Design-Based Innovation

Integrating Design for Success in Innovation

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Innovating In Secret

By Guest Contributor, Rebecca Cochran, Cochran Creative Group

I saw the new film, The Imitation Game a few days ago. Superbly acted, this historical thriller tells the story of how pioneering British analyst, Alan Turing and his MI6 team, cracked Nazi Germany’s naval ‘Enigma’ code, ultimately helping the allies win the Second World War.

Though set in the middle of the 20th century, the film brought out many ideas and concepts that exemplify skills needed for innovation to occur today. For instance:

Noticing Patterns

Alan Turing, expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was portrayed as having a knack for noticing patterns or connections among random things. One of the many flashback scenes showed a very young Turing seated at his family dinner table attempting to arrange, by pattern, the food on his plate. Should they be arranged by color? Or shape? By food type? Or some other pattern? It was a humorous, yet telling moment in the film.

Innovation Is a Team Sport

The story stressed the importance of working as a team. Though a loner by nature, Turing knew he couldn’t succeed alone. He hired a crackpot team by requiring job applicants to complete a series of puzzles to demonstrate their analytical skills.

Importance of Assembling a Diverse Team

During the hiring process, Turing was thrown a curve ball. As an elite round of job applicants was filing into the interview room, a young woman named Joan (played by Keira Knightley) was among them. The door monitor told her, “The secretarial applicants are to report to another room down the hall.” She looked up and proclaimed that she wasn’t applying for a secretarial position; she was applying for an analyst position. Turing allowed her the chance to compete and, of course, she aced the puzzle in record time. Despite Joan’s obvious brilliance and problem-solving capabilities, Turing was unable to hire her as part of the otherwise all-male team. (This was 1939, after all.) The two did manage to work together clandestinely, however. Obviously, Turing knew the importance of assembling a diverse team.

Networking / Observing / Associating

Turing and his team’s innovation skills were brought out several times. The most exciting example occurred when he and several co-workers were gathered in a pub, socializing at the end of a long day. A remark by one of the secretaries caused Turing to jump up and exclaim, “That’s it!” He was referring to the woman’s nonchalant comment about how the Germans redundantly included the Nazi salute at the close of each and every communiqué. Her observing skills, coupled with Turing’s associating skills, worked to dramatically shorten the amount of code that needed to be broken, resulting in a major turning point in the project.

Innovation Killers

Other interesting points that the film brought out were around innovation killers, both financial and non-financial. Innovation killers waged by Turing’s immediate superior were a lack of confidence in Turing and his team to deliver on time, his overall undervaluing of innovation (the code was considered unbreakable) and, yes, funding constraints. For the team, however, the time constraints acted as innovation enablers. The world was at war and each day that passed meant more lives lost. For these reasons and more, tension in the lab was at a constant high.

Experimenting / Failure

Other innovation-related highlights were around failure. Innovators have to fail to succeed. They have to experiment, adjust, learn and experiment some more, because maybe, just maybe, what seems impossible or unbreakable, isn’t after all.

Innovating In Secret

The existence of MI6 was not officially acknowledged until 1994. (Sometimes, we might even have to innovate in secret.)