and the opportunity to combine those insights in real-time. As Cormac Russell would say, the emphasis became “about discoverables not deliverables”
  3. The new working ‘space’ enabled experts in use (RAF pilots) to interact directly with experts in function (Aerospace Physiologists & Squippers) and experts in production (Aircrew Clothing Designers); importantly, all of the required expertise already existed within the network of people involved in the Typhoon programme
  4. Novel ideas emerged from vibrant, almost anarchic discussions about the whole problem; focus was directed to the explicit overall purpose of developing the best possible AGT design. Pre-planned ‘work structure’ was replaced by open conversations that implicitly invited participation
  5. Most of the people involved had worked together for some time and shared a mutual respect. This stock of ‘social capital’ was vital in enabling the open, honest, and direct exchange of views that created a series of individually small (but collectively compelling) design changes
  6. There was ‘magic’ in the combination of the centrifuge itself (which had a rich 60-year history) and the ‘lively’ cast of characters involved in the work. The outrageous ‘barrack room’ humour, the shabby ‘crew room’ with its ageing faux-leather armchairs, the ritualistic (and frequent) mugs of tea. All of these things dissolved false ‘hierarchy’ and tacitly encouraged sharing. It was a vibrant, fun, and ‘humane’ workplace


The conclusion…

So, do I now have the answer to the all-too-common failure of ‘innovation/change’ projects?

Intellectual laziness could turn my observations on ‘the lessons’ into concrete ‘rules to follow’. It could even offer you a ‘good to great’ style recipe for success.

That would be fundamentally dishonest

In my story of the ‘wrong trousers’, I described a unique combination of characters working on a unique problem in a unique place. I won’t encounter the same combination of circumstances again, and neither will you.

Yet, threads of truth run through my tale; and if some or all of the ‘truths’ in my lessons are missing from your own ‘innovation’ landscape, I’m betting against your chances of success.

Sadly, our egos dream of our ability to plan for and control the future.

Like a wannabe Colonel Hannibal Smith of TV’s ‘A-Team’, we fantasise of puffing on a fat cigar as another carefully-crafted plan ‘comes together’.

Instead, maybe ‘innovation’ leadership could be modelled on a more modest ‘hero’…

Puffing on his pipe; only certain that he couldn’t (and shouldn’t) own all the answers; inviting and genuinely listening to the contribution of others. Never failing to delicately balance contemplation with action; ‘seen-it-all-before’ scepticism with insatiable curiosity; scientific rigour with intellectual flexibility; purpose with playfulness

Although he would’ve hated the label, the late Wing Commander Dr Andy Prior MBE was that very ‘hero’. RAF Typhoon pilots are safer in the skies thanks to his tireless work. More personally, I’m a better person for experiencing the light-touch wisdom of his tutelage.

In my next post, I’ll tell you a very different ‘innovation’ story. Undeniably ‘caught in the mood’ of a febrile ‘elite’ environment, I (unforgivably) lost sight of Andy’s timeless lessons and contributed no small part to a sorry tale of ‘innovation’ failure in sport…