What stokes your fire?


Shoal of fish
© Chesney Bradshaw 2011

What stokes your fire?

At Christmas day lunch in a seaside restaurant, a pink piece of paper tumbled out from a cracker:

“Why was the chicken at the North Pole?”

The answer: “It was lost.”

A chilly prospect for the chicken but perhaps a familiar sensation for those who lost their way in 2010’s economic blizzard.

At a time when predictions for the New Year overflow in newspapers and magazines as well as on blogs, FaceBook, Twitter and websites, it’s perhaps pertinent to reflect on people who seem to predict their own futures regardless of inner and outer circumstances.

Consider some entrepreneurs I came across shortly before the end of 2010:

? One has started an eatery in a side road with big plans for the future

? Another who deals in maritime collectables can’t wait to trade in the New Year

? Yet another is starting a micro brewery with an excellent tasting product

? One young entrepreneur is kick-starting an online health foods business for athletes

? A microcomputer retail owner is repositioning his business for increased growth

? A guitarist has just released his fourth CD and is growing his following

What do these entrepreneurs have in common? What stokes their fire?

They have all come up with their own ideas to produce business concepts that support their passion. These innovators possess a razor sharp understanding of their product and customer needs. Another thing, they tackle what they are doing with such enthusiasm that they don’t seem to have time to dwell on the economy. They are also hardly likely to be pouring over the list of dire predictions for 2011 or any year for that matter.

This is not to say that predictions are unimportant. They point to possible areas of change. Give warnings. Signpost opportunities.

These entrepreneurs are busy implementing their ideas in 2011. Each one has come out of a hobby or interest, a passion driving them to turn what they love doing into a way to support their lifestyle and incomes. How did they stumble on these ideas? How long did it take them to realise their dreams? What fire kept burning inside them to make a go of what they imagined and eventually realised?

Phil Cousineau in “Stoking the Creative fires: 9 ways to rekindle passion and imagination” challenges, “What will it take to stoke your fire?” He covers stages of the creative journey: inspiration, perspiration and realisation. “Unreal work,” he says, “burns you out, real work renews you.”

What will light your fire this year? What will keep stoking your fire? How long will your fire burn?

One of the best-kept secrets is to find your ideas, your innovation, in a state of relaxation. Forcing ideas in a mad scramble blocks your creative pathways. “An environment of playfulness and humour is highly conducive to creativity,” says Michael Michalko, a leading creativity expert and author of “Cracking Creativity: The secrets of creative genius”.

How do you find your real work? It almost always requires inner work, knowing who you are and what you want. Your search can include keeping a journal for thoughts and ideas, going back into your past when you felt passionate about something and exploring various sources of information such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and blogs to spark ideas. You can also use ideas and techniques on this blog or the websites listed on the right hand column of this page. Innovators need not originate completely new ideas but can SCAMPER (substitute, combine, adapt, magnify, modify, put to other uses, eliminate, rearrange, reverse) existing products, services, concepts and ideas to create new products and services.

The entrepreneurial spirit, whether in the form of the independent businessperson or the innovator working with passion in a company, needs nurturing. It is the source for solutions to today’s challenges and points the way to new possibilities for our environment, living, working, playing.

Entrepreneurs and innovators in whatever field possess the fire to innovate whether searching to start something of their own from scratch or re-imagining and re-inventing what they do at work. Whether they run a family business, “kitchen table” business or a part of a corporation as a manager, entrepreneurs have a passion to produce ideas and turn them into innovative products and services that ultimately help people live better quality lives.

Hotwire your inner circuitry with creative fire in 2011 and forecast your own future.

Copyright 2011 Bell & Cray Business Research™. This material used with special permission from Bell & Cray Business Consulting™. Bell & Cray Business Consulting™ is a division of Bell & Cray™. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or re-disseminated without permission.

Copyright 2011 Bell & Cray Business Research™. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or re-disseminated without permission.

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A little known secret about a source of breakthrough innovations

When we think of breakthrough innovations, we may assume that they originate from developed countries such as the United States, Europe and Japan. Sure, these countries come up with innovative products and services all the time to reach mass consumer and global business markets. But the problem for innovations exported from these countries is that products and services are often high-value and high cost – a difficult proposition to penetrate markets in brutal recessionary times.

Where is the competitive edge in today’s innovations? What countries are leading the field in new products and services relevant for times when pockets and budgets are tight?

On a visit to India, it was amazing to learn how this country’s innovations are finding their way into world markets. The Economic Times reported now historically multinational companies designed products in developed markets and adapted them for the rest of the world. Now increasingly low-cost, high value products developed primarily for emerging markets are graduating to the developed world. Breakthrough innovation through Indian frugal engineering skills means that products such as the Nano could be launched as an upgraded version in developed markets.

What are some of the spectacular innovations being produced in India? Ford’s Figo and Toyota’s Etios are examples of India-designed low-cost cars. Nestle has a high-nutrient, low-cost variant of Maggi noodles developed for the rural poor in India and Pakistan soon to be exported to Australia and New Zealand. General Electric has made a cheaper, stripped down version of its ECG and ultrasound machines. Kentucky Friend Chicken (KFC) Krushers is a range of new beverages. McDonald’s Aloo Tikki Burger is another value-for-money product. HP Labs India launched SiteOnMobile which enables web access from low-end phones without GPRS connectivity. Indian business people have developed many other products including low-cost water purifiers that are now being exported to world markets.

The story of India’s innovation is one of a country determined to find solutions that are suitable for local conditions in quality, cost and value for money. It also demonstrates that innovation knows no borders, nationalities and culture. Ideas are to be found wherever people are who have a passion to improve, grow and develop.

In a world where challenges such as global warming, poverty, social breakdown, high unemployment, inferior government education and stratospherically high cost medical care are ever present, new ideas and innovation are required for consumers and business markets where cost and value-for-money is an increasing requirement. Sharp entrepreneurs can take advantage of the opportunities that these circumstances present.

What is the source of all this innovation? Multinational corporations are developing products and services in emerging markets adapted to local conditions. Local companies are also developing solutions suited to local circumstances and are beginning to export them.

There must be more to this innovation. What lies beneath the surface? What is driving this phenomenon? Education for one thing. India is producing thousands of qualified engineers, providing a rich source of technically skilled people who can apply their ingenuity to generating low-cost, high value products that provide convenience and superior quality and performance.

What lessons does such innovation hold for other countries, other communities and individuals who have been caught in corporate downsizing, factory and mine closures and family businesses that have gone belly up in the vicious worldwide recession? Wherever we are, in whatever country or community, we should be aware of the opportunities that our local innovations have for export markets.

Innovation requires experimentation, new ways of thinking and seeing, envisaging new possibilities, re-imagining products and services that have become too costly. Today’s breakthrough innovations require products and services that offer optimum utility and performance. As Michael Michalko in “Cracking Creativity” says, “Each time you look at a problem in a different way, you increase your probability of discovering the unique perspective or insight that will lead to the breakthrough idea.” India’s innovation is a call to action, an inspired story of people generating ideas, commercialising their innovations and taking them to the marketplace in a world hungry for innovative products and services that cost less but provide greater value.

Copyright 2010 Bell & Cray Business Research™. This excerpt has been used by special permission from Bell & Cray Business Consulting™. Bell & Cray Business Consulting™ is a division of Bell & Cray™. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or re-disseminated without permission.

Copyright 2010 Bell & Cray Business Research™. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or re-disseminated without permission.

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Unleasing innovation through leadership

Cup of coffee
Image via Wikipedia

What happens when ineffective leaders kill innovation in organisations? Does innovation get tucked away in a R&D function and remain starved for resources? Are employees allowed to make mistakes, get second chances and challenge work processes and leaders or will they be expelled from the company like so much flotsam? What happened to the belief that those with ideas should be nurtured and valued … that everyone’s ideas should be permitted to sprout from everywhere in the company?

These are serious questions but Ronald (not his real name) who works of a large organisation had a lot on his mind. We were eating breakfast on an early summer morning, drinking too much coffee. Ronald was concerned by what he saw happening in companies. Ideas were being stifled, creativity scoffed at and people were being treated with a lack of respect.

“Why don’t you leave?” I asked. “You can’t hope to survive in such a toxic environment.”

The restaurant manager asked Ronald in a polite voice, “How can I be of service to you?” Ronald ordered more coffee.

“I’ve been there a long time,” Ronald said. “I saw the company once in a growth phase when managers were keen to grow the business. I’m hoping the entrepreneurial spirit will come back.”

Ronald was yearning for something that had walked out of this company long ago. It sounded like the people were beaten up and demoralised.

“You’re the business consultant,” Ronald said. “What do you make of this? Should I go or stay?”

“I’m not so sure you should stay,” I said. “But that’s up to you to decide. All I can do is throw a few thoughts at you. Perhaps they’ll help make up your mind.”

Ronald was describing what happens in organisations in the absence of leadership. Senior managers become obsessed with operations and discard fostering innovation and conceptualising the business for the future. Innovation is relegated to R&D and operational improvements. This malady results in employees feeling useless, unable to suggest better, faster and more cost effective ways of doing things wherever they work.

“It’s pretty scary the way managers work in these companies,” Ronald said. “One little mistake and you’re out. If they can’t force you out on their trumped up charges, they’ll wait until you make another mistake to nail you.”

“I’m going to read you a quote,” I told Ronald, taking out a 3 x 5 card. “It’s from Robert K. Greenleaf, the guy who wrote “Servant Leadership.”

“The only sound basis for trust is for people to have the solid experience of being served by their institutions in a way that builds a society that is more just and more loving, and with greater creative opportunities for all of its people.”

Ronald listened, sipped his coffee and fell into deep thought.

“Who’s this guy?” Ronald asked. “That sounds like the stuff of fairly tales. I’d be laughed at if I said something like that where I work.”

It took some time to explain who Robert K. Greenleaf was and his concept of servant leadership for which he had gained much respect and admiration.

“Managers in the companies you describe may be laughing all the way to the bank right now but their shareholders may not with no one looking out for the future of the business,” I said. “The way people are being treated is unpalatable but predictable.”

Ronald was surprised. He called for the restaurant manager for the bill so I had to get my point across quickly. I described to him the two paradigms of organisation, borrowing from Stephen Covey – the antiquated “control” culture of the 20th century and the “release” culture required for the 21st century information age with social media and extended networks. In the “control” culture, managers treat people as expenses and relationships are transactional. Businesses, headed by a “chief” and structured in a hierarchy, are autocratic institutions administered through control. When employees cannot challenge or question the leadership, the company takes on the characteristics and tendencies of a cult. Look how Enron spat out dissenters. No dialogue spells disaster. In the “release” culture, leaders serve by liberating the potential, passion and talents of their employees. Employees are connected through mutual trust and respect. Ideas, product ideation and innovation flourish throughout the whole system.

“That’s all I can get across now. I risk being rude and taking too much of your time if I go on.”

“Though what you describe is abstract and theoretical the two models are interesting. But I still don’t know how any of us can change things and get to the Shangri-La you describe.”

“There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to,” I said. “Freeing up the control starts at the top with fundamental changes. When you’ve got some free time we can talk some more about what changes need to be made. In the meantime, try to influence your immediate sphere.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” Ronald asked.

“You know the answer to that one,” I said.

The restaurant manager came back to the table with the bill and Ronald paid him. He thanked Ronald and said something that sounded strange, “Thank you for the honour of being able to serve you.”

As we left the restaurant, I couldn’t help thinking how much work lay ahead in some organisations. These were the ones that had lost their way with heavy political agendas, covering behinds as they polluted the environment without regard to external social costs, colluding and overcharging customers for years and recklessly risking entrusted funds. Enron and Lehman Brothers are extreme examples but such arrogance and disregard is found all over the world. Turning 180 degrees, the flip side presented an opportunity for leaders with strength and courage to offer an alternative vision for the future where innovation and employees would be able to thrive.


Copyright 2010 Bell & Cray Business Research™. This excerpt has been used by special permission from Bell & Cray Business Consulting™. Bell & Cray Business Consulting™ is a division of Bell & Cray™. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or re-disseminated without permission.


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Without knowing this, would you take the plunge?

Ladder to the sky
Image by Daniele Butera via Flickr

Put your ladder against the wrong wall and you may have a long climb.

A business consultant’s life isn’t easy. Carla (not her real name) had a problem. “What businesses should I be in?” It was the question that had haunted her for the past few months. Was it the right question?

She was asking the question from the perspective of that familiar trap: coming up with an idea for a product or business that suits the entrepreneur’s technical skills and inclinations but ignoring the reality of the marketplace. 

Carla faced the most difficult question of her business life. 

What was she to do?

When markets are down, consumers are not spending and business formulas that worked in the upturn are being shattered like skittles in a bowling alley, it’s difficult to have clarity. But clearness of vision is exactly what is required. How does a businessperson know where to position their ladder when so many walls are crumbling and some collapsing?

Trend spotting, distinct from forecasting, an unreliable and inaccurate “science” at best, is a tool to clear away the clutter and focus on more certain bets. 

“But I’m just interested in getting my business to grow,” Carla said in frustration. “Don’t talk to me about trends. I’ve seen so many just come and go.” 

What Carla was describing was fads, which are very different. We’ve all seen fads appear like night flies and disappear as quickly. Can anyone still remember low-carb diets, Doc Martins, digital pets and tongue piercing?

 As business people, we need to find trends that are big enough and sustainable for a long time. We need to be like surfers looking for a giant wave or even a tsunami that we can ride on and on for a long time. We can’t catch shore dumpers that roll in, break and are gone in an instant. We need something more substantial.

The biggest and most obvious trend is economic growth. “But look where that is now,” Carla said. Even economic upswings sometimes only last up to three to five years. Nobody talks anymore about the “long boom”.

The problem is that economic growth is too big a target. If we are to become more effective in trend spotting, we need to narrow our focus. We also can’t merely look at different consumer or industrial markets and place bets on them. Just consider general consumer spending and see how it expands and shrinks. 

We need to pinpoint exactly where we want to place our bets. Because much depends on it, our lives, our reputations our income for our families. Hindsight might be looked at cynically as a perfect science but it does give us insights. If you were to pick the most robust trends over the past 20 years, what would they be? 

Carla took out her Moleskin notebook and listed her top five: 

1 Home entertainment.

2 Health foods

3 Cellphones

4 Convenience foods

5 Education 

Videos and computer games have had a long run. Just imagine the owners of video stores– those who took a bet on the home entertainment trend. They are now in their second decade and are smiling, driving smart cars and wearing open-necked brand-name T-shirts. 

“The question,” I said to Carla, “is what are the next trends?” 

She frowned, looked at me with disbelief and said, “How am I to know?”

“I would read newspapers, magazines, reports, sift through the data, badger insiders until I see a pattern emerging.”

Carla came back to our next meeting with a list of what she believed would be the top five megatrends over the next few years. She showed me her list:

1 Education

2 Green products and power

3 The senior market

4 Health and wellness

5 Pets

There were some that I would have liked to put on her list but I resisted the temptation. Personal computing had been a 30-year wave with many facets to it and had morphed into various forms up until today where we virtually have computers in our pockets. The Internet had spawned a new breed of businesses that seemed unimaginable only 20 years ago.

“These trends that you’ve identified are like rich veins of gold that will most likely be around for a long time,” I said. “Though we don’t have a crystal ball we can be reasonably certain that your list represents profitable areas for further exploration.”

Just remember that for some movements there will be a countertrend and further opportunities. For example, while people might like fast food and convenience today there’s also a slow-food movement gaining momentum. You won’t find the slow-food markets in the high-end retail spaces but look around in your city and you’ll find them in rehabilitated old buildings. A growing number of people, dissatisfied with the mass-produced food they find at their local supermarkets, are traipsing into these markets on weekends and stocking up on produce for the week. 

Carla was excited. She was going to explore the area of pets and see if she could come up with an idea to make life easier for pet owners. “Just imagine the size of the market,” she said. “It’s growing and it covers millions of people. If I could just get something in there. What do I do next?” 

Trend spotting and analysis is one of the ways to look beyond the obvious and find opportunities for the future that are sustainable and where you can focus for a number of years. A growing trend gives you much more substance that you can bet your future against. 

The next step in any entrepreneurial business person’s evolution is to brainstorm and research a particular trend and see where your skills, inclinations, passion, passion and experience can be applied to either coming up with new products and services, educational materials, coaching, teaching, consulting, to serve the needs of the market. It’s also a good idea to look at some of the problems of consumers in these markets and see how you could better serve their needs. Take the cost of pet ownership. It’s not only about food but also veterinary services that are ever escalating. Pet insurance was one of the innovative products a few years ago to better serve pet owners by guarding against exhorbitant medical bills. 

But what’s next? Whatever it is, markets are awaiting for new ideas to make consumers lives easier, lower the costs of ownership and to increase their convenience and enjoyment. 

Trend spotting is a fundamental building block in the process of producing ideas for profit.

 Copyright 2010 Bell & Cray Business Research™. This excerpt has been used by special permission from Bell & Cray Business Consulting™. Bell & Cray Business Consulting™ and Bell & Cray Research are both divisions of Bell & Cray™. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or re-disseminated without permission.

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A simple yet powerful idea

At the beginning of the 1980s I worked as an editor for a supermarket business magazine. I spent some time meeting people in the industry, storeowners, store managers, buyers, operations personnel. I worked afternoons for three months in a Spar in Midrand learning the basics of supermarket retailing from a Greek storeowner who was passionate about retailing.

 One evening my publisher and I attended a function at the Pick ‘n Pay hypermarket in Boksburg. Raymond Ackerman came over to say hello to my publisher who introduced me, saying I had recently joined him to cover the supermarket beat. Raymond said he and his managers would make themselves available if I needed any information from Pick ‘n Pay.

Some may have looked at such an offer cynically in those days when there was much publicity about him as being the consumer’s friend and his philosophy of consumer sovereignty. I interviewed many managers and executives while I was a business writer on a financial weekly but no one made such an offer to assist.

It is difficult for people today to comprehend just how inaccessible executives were those days. Public relations or corporate communications was in its infancy in most companies, many of which didn’t even have a formalised function or relied on public relations agencies.

Over the years I have seen how that small gesture represented more – it was part of an attitude and philosophy that had a strong foundation. Although the Pick ‘n Pay managers at the time were tough, they were all accessible.

I never had an opportunity to thank Raymond for that gesture, which was singular for me.

On 13 October 2010, I had the privilege and honour to sit next to Raymond at a lunch to raise funds for orphans of HIV/AIDS through Noah. He was there to talk about his new book “A Sprat to Catch a Mackerel”. During the lunch, I mentioned his gesture way back in the early 1980s and how it touched me. He said it was a long time ago but he would like to know if he and his managers had lived up to his promise. I said that they certainly had and, in fact, and gone beyond what I had expected. He talked briefly about consumer sovereignty and the importance of practising social responsibility.

After Raymond talked about his new book, I reflected on how over all those years all the CEOs who were prominent at the time were now mostly forgotten. Almost none of them stood out. What was the reason? Was I missing something?

Then it hit me.

I was fortunate in recent months to be exposed to a session on strategy and management by an expert who lectures at St Gallen University in Switzerland. He held a discussion on the “why” of marketing and positioning. We were shown a video by young American who passionately explained how leaders such as Steven jobs and Martin Luther King had developed a compelling “why” behind their approaches. They understood why it was so important to stand for something greater than the “what” of their message, product or company. If you’re interested in the video, I attach the URL link here How great leaders inspire action. It seems to go to the heart of what Raymond Ackerman had grasped way back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Customer service, serving people, to be real and credible, has to be part of a deep belief system acted out in a sincere and positive way.

P.S. I am interested in ideas, producing ideas and the commercialisation of ideas. Raymond Ackerman bought four Pick ‘n Pay stores in Cape Town in 1967 from entrepreneurial retailer Jack Goldin, the person who started Clicks in 1968. I interviewed him only once — for a financial weekly when Clicks was considering branching into the United States. It is interesting that Goldin devised ideas for starting these two businesses.