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We can learn lessons from the great entrepreneurs and innovators.

Take risks and move fast. The 1970s saw IBM dominate the mainframe computer arena but smaller companies were nipping at its heels.  IBM gave Don Estridge the job of developing an inexpensive personal computer to take on the upstarts like Atari, Apple and Commodore.

Estridge realised that he could not create a competitive and timely product if he used standard IBM development processes.  At that time IBM maintained total control of all its manufacturing with proprietary designs from power supplies to operating systems.   If he followed normal IBM procedures the product would be too expensive for the new consumer market.

He bypassed the heavy-duty approach and instead went outside the company for third-party components and software.  Even more radically, Estridge opted for an ‘open architecture.’ He published the specifications of the IBM PC thus enabling people to supply hardware and software extensions.

Tear up the rule book.  Don Estridge broke all the standard operating procedures at IBM in order to ship a revolutionary product in record time.  He decided that the only way to succeed was to break the rules and move fast.  What Estridge did was heresy within IBM but it delivered dramatic results and he was applauded for it.  Don’t assume that big companies cannot be flexible – sometimes you have to be the rebel they need.

Accept that failure is part of the process.  Not all Estridge’s ventures were successful. After the success of the PC his team developed the PCjr home computer which flopped.  However, he was sanguine about it.  ‘You have to take risks in this business,’ he said, ‘or it’s no fun.’

Experiment. On December 12, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi amazed the world when he sent and received the first wireless message across the Atlantic. The experts of the day believed that radio signals could only travel over a line-of-sight distance and that the curvature of the Earth would prevent the long distance use of radio.  Marconi started his famous experiment with the most powerful radio transmitter then built in Poldhu Cornwall.  He set up a radio receiver in Newfoundland with an aerial consisting of 500 feet of wire supported by kites.  They waited three days before the signal was received.  The news that radio waves had crossed the Atlantic was sensational. What the experts (and Marconi) did not know was that there was a charged layer around the Earth called the ionosphere which reflected radio waves.

Within a year Marconi set up dependable radio communication with ships over 2,000 miles away.  Eventually the Marconi Company linked the entire British Empire by radio.

Innovators do not trust experts.  They do not trust theories, or models or spreadsheets.  They trust real-life experiments.  Marconi ignored all the authorities who declared that long distance radio signal transmission was impossible. He tried it and it worked.

Turn and face the strange. In 1954 the British government auctioned licences for commercial TV stations.  These would be regional operations which could offer advertising on TV for the first time.  Various companies were interested in this opportunity and they naturally focussed on the regions with the best demographics. Richer regions should generate more advertising revenue.  Sidney Bernstein was the MD of a small cinema chain.  He wanted to bid for a region but he decided not to bid for the richest region but instead to bid for the wettest region in the UK, the north-west of England.  He was successful and he established Granada Television based in Manchester serving the north of England.

He surmised that if it was sunny outside people might be in their gardens or go for a walk.  If it was pouring down with rain they were more likely to stay inside and watch television.

When everyone else is facing in one direction, deliberately look in another direction.  The other companies bidding for franchises were asking, ‘Which is the wealthiest region?’ Bernstein asked, ‘Which is the wettest region?’

Ask childlike questions.  Edwin Land was an American inventor who had studied Chemistry.  In 1943 on holiday in Santa Fe he took a photograph of his three year old daughter, Jennifer.  She asked why she could not see the result straight away and she kept asking why.  Land pondered this question and had an idea. He developed the Polaroid camera, a revolutionary product which sold over 150 million units and made Land into a celebrity. His daughter’s naive question had led him to challenge the assumptions that the whole photography industry took for granted.

Challenge assumptions by asking searching questions.   When faced with a challenge we tend to ask one or two questions and then plunge into ideas and discussion. But by asking more questions, and more basic questions, we can discover insights that challenge our assumptions and allow us to reach deeper issues and better solutions.  Edwin Land did this and went on to find a radically different and faster way to produce photographs.

Based on Think Like an Innovator – 76 inspiring lessons from the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators.  By Paul Sloane published by Pearson, priced £12.99

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