We don’t often think about the importance of creativity in technical organisations. This forum, Blades USA 2022, has been about innovation, optimisation and insight. And with all of them, there is an element of creativity. A ‘creative formula’ looks something like: Creativity = difference + freedom + merit.
The ‘difference factor’
Around 20 years ago, Apple’s ‘Think different’ advertising campaign asked us to think differently about language. The grammatically correct version would have been ‘Think differently’. Apple’s advert made a statement. At the time, Apple’s products were considered ‘cool’, albeit technically inferior to those of competitors.
And it worked. Think different. Be different. Buy a Mac.
So how does one go about thinking differently? Some of it is inherent. We don’t know why we do, how we do or where it comes from. On completing my graduate studies and embarking on a naval career, Silicon Valley was just emerging. At the time, I considered the ‘valley’ just off the eastern continental shelf of the United States, in the Atlantic Ocean, where I would be spending the next few years in a submarine. Instead of plumbing the depths of the ocean, my perception became one of flying across this huge, submerged continental valley. As fate would have it, I now lead a division at MISTRA Group that combines ‘thinking different’ with acoustic emissions applications to develop technology like the wind turbine blade monitoring solution, Sensoria.
Within the ‘difference factor’ are two sub-variables.
Management subtlety is about getting out of the way. The antithesis of being subtle is the application of outlandish pressure. On the other hand, pressure can really be a motivator. Remember in Apollo 13 when failure was not an option? But pressure can also stifle free thought. It just depends. Subtlety is a necessity on the part of management, if creativity is to be encouraged.
The other sub-variable, building on ideas, is like playing a game of catch – only every time the ball is caught, it is worked on before it is thrown back to the other person.
MISTRAS Group had a ball tossed to it several years ago: detecting flaws in wind turbine blades. The ball was tossed around, put aside, picked up, again, and thrown back and forth. The result is Sensoria. Our blade monitoring solution reduces inspection cost while enhancing asset protection.
To engage a team, or an organisation, to embrace the ‘difference factor’ we need the other two factors of the equation – freedom and merit.
The ‘freedom factor’
How we begin to establish within our organisations an environment of creative freedom is a balancing act. At the one end of the spectrum there is repression of ideation through intimidation, ridicule or the fostering of a hostile work environment. At the other end is a wide-open freewheeling culture, which is also inefficient and accomplishes little.
Directing the organisation towards the middle of the spectrum requires three cultural necessities:
A clear strategy
A great ‘Why?’
If we are going to be free, then the next question is: free to do what? This is addressed by clear strategy, from the top, which typically includes goals, reasoned approach and focus.
A great ‘Why?’
Why do we supply Sensoria? Well, as a reason to get up and go to work, protecting assets, preventing injury, and helping save lives is a pretty good one.
A multi-tonne wind turbine blade moving through the air, with people who happen to be in the area, has the potential to be life-threatening. Our ‘Why’ kicks in. Along with clear goals and focus to direct our freedom factor, MISTRAS Group has researched, designed and developed the Sensoria wind blade monitoring solution that can detect blade damage and provide an alert to action before that damage gets serious, requiring serious money to repair, or worse, before that one tiny flaw becomes a potentially catastrophic transverse crack.
If we, as leaders, provide key strategic goals, a compelling ‘why’ and team buy-in to these, then we are creating a lot of freedom for our team, and our team will create those products and systems that will monitor assets and help to save lives.
The ‘merit factor’
We want lots of ideas, so we encourage thinking differently and feeling free to do so. But as we harvest ideas, sorting the wheat from the chaff is achieved through a meritocracy of ideation, because different does not always mean good.
The term ‘bad idea’ is just short-hand for various factors – the market’s not ready, the development cost was too high at a particular time. Saying no to an idea or describing it as a bad idea merely means we haven’t found the right idea yet. We need to keep looking, we need to keep the juices flowing.
How do we judge ideas? I lead that division that designs and develops products and when an idea or a concept, like Sensoria, gets serious, we place it into a stage gate development process. There the idea is considered by several points of view: the market, the likelihood of its success, what constitutes success, developmental cost, availability of resources, manufacturability and so on. Judging ideas – having a meritocracy of ideation – is actually quite sophisticated.
Let me just add that the place where an idea’s merit is most often judged is in cubicles and labs where engineers, scientists and technicians work, where those flashes of genius ultimately become part of a product or system that watches over a bridge, a boiler or a wind turbine blade. Working in and around these creative, technical spaces is always a privilege.
As Albert Einstein once said, creativity is intelligence having fun. I couldn't agree more. Let’s go and have some fun.
Find a creative solution to your blade integrity issues by visiting sensoriawind.com.