Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Bringing it all together

Now that I've completed my first sweep of research, my next challenge is to think how to pull this together into something that can start to inform what we offer to staff in terms of development. Despite the best efforts of the Learning Management System to sabotage writing this post (, here are my thoughts so far.

Innovation & Business Skills Australia (IBSA), which is an Australian Government authorised skills council to advise on vocational education and training, identify six key areas for development in relation to innovation skills.

  1. Interpret - How do we understand the issue we are facing?
  2. Generate - How do we create ideas to respond to the issue?
  3. Collaborate - How do we involve others in creating responses?
  4. Reflect - How do we bring the outcomes of the first three stages together into something more coherent?
  5. Represent - How do we present this more coherent set of ideas?
  6. Evaluate - How do we test the idea to make sure it meets the original brief?
This seems to be an appealing description of what is involved in innovation, as it feels like how I have approached this research. I have spent time trying to understand innovation, and am now starting to generate ideas. I'm involving you, as readers of this blog in the research by encouraging you to comment, and will also be working with the rest of the team to collaborate on ideas. Then there will need to be work to fit this research into our new staff development offering, and evaluating its success.

At each of these stages, there are different development activities that could be undertaken, for instance to support generation you could develop focus group management, or give tools to support brainstorming and lateral thinking. Developing project management and networking skills could support the collaborative process. These are the kind of development activities that we could also offer, and we'll need to think about what would be of most benefit.

What I think is interesting is that there is no development suggested on how to be innovative, it is about getting people in the right creative space to be innovative. The challenge for us therefore thinking about what we can do to get people in the right creative space. I don't expect that we can get Pixar style beach huts for us to customise, or a whiteboard lined egg, but what else is there that we can do that feels right for the University of Sheffield? This reflective translation of ideas from elsewhere into practice at Sheffield will develop and emerge over the coming weeks and months, but some initial ideas I've had are:
  • Internal conferences to share innovations and increase opportunities for networking and collaboration
  • Walking discussion groups as a way to discuss particular topics, but outside the constraints of the office
  • A series of podcasts where experts from around the University can share their experiences of being innovative

The final video I would like to share with you from my research is another TED talk, by David Kelley co-founder of design consultancy IDEO. The reason why I am sharing this is partly so I can remind myself of the importance of having the confidence to try something different. The outcomes of this whole project will be something quite different to how development is currently delivered, and there will be a need for us to be confident in the changes we are bringing about.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Innovating with others

This was the most inspiring element of the research that I have been carrying out, for the simple realisation that you don't have to be innovative on your own. I found there to be a number of reasons for this. The first of which is to do with where ideas come from. I spent some time watching TED talks (which I recommend doing, as there are lot of interesting talks on there, covering a huge range of subjects) to find out what other people say on innovation.

This talk from Rodney Mullen, professional skateboarder, covers how the development of skateboard tricks comes not only from an individual's skill, but as a product of the environment they find themselves in and the community surrounding them. So although his skill is important, how those ideas he has stick and get developed is down to how he fits into his surroundings.

An entertaining and thought provoking series of films by film-maker Kirby Ferguson called Everything Is A Remix argues that breakthroughs and advances come from using and combining old ideas and concepts, in order to create something new and different. Again, there is acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of the ideas of individuals to the ideas of others around them. A quote from Ferguson's TED talk that resonated with me was "We are dependent on one another, and admitting this to ourselves isn't an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness. It's a liberation from our misconceptions, and it's an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin".

This talk from Steven Johnson, on "Where good ideas come from", outlines how ideas grow from networks with other people with other ideas, and the evolution of our own thoughts over time. Johnson tells a story of how innovations happen, which highlights that sometimes we start off working on a particular issue, but develops and changes over time to be something completely different and unintended.

As stimulating as all of this might be, how does this affect what our provision of development activity contains? Something we could think about is providing tools and techniques for individuals and teams to use to help facilitate this creative process. It also highlights the importance of encouraging group discussion and sharing of ideas in development events, in order that the evolution of ideas and thoughts can continue. There is plenty to think about and digest!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

A space to innovate

This aspect of innovation was a lot of fun to research! I looked at lots of different office spaces, and how company's use their surroundings to support the creative process.

An example of how a whole office building is built around encouraging creativity and collaboration is the animation studio Pixar. The linked article has more examples and information, but a key point is that employees are encouraged through how the building is arranged to meet and work with each other, which leads to more creative ideas being generated. Another point is that employees have control over their own workspace, so they can design it to look how they want.

Picture from

A smaller scale example is MindLab in Denmark, which is "a cross-ministerial innovation unit which involves citizens and businesses in creating new solutions for society.". Part of what is available in MindLab is a brainstorming egg, an enclosed space with whiteboards for walls, where teams can share and swap ideas. Maybe a little claustrophobic, but definitely something to provide focus!

Obviously these kind of things are massive undertakings, and is something far, far beyond what we would be considering for our project! What is useful from these examples is to think about how the place in which we work can affect how creative and innovative we can be. If we are planning activities where we are looking for innovation and creative ideas, what can we do with the location to make it as conducive to creativity as possible?

On a personal note, what really helps me to feel creative is being able to look out of my office window at Weston Park. If I sit up in my chair I can see the ducks in the pond, but from my normal (slightly slumped) position I can see plenty of trees and sky, so there is plenty of space to stare into! This gives me a chance to let my mind wander a bit, which helps me when thinking around problems. I know I am lucky to have such a nice view, which this photo doesn't do justice to!

What do you do with your work area to help you get in the creative frame of mind?

Monday, 15 July 2013

A culture of innovation

As I said in a previous post (Post it notes, post it notes everywhere), I've been researching 'how we create and innovate', and in a few bursts last week, I've done a first attempt of pulling some information together. I found loads of really interesting things, from articles to images and videos. From what I found, there are some key themes, which I'll outline over the next few posts, and I'll focus in this post on culture.

There were a lot of examples of a desire to be innovative being built into the culture of organisations. A really good example was the Met Office, which outlined these six conditions for innovation:
  • A working environment that encourages informal collaboration and the sharing of ideas
  • A way for staff to share and build their ideas with other staff and managers
  • The opportunity and support to work on new ideas unrelated to their day jobs within the working day
  • Encouraging behaviours that give ideas a chance to grow rather than killing them too soon
  • Encouraging staff to constructively challenge the way things are done, and take the initiative in finding better ways
  • Developing an understanding of how to tap into the creative abilities we all have, but many of us have forgotten to use effectively
This gives a clear summary of the importance that the Met Office places on innovation, but it also describes the kind of conditions that are required in order for innovation to happen.

An example of how innovation fits into how a company works is Nike. Their approach to innovation is described in the linked article as "just mucking about and having fun...a messy, exhausting process culled from myriad options and countless failures". The following video, from inside Nike's Innovation Kitchen, gives a bit of an insight into their innovation process.

What I found really interesting about this video is how the innovation was shaped by a response to a particular need, rather than it being an idea that came from nowhere. What was also really powerful was that the innovation belonged to the collective, and that once a team had created Hyperfuse, others were encouraged to start using this technology in their own projects. I'll return to these themes in a future blog post.

My next post will look at physical spaces for innovation, and how companies create environments in which their employees can innovate.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The beginning of the end of the Learning Management System???

This morning I attended a consultation event with other colleagues from around the University involved in delivering development activity to staff, focussing around the future of the Learning Management System. This isn't strictly speaking part of our repositioning work, but the LMS will be a really important part of how we deliver what we provide to staff.

The background to the event is that there has been a need identified amongst those who use the LMS (myself included) to update it. The system is a bit clunky and difficult to use from both an administrator's and a user's point of view. Also, CiCS tell us that the server used to run the LMS is very out of date, and uses more power than all of the servers used to run all of our SAP products! Very costly and not very green! So this event was about thinking about what we wanted a new system to do, and the pros and cons of a single University wide system or multiple, locally managed systems.

One of the striking outcomes of this discussion was the appetite amongst attendees to give serious thought to a single University system. A number of us will be starting a project group to summarise our thoughts and put together a proposal for consideration on what to do next. So this might well be the beginning of the end for our current LMS, but hopefully also the beginning of progress to a new LMS.

It's also interesting how this links to our development everywhere concept, which I will explain in more detail in a future post. We think there are opportunities for development everywhere, but when discussing how people access development activity at the consultation event, there were clear benefits in people being able to access it all in one place. So some learning for our project will be how to balance the idea that people develop and learn from a wide variety of places and experiences, with accessing structured opportunities in a single place. Therefore how do we encourage individuals to capture and record the development activity they undertake, that doesn't involve booking on a course?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

I'm off to a flying start

I've had this tab open in the background for most of the day, and as you can see, there's nothing there yet. I haven't been staring at it all day though, I have been doing other stuff.

So what can I learn from this? One thing I can think I've realised is that innovation and creativity isn't just something you can sit down and decide to do. For me at least, I don't think this is about being distracted by other things, I just don't think I'm in a very creative mood today. So perhaps something I'll need to think about is how to get into that creative mood, and how to facilitate creating this mood in others.

As I've said before (and will continue to say over the coming months), I do want to hear from you, so I'm going to pose you a question to help. In what kind of situations do you feel most creative?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Post it notes, post it notes everywhere

We had a team away morning today to start pulling together a project plan. Armed with coffees from Coffee Revolution, we set up camp in the Gallery in the Students' Union. Our first task was to think about all the different activities and ideas we had for how to achieve the aims of the project. We spent a fair bit of time brainstorming (if you want a bit more information on different brainstorming techniques, have a look at this website). This was the result:

A bit of a mess of ideas!

Using a piece of wallpaper that our manager (+Emily Hopkinson) had prepared earlier, we then fitted these activities and ideas onto a timetable, giving us the much more organised:

We were able to use this outline to put together a more detailed project plan, which we would work on more after the session.

This was a really fun and creative morning, and as a team we have got some great ideas of what we need to do immediately to get the project up and running. My first task is to start thinking about the kind of skills and development activities we should offer under the theme "How we create and innovate" (if you have any ideas or suggestions, please add them to the comments below). It is great to now have a sense of where we are going with the project, but there will be challenges along the way in identifying new and exciting ways of doing things.

If only there was some training on how to be creative and innovative on offer!

A bit of background...

For a first post on this blog, I should probably give you a bit of an update where we are. Earlier this year, we started work on thinking about what staff development at the University is, and how what we do supports the needs of staff as well as the needs of the University.

Using research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (From steady state to ready state - sorry this is a members only resource!) on what makes organisations fit for the future, we identified four key themes of staff development activity:

  • How we influence and network
  • How we create and innovate
  • How we make decisions
  • How we impact on others
We spoke to our HR Executive Team about these themes, and they agreed with us that they fitted with what the University needs from its staff development provision. These themes were tested as part of putting together a development programme for the VC Fellowships, and will also be used in a similar way for future Graduate Intern schemes. So we think these themes work and make sense. We've also sought the views of colleagues around the University, and there is agreement that these themes are a useful way to summarise development.

The challenge for us now is how to translate this into practice. So here begins a six month project to position the development offering for staff under these four themes by January 2014!