9 posts

Innovation: Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts

Jono Byrne
Feb 10, 2017

In my introduction to this series of myfastestmile posts on ‘innovation’, I used an ancient Greek story (Aesop’s fable of the golden goose) to illustrate one perspective on a word that’s often abused in sport (and beyond).

The ancient Greek theme continues here as I explore the importance of scrutinising the true intent of those promoting ‘innovation’.


In Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, a Greek army leaves an unexpected and lavish gift as they apparently retreat from their 10-year siege of the fortress city of Troy.

Intrigued by the giant wooden horse left behind by their enemies, the Trojans are taken in by claims of its purpose from the sham Greek deserter Sinon.

Ignoring the loud protests of a wise old priest Laocoön, the war-weary Trojans fatefully welcome the ‘prize’ into their fortress.

Later that night, as Troy sleeps, the true purpose of the wooden horse is revealed after its hidden cargo of Greek soldiers seize the city’s main gatehouse.

The subsequent return of the supposedly ‘retreating’ Greek army seals the fate of Troy, as its hapless citizens are brutally slaughtered or enslaved.

The siren call of ‘innovation’

While some (perhaps misguidedly) advocate the vigorous pursuit of “new ways of doing things and new things to do” as a basis for re-imagining society itself, I focus on exploring the intent that drives leaders when they call for ‘innovation’.

In The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen argues that leaders seek ‘innovation’ to ward off the threat of organisational stagnation and decay.

Interestingly, however, a majority of surveyed business leaders express little confidence in the ability of their organisations to innovate.

Such fears for the prospects of ‘innovation’ efforts are well founded.

Eric von Hippel’s excellent 2005 book Democratising Innovation quotes several sources reporting an average 25–30% success rate. My own experience in running the Ministry of Defence Centre for Defence Enterprise (a circa £11M p.a. research and development fund) produced similar outcomes.

My next post in this series will review, in detail, the root causes of the typical 70% failure rate for ‘innovation’ activity.

I’m in no doubt, however, that a McKinsey survey of business leadersrevealing that 94% believe “people and corporate culture are the most important drivers of innovation” points us in the right general direction…

It’s the culture, stupid

The culture of an organisation is most readily experienced by observing its customs/practices and the behaviours of its people.

Customs and practices (and the behaviours they produce) are a product of the organisation’s true purpose and the way its leaders see the world (their perspective).

While published ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ statements are commonplace (in business and sport), something fundamental is missing.

An organisation’s true purpose and the perspective of its leaders are both inevitably defined by a set of assumptions.

Assumptions comprise beliefs about how the world works, an organisation’s place in that world, and its relationships with the people and things in it.

The interaction of these assumptions becomes the reality that an organisation defines for itself.

Don’t assume, it makes an ass out of you and me…

To take a real world example from sport, consider the current crop of appeals by British sports facing 100% cuts to their funding from the government agency UK Sport.

In defence of these cuts, UK Sport argues:

“ We would like to invest in every sport but the reality is that we have to prioritise within agreed resources to protect and enhance the medal potential within the system”

Logic reveals the following hidden assumptions within the “reality” defined by this statement, namely:

  1. UK Sport must prioritise available funding toward the goal of winning medals at Olympic and Paralympic Games
  2. UK Sport has high confidence in its ability to predict which sports will (and won’t) deliver medals at Olympic and Paralympic Games in 4 years time
  3. all Olympic and Paralympic medals are of equal value, irrespective of the sport and/or their colour
  4. the number of medals won at Olympic and Paralympic Games is the solemetric of progress against UK Sport’s stated ambition of ‘inspiring the nation’

I count myself lucky to have been skilfully mentored as a young scientist to always test assumptions against evidence.

What might be the evidence that could be used to test these UK Sport assumptions? Some examples:

  • do citizens fully support prioritising funding toward the goal of winning Olympic and Paralympic medals?
  • what evidence underpins UK Sport’s confidence in its ability to predict the sports that will and won’t succeed at future Olympic and Paralympic Games?
  • do citizens put equal value on, for example, Mo Farah’s historic Olympic distance running ‘double double’ as they do on 2 gold medals won in Equestrian events?
  • are citizens ‘inspired’ by Olympic and Paralympic medals? Is there a linear relationship of more medals = more inspiration?

Making assumptions openly available to all creates the freedom to test their validity against evidence. This freedom in turn enables:

  1. increased trust amongst stakeholders that an organisation is doing the right things when testing against evidence proves assumptions are robust
  2. increased scope for experimentation (“new ways of doing things or new things to do”) when testing against evidence proves assumptions are questionable

These are defining features of functional governance systems that can:

transform the relationship between citizens and the state — putting more power in the hands of citizens and being more responsive to their needs

The above statement is (as announced yesterday) official British government policy. Making such sentiment real for citizens will, of course, require ‘innovation’ in models of leadership across many government agencies.

Lessons in ‘innovation’ from the (wooden) horse’s mouth

Returning to the ancient story of the fall of Troy, there are some powerful lessons to be learned from the victorious Greeks and the slaughtered Trojans.

The Greek Generals created a space for ‘innovation’ by being open to the evidence that their decade long siege was merely a waste of resources.

Being open to that assumption paved the way for creative experimentation.

Wisely, the Greeks devised a minimal cost experiment. If the ruse of the wooden horse failed, their net loss would’ve been some timber and a handful of captured soldiers.

The Trojan leadership, meanwhile, made a number of ultimately fatal hidden assumptions:

  • the Greek army is defeated, has set sail on its journey home, and won’t return
  • the silver tongued Greek ‘deserter’ Sinon speaks the truth about the purpose of the wooden horse
  • the horse is an object of great religious significance and must not be tampered with
  • the priest Laocoön, who urges us to probe the wooden ‘gift’ with spears to test its content, is a crazed fool bent on defying the will of the gods

Having shut down the only dissenting voice, the Trojan leaders eliminated any space for both surfacing and testing their critical hidden assumptions.

In contrast to their enemies, the Trojans’ conducted an experiment of incalculable cost. By willingly dragging the wooden horse into their city stronghold, they inadvertently sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

In the next instalment of this series, I’ll provide insights that may help you to avoid committing Trojan style mistakes.

Join me as we continue exploring wiser paths towards “new ways of doing things and new things to do”.

Innovation: Golden Goose or Wild Goose Chase?

Jono Byrne
Feb 2, 2017

Aesop’s fable of the golden goose describes a wondrous gift of nature that rewards its carers with the daily delivery of a golden egg. In the ancient Greek story, the goose meets a grisly end after its owners foolishly slaughter the animal to harvest its ‘hidden store’ of gold.

The ‘wild goose chase’ idiom makes its first written appearance in Shakespearean times (Mercutio uses the phrase in Romeo and Juliet), but our modern sense of it as representing “a tedious uncertain pursuit” is confirmed in early 19th century English text.

Looking back on my own 20-year relationship with ‘innovation’ (from ‘tinkerering’ as an applied human scientist to running an award-winning UK government ‘innovation’ funding agency), I can empathise with both the ‘golden’ and ‘wild’ goose perspectives (and all viewpoints in between).

This blog is the introduction to a short series of myfastestmile posts. I’ll explore the potentially hazardous topic of ‘innovation’ and consider:

  1. the reasons why ‘innovation’ is often aggressively promoted by authority figures, despite its all-too-common failure to live up to its hype
  2. the common reasons for those failures
  3. alternative, more productive approaches to ‘innovation’

My aim is to intrigue and provoke in equal measure. I hope you’ll join me on a bumpy ride ahead…

What’s the meaning of ‘innovation’?

You’ll have already spotted my persistent habit of adding parentheses around the word ‘innovation’. This aims to remind that there is no authentic common consensus on what ‘innovation’ means, even among its most fervent salespeople.

“I know what you think it means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job…”

Admittedly, I may be taking a (slight) liberty with the true context of this quote from one of Morgan Freeman’s most well-loved acting roles, but I’m arguing the case that it neatly describes what ‘innovation’ has often come to represent.

Sadly, even sport is no longer immune to the abuse of this “made-up politician’s word”.

Sebastian Coe’s recent exhortation that “we need innovation” is a typically clichéd response to a sport’s felt need for a solution to declining public interest and apparent moral decay.

Meanwhile, the recent appointment of a new Performance Director to the increasingly embattled British Cycling was announced with a rallying cry for “renewed focus on leadership, innovation, high-performance culture and behaviours”, presumably as a hopeful measure to halt that organisation’s very public fall from grace.

What’s technology got to do with it?

When ‘innovation’ becomes a ‘strategy’, a common assumption is that it must involve the development of some form of ‘technology’.

If ‘technology’ is narrowly defined as the domain of gadgets, devices, and ‘hardware’ then our assumptions about ‘innovation’ become dangerously narrow also.

I argue that ‘technology’ itself isn’t the problem, rather our collective ‘forgetting’ of what it really means. I’ve adopted Emmanuel G. Mesthene’s 1970 definition:

“the organization of knowledge for the achievement of practical purposes”

Mesthene’s definition is elegant, but of course depends on a broader definition of ‘knowledge’ as including both explicit (what can be said, drawn, and written) and tacit (the craft, skill, and experience that can only be ‘known to the knower’).

Innovation…my definition, my definition is this

Luckily, I can call on the influence of my wonderful other (and better) half, whose ‘plain speaking’ tendencies have led to her vocation as a government adviser on ‘plain English’.

After much searching, I’ve finally found a definition of ‘innovation’ that satisfies the most ardent critic of my own (literary) boombastic jazz style!

This definition has an unexpected source — a 73-year old free-thinking American polymath called Peter Gray. The elegance of Gray’s definition of ‘innovation’ surpasses all others, in its description as purely a means of:

“figuring out new ways of doing things and new things to do”

I only hope that my 73-year-old self can be a fraction as entertaining and thought-provoking as Dr Gray, whose writing speaks eloquently of a life well lived.

Stand by for part 2, where I’ll delve further into (what should be) the humble process of ‘figuring out new ways of doing things and new things to do’!

Losing my religion

Jono Byrne
Dec 1, 2016

As a longstanding supporter of Al, Mark and Andrew’s direction of travel with myfastestmile, I was delighted to accept their invitation to play a small part in their ongoing story. Hopefully, my contribution will measure up to the quality and novelty of thought that they’re providing in conversations about the development of sport.

The 12th month of the calendar year heralds a time of festivities for many, but as an unapologetic grumpy old(ish) man I’ve chosen instead to use the onset of Winter as a cue to reflect on a 2016 that has, to many of us, given life to that most famous old Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”

In the political world, the apparent shift from orchestrated terrorist attacks to seemingly ad hoc and self-organised violence directed against urban ‘soft targets’ has confounded security agencies worldwide. In democratic elections in the UK and abroad, a series of unpredicted outcomes has wrong-footed the analysis of pundits and pollsters alike. In sport, some established ‘truths’ have memorably collapsed, with Leicester City FC mocking the notion that only a member of the financially powerful ‘Big Four’ (Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Arsenal) could possibly win the English Premier League in the modern era. Meanwhile, in an Olympic year, we’ve witnessed the bizarre spectacle of simultaneous media critique and elsewhere cheerleading of state-funded and centrally directed high performance sport programmes as a means of delivering medal success.

In troubling times of apparent growing uncertainty, it’s human nature to gravitate towards sources of comforting reassurance; those providers of recipes, models, formulas and maps to ‘guide’ us out of the foreboding forest we feel lost within. Bestselling hindsight-based narratives of the paths purportedly taken by those who went from ‘Good to Great’ appear superficially comforting to the lost, but adopting a healthy degree of pragmatic skepticism is, as ever, a sensible precaution. By contrast, myfastestmile has taken the far rockier and much less comfortable ‘high road’ (apt given Al’s Scottish lineage); choosing instead to promote realistic and constructive suggestions about learning to cope (and ultimately thrive) in an undeniably volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence” (Henry David Thoreau)

Why is it so hard to follow Thoreau’s ageless advice? I took great pleasure recently in getting better acquainted with the increasingly compelling evidence of our collective genetic heritage to a circa 500-strong East African tribe of the first modern humans (the original Homo Sapiens). The ultimate colonisation of the planet by the direct descendants of that tribe suggests that the urge to explore a path ‘beyond the horizon’ is a vital part of what it means to be human. Whilst that may be true, it’s self-evident that the great migration outward from the ancestral human homeland must have been punctuated by ‘waypoints’; opportunities for groups to ‘settle’ in newly discovered habitable land. Logic suggests, therefore, that most of us are likely descended from those ‘safety and comfort seeking settlers’; perhaps, then, our collective fear of uncertain futures is understandable. What is maybe less forgivable is our oft displayed intolerance of present day ‘heretics’ who echo the spirit of those ancestral pioneers who chose to ‘push on’ to the next horizon of human possibility.

So, what is to be my small contribution to the expanding landscape of progressive thinking in sport that is being painted by myfastestmile? In the near term, I’ll be providing some reflections on my long and intimate relationship with that (sadly corrupted) corporate buzzword of choice “innovation”. In the forthcoming second part of this blog, I’ll offer some thoughts on how and why innovation frequently fails to meet its grand promises; later, in part 3, I’ll offer some modest proposals on how we might ‘do innovation’ in a more realistic and constructive manner.

An overnight success (but 10 years in the making)

In pondering my possible longer-term part in the myfastestmile story, I’ll conclude for now with a further thought on this curious year of 2016. Back in March, American rock music giants REM celebrated the 25th anniversary of their breakthrough 1991 album ‘Out of Time’. As an insufferably ‘alternative’ teenager at the time, I was a committed fan of the band’s extensive (but little known) 1980s ‘alt-rock’ back catalogue; comprising no less than 6 studio albums recorded in the 10-years prior to ‘Out of Time’. REM’s stratospheric ascent from ‘indie’ obscurity defied prediction at the time, and as a pretentious ‘student type’ who took comfort from carving out very personal pop culture niches, I remember feeling ‘robbed’ at losing one of my secrets to a mob of late arriving ‘bandwagon jumpers’.

Notwithstanding the intrinsic value in poking fun at the absurdity of my youthful self, the REM story sits neatly with the core narrative of myfastestmile.

Can the ascent to ‘elite’ performance really be predicted from early career outcomes? Is early success a pre-requisite of later success? How do we encourage the patient apprenticeship of skills and craft as necessary foundations of longer-term excellence?

Like REM’s Michael Stipe all those years ago, I’ve recently found myself (as a former ‘sports scientist’) to be ‘Losing My Religion’. I’m fortunate to have discovered the pioneering folk of myfastestmile as I part company with ‘safety seeking settlers’ and venture towards a new horizon of possibility for sport.