What is Innovation?

In the 1950s the state of the survival of newborns was abysmal. One in thirty died. A statistic that was scarcely better than the 1850s and nobody knew how this could be changed.


Enter Virginia Apgar. A product of the culturally staid environment of 1930s New York state, Virginia was a trailblazer. She was the first woman to be admitted to surgical residency at Columbia University, a talented violinist, an instrument maker and a pilot of single engine planes at the age of 59.


Virginia had an idea. An idea brazen in its simplicity but transformative for childbirth.


Virginia wasn’t an obstetrician. She was an anesthesiologist, that loved providing anesthesia for child deliveries. What she saw in the delivery room horrified her. Babies that were malformed, too small or just blue were listed as stillborn and left to die. She wanted to do but had no authority to challenge conventions. This was 1950s America and she was a female anesthesiologist in a male obstetrician world.


So she took an unassuming approach. She devised a score. It went like this:


A baby got:

2 points if it was pink all over

2 points for crying

2 points for breathing

2 points for moving all 4 limbs

2 points if its heart rate was over 100


10 points = A perfect healthy baby

Less than 4 points = A blue, limp baby


The score was recorded a minute after the baby was born and then 5 minutes after.


The Apgar score was revolutionary. It took an abstract subject – the condition of new babies and turned it into data. Data that could be compared. Playing on her male counterparts egos the score made doctors want to produce better scores and thus become more observant. If their scores had to improve, they’d better have a crying pink baby at the 5 minute mark. Over the years hundreds of adjustments were made to achieve this. Today a full term baby dies in just one childbirth out of 500. 1


The Apgar score is a piece of paper. A piece of paper that has saved countless lives.


For many the term innovation seems out of reach. A term that has been hijacked by the technology industry. A term that can only be scaled by the Jobs’ and Gates’ among us. A term that is only in the realm of multi-million dollar R&D facilities.


But it needn’t be so. Steve Jobs said that “the best designers have thought more about their own experiences than anyone else”.2 That applies to innovators as well. The best innovators take stock of their own experiences and use that as raw material. Raw material that when exposed to new things or situations ignites. Innovation then at its core is about solving a problem. Sure there have to have commercial applications, people other than the innovator should be able to relate. It is then both conceptual and perceptual. By being sensitive to their own experiences, their own frustrations, Innovators conceive. This is true of the iphone as well as the post-it note (where inventor Arthur Fry was frustrated with bookmarks falling out of his church hymn book)


Innovation also emerges when old ideas are combined in new ways. Steve Jobs, when he was setting up the Apple store knew that he wanted a different experience to traditional retail. So instead of asking himself ‘how can I upend the retail experience’, he asked himself where do people like hanging out. And the answer was the lobby of 5 star hotels. So he put his staff through the Four Seasons training program to find out why. One of the answers was the hotel concierge, someone who was friendly to talk to and who could answer your questions.  Hence the Genius Bar at Apple stores 3 Another example is the Aravind Eye Hospital in India. The founder Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, visits the McDonald’s Hamburger University in the US, gets a view into their operational efficiency and asks himself ‘What would the McDonalds of eyecare look like?” Through his learnings he was able to perform 400,000 eye surgeries a year at an average cost of $50. 4


For innovation to succeed – the environment must embrace the heretic. People should have the opportunity (and the confidence) to speak up. Virginia Apgar had a personality to be reckoned with, without which the Apgar Score might never have come into existence. The post-it note would never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for 3M’s 15% time rule (that allowed employees to spend 15% of their time on their own ideas). Space is important. A tepid fluorescent cubicle with a desk, a chair and a wastepaper basket is not going to foster innovation and neither is just reading your industry’s trade magazine.4 What is needed is exposure – exposure to wide variety of people, ideas, technology and culture. Innovation than emerges from recombining those parts, by seeing what works in one sphere (could be manufacturing, culture, biology, technology) and applying it to another.  And lastly Innovation is about being sensitive to your own experiences




1 – this section borrows heavily from Atul Gawande’s book: Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

2 – https://www.wired.com/1996/02/jobs-2/

3 – http://www.inc.com/micah-solomon/what-steve-jobs-stole-from-ritz-carlton-and-you-should-steal-from-steve.html



4 – Interview of Tom Kelley by Steven Jonson in his book Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What is Next

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Why Big companies don’t (can’t, won’t?) innovate

In a tale that has gone down in entrepreneurial lore, a software engineer named Reed hastings goes to his local Blockbuster and rents Apollo 13, watches it and then (as most of us would have) forgets to return it. Six weeks later he does and gets slapped with a $40 fine.

This $40 fine led to a F*ck you that sunk an industry..for Reed Hastings founded Netflix (current market cap $25B)

It is maybe a little generous to afford that honour solely to Netflix..but the sinking of Blockbuster is emblematic of why big companies (especially with institutional investors) struggle to innovate.

Big companies are so married to their resources, processes and values (more on this later) that when a threat appears they are either too slow to move or there is backlash from conservative investors and/or board members.

And with the case of Blockbuster…if this were a movie it would be ‘Snakes on a Plane’..because there were some motherf*ckin snakes on this motherf*ckin plane (sorry Mum)

According to former CEO John Antioco problems started when activist investor Carl Icahn bought a stake in the company (10 million shares) – this led to a domino effect of botched acquisitions, boardroom takeovers and a rallying of other hedge fund investors that in the interest of maintaining a favourable stock price vetoed many of the ideas that could’ve saved the company.

And herein lies the problem..

Investors tend to discount into the present value of a company’s stock price whatever rate of growth they foresee the company achieving. What this means is that if a company’s core business is growing the only way to exceed shareholder value is to grow faster i.e maintain the status quo. The company must deliver the rate of growth that the market is projecting just to keep its stock price from falling. (The Innovators Solution – pg 4)

Innovation (in Blockbuster’s case going online, abolishing late fees) would be too risky.

And if you are an executive entrusted to enhance shareholder value your neck is on the chopping block. John Antioco wanted to abolish late fees and expand Blockbusters online business – instead he got the arse!

The new CEO John Keys aggressively rolled back Blockbuster online, intensified the focus on the store based business and brought back late fees.

In September 2010 – Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy





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About Me

Photo of Me


Welcome to my blog.

This is a blog about disruption. This is a blog about transition – from employee to entrepreneur, from ignorance to education, from laziness to effectiveness from man to woman (not really)

A few years ago i was sitting at my desk at work and i had a disturbing epiphany. I looked at my boss, I looked at my boss’ boss, I looked at my boss’ boss’ boss (you get the picture) and I though i dont want to be doing what they are doing 10-15 years or even 1 year. This coincided with my reading of Viktor Frankl’s “Man search for Meaning’ (a most excellent book).

Thus began a crazy journey. I cut to part time hours, did a Masters, spent the good part of a year looking for work (nothing!) Spent a year volunteering for anyone who would have me – startups, social enterprises, the circus.

All of this has culminated in the founding of The Disruptive Business Network – an event series (in its current manifestation) that looks at how business as a force for good, meaningful work and disruptive technology can intersect and make this goddam world a better place

To be continued…

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