I’ve been mulling over the idea of dedicated innovation teams recently. Are they a symbol of an organisation devoid of ideas, laughably thinking that creativity is something that can be isolated into one part of the organisation? Or are they a sensible approach to solving problems that don’t arise in business-as-usual work, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible?
The criticism of R&D departments is often framed in terms of what that means for the rest of the organisation. Shouldn’t everyone be innovative, not just a few people in a specific department? That criticism misses the point, I think, and organisations need to understand how different forms of innovation require different approaches. That’s what this week’s article is about.
This week’s article
Dedicated R&D teams are a controversial subject, but so too is the idea that everyone should be innovative in what they do. Which is correct? Is it sufficient – or even necessary – to build a dedicated innovation team in order to develop new ideas? Can people innovate in their day-to-day jobs? And which is better?
This week’s six interesting links
Like the rest of the world, I’ve been enjoying playing Wordle in the past month or so. Being the nerd I am, I did a bit of digging into what the optimal strategies might be and in particular what the best first word choice was. I ended up being quoted in this Ringer article:
“By its very nature, Wordle inspires competition and comparison with other players. To finish a puzzle is to wonder how, and how efficiently, others did the same. Conversations about Wordle have a way of leading straight into debates over the ideal first word. Some words, surely, leave better clues than others. And if some words are better for kicking off the hunt, could it be that one might be best of all? Somewhere in the maze of 26 letters, is there a perfect diagnostic fivesome?”
Netflix’s new series Hype House follows the lives of ten-or-so young content creators, living together in an absurdly ostentatious LA house and producing content for TikTok. It sounds predictably numbing:
“Hype House isn’t as deliberate with mental health messages as The D’Amelio Show, which is bookended by content warnings and resource lists and witnesses both girls have panic attacks. But it’s an effectively depressing portrait of one’s life as a voracious business. No one appears to be having a good time. The kids are constantly stressed out by the prospect of getting canceled (ie a scandal which prompts a flood of hate messages and sponsorship cancellations) and the lashings of toxic fans (such as when possessive female fans of heartthrob Vinnie Hacker, 18, post death threats for a girl whom he kissed as part of a prank video.)”
A remarkable find from Bill McKibben:
“Last week, I noticed a comment in passing: forty percent of the world’s shipping, one commenter insisted, consists of just sending fossil fuels around the world to be burned.
“That can’t be right, I thought – what about all the other things we have to ship. There’s grain, and lumber, and iron ore, and cars, and a zillion containers loaded with tennis rackets and dog toys and 70-inch TVs. But no – a little research makes clear that in fact if you add up all the tonnage, something very close to forty percent of all the shipping on earth is just devoted to getting oil and coal and gas (and now some wood pellets) back and forth across the ocean.”
The optimistic conclusion is fairly straightforward:
“If and when we make the transition to solar power and wind power, we will not just stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere, and not just save money – we will also reduce the number of ships sailing back and forth by almost half.”
In the 1980s, Howard Rheingold wrote Tools for Thought, tracing the history of the development of modern computing from Charles Babbage through to Alan Kay. In doing so, he offered a vision of what computers might be in the future that turned out to be remarkably prescient:
“The forms that cultural innovations took in the past can help us try to forecast the future – but the forms of the past can only give us a glimpse, not a detailed picture, of what will be. The developments that seem the most important to contemporaries, like blimps and telegraphs, become humorous anachronisms to their grandchildren. As soon as something looks like a good model for predicting the way life is going to be from now on, the unexpected happens. The lesson, if anything, is that we should get used to expecting the unexpected.
“We seem to be experiencing one of those rare pivotal times between epochs, before a new social order emerges, when a great many experiments briefly flourish. If the experiences of past generations are to furnish any guidance, the best attitude to adopt might have less to do with picking the most likely successors to today’s institutions than with encouraging an atmosphere of experimentation.
“Hints to the shape of the emerging order can be gleaned from the uses people are beginning to think up for computers and networks. But it is a bit like watching the old films of flying machines of the early twentieth century, the kind that get a lot of laughs whenever they are shown to modern audiences because some of the spiral-winged or twelve-winged jobs look so ridiculous from the perspective of the jet age. Yet everyone can see how very close the spiral-winged contraption had come close to the principle of the helicopter.
“The dispersal of powerful computer technology to large segments of the world’s population, and the phasing-in of the comprehensive information-processing global nervous system that seems to be abuilding, are already propelling us toward a social transformation that we know very little about, except that it will be far different from previous transformations because the tool that will trigger the change is so different from previous tools.”
The full text is available online; it’s a great read, not just as a history of an industry but as a historical artefact in its own right. #
I wrote last month about the strange figure who appeared to be stealing manuscripts before their publication, seemingly without motive.
The FBI have now made an arrest:
“On Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old rights coordinator for Simon & Schuster UK, saying that he ‘impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals’ over five or more years, obtaining hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process.”
…but without yet gaining an understanding of why the books were stolen:
“For years, the scheme has baffled people in the book world. Works by high-profile writers and celebrities like Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke have been targeted, but so have story collections and works by first-time authors. When manuscripts were successfully stolen, none of them seemed to show up on the black market or the dark web. Ransom demands never materialized. Indeed, the indictment details how Mr. Bernardini went about the scheme, but not why.”
One of the downsides of ESG investment, in the short term at least, is that it creates an opportunity for the unscrupulous. (I’ve written about this before.)
The logic is fairly simple: if a bunch of investors choose not to invest in “sinful” stocks, those stocks will be underpriced; if a bunch of investors choose not to lend money to “sinful” businesses, then the cost of raising capital for those businesses will be higher, meaning higher returns for those who lend to them. Big institutional investors have mostly moved towards ESG principles, which means that – if you’re a sociopath – you can get higher returns by consciously choosing to invest in those sinful stocks. While they’re still around, at least.
Sadly, private equity (not known for its strong ethical foundation) seems to have got the memo:
“Private equity firms are lining up to take on the dirty – and highly profitable – assets being divested by publicly traded commodity producers as the world grapples to decarbonize.
“In the latest example, private equity accounted for most of the 30 so-called western candidates that signed non-disclosure agreements in the sale of Vale SA’s Mozambique coal business, according to Luciano Siani Pires, head of strategy and business transformation at Rio de Janeiro-based Vale.
“‘The ensuing combination of high commodity prices and low acquisition costs for unwelcome assets may provide these firms the bonanza of a lifetime,’ Siani said.”