“Startups are the lifeblood of creativity, yet they need focus and execution skills to convert that creativity into innovation.”

Peter Cook, Lead of Human Dynamics and The Acadamy of Rock

The startup’s dilemma: Creativity vs Execution

Innoboard: There is no consistent definition for innovation. Every industry and every department perceive it differently. How would you define innovation with your vast experience in innovation?

Peter Cook: I would say there is a very clear definition of innovation: Whereas creativity is the thinking of novel and appropriate ideas, innovation is the successful implementation of a novel idea such that it produces sustainable advantage, whether that is a commercial business idea (for profit) or a public service / not for profit innovation (for some social good or for society in general). The potential for confusion comes once you define innovation further, but even here I think it’s simple.  In the book  “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise” I define innovation on three levels:

Strategic – This includes building and changing a brand, developing the company’s competence base or unique position, restructuring the company so that it maintains a competitive edge. An example would be the Automobile Association’s repositioning as the ‘4th emergency service’ in the UK, which added 2.5 million customers (nearly 20%) to their business. The idea for this change came from one of the staff, which illustrates that strategic thinking can come from anywhere in an enterprise.
Product / Service – This is the exploitation of novel ideas to deliver something of value to the marketplace, or the reconfiguration of an existing product or service so that it is more in tune with market demand. Classic examples of product innovation include the 3M Post-it NoteTM (1977), Papyrus (4000 BC), the Fender Stratocaster (1954), the analogue computer (150 BC) the Bic pen (1950), the bra (fifteenth century), the abacus (500 BC), the Macintosh (1984). In the book, I review Metro Bank as an outstanding example of service innovation in a tired and traditional industry.
Process – This is basically a new way to do old things. It is often about incremental or radical change management internally within an enterprise and is often visible through lean programmes and their ilk. Other examples include shortening the distance or number of steps between the enterprise and its customers. In a busy world, shorter and smarter processes have the potential to give your enterprise sustainable competitive advantage. Just think how Amazon captured the world’s attention with the ‘one click and you’re done’ promise. This is a lesson yet to be learned in public services where the Internet has tended to extend the distance between the public and the public service. This is often due to the transference of paper-based systems to computer-based ones without a fundamental review of what is really needed. Many times, additional checks and balances are added to befuddle time deprived customers.


In your last book “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise”, you got some well-known celebrities involved. How did you get Sir Richard Branson and Sir James Dyson’s involvement?

Quite simply, by asking intelligently. I get people asking me almost daily to pitch ideas to people like this but they often assume that the person will simply want to do what they are asking without thinking of their needs, the time it takes and finding a good enough personal reason for them to give you their time and input.  In James Dyson’s case, I had previously written to him for a case study some 20 years ago when I wrote the first of my eight books “Best Practice Creativity”. I knew that James was an engineer from Imperial College London and wrote a bespoke letter which he responded to. So, a plan helps, and a little bit of luck! In Richard Branson’s case, I’d won a competition on leadership with an article I wrote about my father called “Dear Dad”. Having met Richard I then started to work for Virgin, by writing for them at Virgin.com and offering events with music professionals such as Bohemian Rhapsody’s engineer, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist and Jordan Gray, a star performer from The Voice. By the time I asked Richard for the interview I was almost part of the family! Subsequently, I have started a worldwide speaking partnership with David Tait OBE, who was Richard’s first hire at Virgin Atlantic. What all this illustrates is the need to think about your “customer”, their needs, wants and time commitments … There’s a massive difference between “asking and you shall receive” and “asking intelligently and hoping to receive” … oh yes, and a little bit of luck helps!

I also interviewed a number of music celebrities about their own approaches to creativity and leadership, including John Mayall who effectively ran a “business incubator for guitarists”, having had people such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Walter Trout. Also people as diverse as Roberta Flack, George Clinton, Sheila E, Prince’s bass anchor Ida Nielsen, Meatloaf’s singing partner Patti Russo et al. This gives me direct access into the minds of people whose business it is to turn creativity into innovation and who are working at the top of their game. For me, there is direct transferability of these concepts into the world of enterprise and some of these insights are included in “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise”.


With more than 18 years running your own business and even more experience consulting clients: What do you consider as most exceptional innovation in the past decade?

I cannot answer this with one thing as there are important innovations in science, technology, health etc. But I’d say that almost anything which helps us save resources on a planet where we face a serious shortage of many elements of the periodic table in the next 100 years has got to be up there. In science, we have yet to realize the full benefits of the Human Genome project, but this will likely lead to wide-ranging improvements to our ability to lead more fulfilled longer lives into the future. Although not strictly in the last 10 years, I would also say that Wikipedia is pivotal in terms of the beginning of what I call a Brain-Based Economy.  Nearly 30 years ago, Fred Moody and Bill Gates recognized that the basis of competitive advantage had fundamentally shifted from the agrarian age to the industrial era to the information superhighway when it was commented that Microsoft’s only factory asset is the human imagination. The corresponding shift is from what could be crudely called Brawn Based Industries (BBIs) to Brain-Based Enterprises (BBEs). Wikipedia epitomises this and is in some way the 21st century equivalent of the steam engine.


You mentor and coach executives in different industries. Have you noticed a markable change regarding innovation in your client’s mindset in the past years?

One important shift is that people seem to value the short term over the longer term. At the same time, all recessions produce a great number of startups. Startups are the lifeblood of creativity, yet they need focus and execution skills to convert that creativity into innovation. I regularly meet entrepreneurs that are exceptionally creative but need the hard execution skills to realize their ideas.


What is your personal goal regarding innovation for the next 12 months?

I am presently writing another book which will address what I call the “Brain-Based Economy”. It will look at advances in artificial intelligence/robotics/neuroscience and consider how we will live, work and prosper in a world where men, women, and machines have equivalent capabilities. How then will we define the thing we call humanity? How then will we use technology to solve some of the most pressing needs on planet earth? I’m looking for enterprises both private and public that want to participate in terms of case studies and they can get in touch via Human Dynamics.


About the Interviewee:
Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers Keynotes and Masterclasses around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Author of and contributor to twelve books on business leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE.  He won a prize for his work from Sir Richard Branson and now writes and delivers events for Virgin. Peter’s three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs, including the first treatments for HIV / AIDS, Herpes and the development of Human Insulin. 18 years in academia and 18 + years running his businesses. All his life since the age of four playing music, having performed with Meatloaf’s singing partner and Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist in his time.