Friday, 15 May 2009

Innovation without serendipity and canapés

Serendipity: the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.
Canapé: a small, prepared and usually decorative food, held in the fingers and often eaten in one bite. Often served at conferences and business events during networking conversations.

I sometimes attend conference networking events where I can meet with startups and small/medium enterprise (SME) businesses who might give me answers to problems and spawn new ideas.

But when I attend these events, the problem for me is always the same: Is the person I am talking to at any one moment the right person to help me? Or could it actually be the woman who has her back to me talking to someone else, or the bloke across the room selecting a canapé from the food table?

Sometimes I feel that obtaining success from an event is usually down to random adventure and serendipity - which quite frankly is as un-business and unprofessional as it gets, especially if I am attending on company time.

Occasionally I attempt to stack the cards in my favour by playing-up the fact that I am from Tesco, whereupon I might get invited to 'say a few words' which I use to announce why I'm there and what I'm looking for.

If you think that's unfair, it's OK; revenge is often swift: the result of my 'words' is often to become surrounded by salesmen with sharp suits, sparkling teeth and eye pupils that became "pound-sign" shaped the moment they heard the word 'Tesco'. And of course they have something to completely solve my problem, and a 33-slide PowerPoint deck to prove it. "Let's match diaries, I'll ping you an invite!" they say.

Meanwhile the woman with her back to me & the bloke with his canapés escape...

So last night I attended a dinner hosted by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). Nesta describe themselves as "a unique body with a mission to make the UK more innovative." Nesta add, on their website, that they "invest in early-stage companies, inform and shape policy, and deliver practical programmes that inspire others to solve the big challenges of the future.".

NESTA personnel have exactly the same problem (of always finding the right organisation when networking) that I do when they attend such events, and uncovered that many other big brands did too. So they decided to get a group of us "big brands" together who experience that problem to see if we could come up with a more productive way of matching us up with these innovators.

By "us" (I was delighted to discover) was a whole host of big brand companies from Virgin to McLaren, from to the Ministry of Defence.

A group of 40 of us R&D types from those and similar brands descended on a private dinner club in Soho so we could share our experiences. In true R&D style we were able to redefine the problem as:
  • How can we draw start-ups and SMEs to us in confidence who have ideas to embolden our business and/or the skills to fix our problems?
  • How can we score 'bullseye' first time every time, so we don't have to reply on serendipity when looking for the right organisation?
  • How can we provide a 'safe haven' for ideas so that they are protected, giving startups and SMEs the confidence to share those ideas without fear of plagiarism or theft?
  • How can we rate (and be rated on) our experience with these small organisations so that more companies get a greater success rate?
  • Indeed, in certain circumstances could we create a low-cost 'symbiotic' atmosphere helping each other with innovation - without undermining our business by giving stuff away to competitors?

The meeting was quite an adventure, and I was surprised and delighted how many of us felt there may be a way forward for Nesta to create an 'innovation club' with members from big brands to startups, and a market to trade in ideas and problem solving.

These are tiny steps but Nesta is definitely onto something and I'm happy to lend a hand in its creation. After all, I'm not paid to rely on serendipity and eat canapés.


  1. I guess the person who is best able to answer your question, might not even be at that event... you might be searching for the best answer for ever!

    I think the best we can do as developers, is contribute to our development communities and mix amoungst like minded people. The more people we know, the more potential help is available, like wise, the more help we can provide.


As this blog grows in readership - and because it carries the Tesco brand - I have had to become more careful about the sort of comments that are acceptable. The good news is that I'm a champion of free speech so please be as praising or as critical as you wish! The only comments I DON'T allow through are:

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