Not surprisingly, Oculus has been sued for half a billion dollars by ZeniMax, parent company of ID Software (maker of the Doom and Quake games), whose co-founder John Carmack is now with Oculus. The dispute concerned improper use of code, developed at ZeniMax and used in the Oculus Rift headset. While this might have signalled the end for Oculus as an independent start-up, it is a drop in the ocean for parent Facebook. Just one more example of power shifting to the few in this new, and uncharted, digital world.
When the old Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite back in 1957, it beat its rival US into space, and prompted the creation of a special unit in the Pentagon that was designed to make sure this never happened again. Called the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – or DARPA – the unit was making significant progress until it was side lined by the creation of NASA in late 1958, and funding shifted. How could DARPA continue to function on a much reduced budget, and with little public awareness?
This is what really interested me, and prompted me to include it as a case study in my series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management. What I discovered was that DARPA adopted a completely revolutionary business model, appointing specialist teams on a project by project basis, all working to fixed budgets and deadlines. It was not always necessary to have people working on site, and team members left mid-project if they were no longer required. Yet DARPA has racked up a string of successes, proving that creative management leads to greater creativity. Good to know.
There is no escaping social media when thinking of examples of success stories for my series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management. One of my favourites is the story of WhatsApp, the brainchild of US-based but Ukrainian born Jan Koum and his colleague Brian Acton. Born out of the need to communicate cheaply and easily with his father back in the Ukraine, WhatsApp was developed by Koum as a cross-platform, ‘family-friendly’ messaging app with no passwords, no advertising, and, most remarkably, no data collection.
What a pity, then, that since being bought out by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, WhatsApp has been forced to relax some of its early principles that made it so attractive to users. There have been changes to allow Facebook access to WhatsApp’s Contacts database, providing vital marketing information to Facebook’s advertisers. Early adopters, understandably, are not happy. But over a billion users worldwide seem to be happy enough, and that no doubt makes Facebook happy – and richer, of course.
Part of my Innovation and Design Management lecture series focuses on whether it is better to be first or best when bringing a product to market. A great example is the story of Coca Cola and Pepsi, arch rivals in the soft drinks business, who have been slogging it out for well over a century. The products are remarkably similar, and in blind taste tests Pepsi is often found to be the favourite, yet Coke is the undisputed market leader.
Despite recent concerns about sugar content, Coke shows no signs of losing its popularity and looks set to continue as the world’s favourite – even though Pepsi might taste better. This says much about the power of advertising and marketing. Coca Cola has strong branding which remains almost unchanged from the 1890s original, and consistently innovative, eye-catching advertising campaigns over the years have ensured that it remains ‘top of the mind’ in audiences all around the globe. One of the many things I learnt from my years as a creative – don’t mess with the logo!
Considering the question of invention versus innovation in my series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management, I came across the fascinating story of the little-known Croatian-born inventor Nikola Tesla. The name Tesla has now become synonymous with the classy electric sports car that bears its name, a car that is enjoying remarkable success against all the odds, but the story of Nikola Tesla is even more remarkable.
Tesla made huge strides in the early adoption of electricity, developing the ‘AC’ system while the likes of Thomas Edison were still using the old ‘DC’ system. He even worked on wireless lighting and communication as far back as the 1890s. But, as is so often the case, Tesla lacked the necessary business skills to make a commercial success of his inventions, and others profited from his brilliance. How often, in recent years, have we seen great British inventions taken up and exploited by foreign companies to their obvious advantage?
Very rarely does a creative rise to the position of CEO in an organisation. In my experience, it is rare to find creatives heading up creative companies, let alone commercial businesses. So Christopher Bailey of Burberry is a rare thing indeed, and an obvious candidate for inclusion in my lectures on Innovation and Design Management. Along with ex-Apple senior vice-president Angela Ahrendts, Bailey turned the tired old trenchcoat retailer into a world class brand, with a showcase store on London’s Regent Street that sets a new benchmark in retailing. How was all this possible?
There is no doubt that Bailey had extraordinary vision. As Creative Director, and later CEO, he repositioned the brand by bringing in the latest fashion trends and combining them with the famous Burberry check, and by exploiting the latest technology such as social media, video and online retailing he was able to transform the company into a world leader. Bailey exemplifies creative management at its most successful level, and I take my hat – or trench coat – off to him.
Aeronautics has always been a favourite subject of mine, and so it seemed an obvious choice when selecting a case study for my series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management. A classic example of whether it is better to be first or second to market with a product is the story of De Havilland’s ‘Comet’, the first civilian jet aircraft to enjoy commercial success in the 1950s. All was going well for the UK manufacturer until a series of fatal crashes led to concerns about the Comet’s long-term safety, and panic set in.
Enter their American rival, Boeing, who had been waiting in the wings while developing their own jetliner, the Boeing 707. With the advantage of a few years in which to study and improve on the engine, the body and the interior, it was almost inevitable that they would produce a superior plane. Over the years, there were more fatalities from Boeing crashes than De Havilland – but that was because Boeing had seized the market for all time. Bad news for the British aero industry, and bad news for a die-hard plane spotter like me.
It would be difficult to put together a series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management without the inclusion of the late Steve Jobs and Apple. And it’s hard to think of anyone quite like him in terms of vision and single-mindedness, but if anyone comes close, it must be Elon Musk of Space-X and Tesla. Both men were able to attract the very best designers and developers, as well as funding, for their projects, leading to extraordinary success in unlikely fields. But what singled them out for this success?
Many column inches have been devoted to the search for an answer to this question, and there are unique circumstances that apply in both cases that have played their part. Yet I believe that their understanding of how products work is absolutely key to their success in business. They share an understanding of the mechanics of their products just as much as an understanding of what the public wants, and this has given them a strategic advantage over both their competitors and their employees. Looking ahead, we would do well to place more emphasis on technical competence in education and less focus on academic success.
While researching my series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management, I came across some fascinating material on Thomas Heatherwick and his studio.
It is always interesting, and unusual, to find someone with expertise and success in both the creative arena and in business. This is something I can relate to, as someone who is excited as much by the idea of running a successful design consultancy as by practising design.
Heatherwick puts craft at the very heart of his business – something I feel is vital to success in the 21st century as we embrace ‘globalisation’. Learning the mechanics of how things work is, for me, essential to understanding the design process. And aiming for perfection in every aspect of a project is not only commendable but key to long term success. So much of what passes for design today is nothing more than technique. Heatherwick, and others like him, put the creativity back into design, and it works.
Understanding the distinction between an invention and an innovation through a potted history of human development, starting with evolution. Considering whether it is best to be first to market with a product, or better to opt for a later launch with an improved offer.
Related case studies:
Looking at examples of great inventors of the past, such as Nikola Tesla, who failed to win commercial success despite his genius, and companies such as aircraft manufacturer De Havilland who lost out to Boeing in the race to dominate the market in air travel.
Considering the main drivers behind innovation, using the example of messaging service WhatsApp prior to its takeover by Facebook, as well as looking into the unusual problem-solving solutions at DARPA, the US Defence Department’s agency responsible for developing new technologies for the military.
Looking into the development of the virtual reality system from Oculus Rift, from its initial invention through an ongoing programme of innovation, seeing how the management team have responded to objections and encouraged constant appraisal and product enhancement to guarantee long-term success.