Knowledge is Oxygen

Inspire, Respire, Build a Fire

Recently I took part in a panel discussion at BT in London where the focus was on how to start up innovation within a corporate environment. A little out of my depth in such esteemed company, I was concerned that the experience I’ve had since forming Tassomai would be a bit irrelevant to the corporate world… but the discussion was inspiring for me and, I hope, others who took part.

How do you spark innovation in a large, long-established company?

It got me to thinking — the discussion often highlighted the fact that corporations cannot innovate or support innovative thinking so easily as a startup. As Johnny McQuoid said in his opening remarks, all too often there are ten people to say ‘no’ to an idea for every one person who can say ‘yes’… and that he wants BT to be a place where innovative thinking can thrive.

As a startup founder, I shouldn’t flatter myself that I have any magic answers: we are what we are because we’re “micro” — we’re bootstrapped, underfunded and, more often than not, we haven’t the first clue what we’re doing… who’d want to emulate that? Steve Blank’s excellent article, “Why Companies Are Not Startups”, which my co-panellist Daniel Hulme alluded to makes the case that there are fundamental differences of purpose between startups and companies that make comparison a shaky proposition — the processes that make companies efficient, that measure progress and performance, unfortunately stifle innovation.

But there are things in the spirit of what startups do that aren’t that different from the early practices of large corporates, and some of this can and should be rekindled for the greater good.

BT has an extraordinary history in technological innovation — from the initial developments of wireless communication, through early powerful computational systems and up to the development of fibre networks and super-fast mobile communication, it has been at the forefront. But the key to any company’s development, as Bryan McLoughlin put it, must be to be solving tomorrow’s problem today, always to be looking forward.

How can you know where the next idea will come from, or from whom, and how can you make sure that when that idea comes, it is heard, developed and realised?

Sandeep Raithatha showed us how BT Infinity Lab is doing amazing work developing entrepreneurs and startups externally in ways that contribute to BT’s products and capabilities. But what can large companies do to inspire innovation internally in spite of the complexities of their structures and processes?

What I suggested at the time came through the prism of our small ed-tech startup. I was skeptical as to how well this approach could work in a larger organisation, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am of its importance, especially at scale. At Tassomai, we are focused on education — helping people learn and helping people teach… and we are all, in everything we do, every day learning from each other and teaching one another.

That spirit of learning in our organisation comes from an initial lack of knowledge, but I don’t mean that pejoratively. Everyone in the team at Tassomai came into the organisation with a limited brief and plenty of spare capacity to do more if they wanted to. As challenges emerge, people jump into the breach and develop skills to deal with those challenges; as efficiencies are made within our processes, we each find we have more time to put into new tasks, and we take on new challenges. What it means is that we have built a highly capable team whose abilities have been driven by passion, by a desire to contribute and to be a part of the company’s success.

Teaching & Learning is what creates innovation

As we say about the software itself, when Tassomai makes a difference for a student’s exams, it’s the student, not the software that has made that achievement possible. Likewise I take huge pride in the knowledge that the team at Tassomai are so good at what they do because they have driven themselves to acquire those skills through collaboration, teamwork and a shared passion to make something special.

From talking with friends in more established companies in the past (as opposed to start-ups), the feeling has often been that knowledge sharing is not part of the culture. Certainly it’s not built into the working day, but beyond that, it’s almost as though those who have knowledge wish to protect it and, in turn, protect themselves from obsolescence. For me, this is a tragic misapprehension of the role of seniority.

A leader has such a valuable role to play in developing ideas and seeing them come to fruition but it’s likely to be the junior members of a team who foresee tomorrow’s problem and its solution; it’s a leader’s role to help that to happen.

I called this article “Knowledge is Oxygen” because knowledge is vital; an organisation can’t function without it. But if you’re holding on to knowledge, like holding your breath, it gets stale and soon your lungs are bursting. Knowledge held within you has a limited lifespan: it gets processed, used up and soon enough, it’s poison. You HAVE TO BREATHE OUT. Share your knowledge, and breathe in some new oxygen.

If knowledge is oxygen, your people are glowing embers… and innovation is the fire.

Sharing knowledge fans the flames; the fire you build is an energy that, if harnessed, can power any organisation forward (try not to think about it also burning the building to the ground). As leaders, we must serve our teams, listen to them, learn from them as well as teach them and develop their ideas.

Make it part of your team’s culture that everybody is always learning and everybody is always teaching.

And it doesn’t have to be VLOOKUP formulas or a new email filing system — it could be drawing, music, sport, design, some cool new restaurant you’ve discovered or a book you want to share. When that knowledge you share comes back to you transformed, you yourself will be transformed by it.

Use your people, breathe, inspire, respire and build a fire.